How to Compose Great Photos Every Time

deborah on the sailboat

I am often asked about what equipment would be best to use, a digital SLR or a huge mega pixel point and shoot, and how can I make better photos with the equipment I have. So today, I am going to start a new series on this blog called photo 101 (see the first entry How to Successfully Photograph Lightning // Equipment and Techniques), intended to answer some of those questions.  You can see all the entries by looking at the tag on this blog called photo 101.

Many times I go back to the basics and re-read and re-learn what it is that makes a good photograph. I would say that almost everyone can improve on how they shoot. Even the professionals will grow as a photographer as they shoot and refine their subjects and techniques.

I am going to start off with a quick 14 point guide that helped me when I first started shooting. If you are interested in more you can visit the two categories called pic tips, and photo 101. I had a great photographer-mentor at UAB and these are some of the basics he passed along to me.

Composition can give a photo character or power, it can change the mood the image displays, or even the intent of the image. The image of my wife above was taken very quickly as we were leaving the marina after a nice weekend. It works well because the composition is not “bulls-eye” in the frame. It visualizes her reluctance to leaving and perhaps a little disdain for the camera in her face.

A Guide to Composing Your Photographs

1. Ask a simple question – Why am l taking this shot. lf there is no clear and simple answer to this question, you are not prepared to take a good photograph. You must be able to explain what you are trying to accomplish in a sentence or less. Start with the basics: What made you stop and look?

2. What Is the subject? Every photo must have one and only one subject. Now is the time to clarify and amplify the subject of the picture. If you have multiple subjects in the frame, recompose. Many times the entire frame will be the subject, but split subjects in one frame don’t often work well.

3. Now place your subject In the frame. Avoid the “bull’s eye” syndrome; Don’t routinely place your subject dead center in the frame. Use the “points of power” described where the lines of a “tic-tac-toe” grid (also called the rule of thirds) imposed in the viewfinder intersect for subject placement. Generally, subjects should look into rather than out of the frame. And use the f/stop which will provide the desired degree of depth-of-field.

4. Get Close. Now get closer. Most shots’ great flaw is that the photographer was too far away from the subject. The only shot that can’t be improved by getting closer is the Grand Canyon. But please do let the subject “breathe.” If you don’t have a long enough lens, try to move close to your subject.

5. Simplify. Remember that you must have a subject, but only one subject. Look around the frame: any item that doesn’t help tell the story, hurts it. Edit ruthlessly. Look especially for unwanted and distracting elements such as “hot spots”, trash, body parts, or bright lines diverting attention away from the subject. Pay particular attention to edges and comers of the frame.

6. Determine your point of view. Should this be a vertical or a horizontal composition? What’s the best perspective? How can you deliver this shot in a manner that makes it fresh, different from the obvious, different from your typical approach? Look around, find those places and angles that were not the most obvious when you walked up to the scene.

7. Try and try again. Take more than one shot; get the safe shot first, then go for the gold. Take lots of pictures; that’s how we get better. And be adventurous: once you’ve taken the “safe”, “sure” shot, experiment. Take chances. This too is how we improve.

With digital DLR cameras that are most commonly used now, we have a luxury that film shooters did not have. We don’t have to pay to process film. If you think a $50 CF card is expensive, try developing 50 rolls of film. Load up on high volume CF or SD cards and shoot away. The idea is not to shoot as many as possible in hopes of getting one good image, but you can shoot without worry and cost of film.

8. Which focal length is right? Don’t fall in love with your equipment; that favorite lens of yours is exactly right for some things, but not all things. If you don’t try new things, you become brittle… predictable. Try different lenses/focal lengths to achieve different results.

An example of this is the airport in 50mm shoot I did recently (see Atlanta Airport and a 50mm Lens // Part 1 and also part 2 and part 3). I tried using something other than the normal lens I would use, and I achieved some results I wouldn’t have otherwise.

An old film trick, use an empty slide mount as a composing tool. The distance of the slide mount from your eye is the focal length: rotate to simulate vertical or horizontal formats.

9. Watch your horizons. If there is a visible horizon in your shot, it must be level. lf there is no horizon, you may turn the camera in almost any direction. But remember to give the viewer a cue as to which way is up…

Don’t just think I can fix the horizon in Photoshop later. If the horizon is off on the original image by 5%, when you go to “correct” the slanted horizon in Photoshop, you are going to essentially crop 5% off of your entire image all the way around. That may be ok, but if you composed the image full frame, you may be loosing something you don’t intent to crop out.

10. Evaluate the lighting. What is the direction of the light? (Backlight, sidelight, frontlight) What is the intensity of the light? (Full sun, haze, open shade, deep shade) What is the color/temperature of the light (Pink, amber, blue, grey) Now, how can you incorporate the lighting factors into your shot to make it better?

11. Deal with your foregrounds and backgrounds. And deal with them constructively. In a landscape, the foreground serves to anchor the viewer; other times, such as wildlife photography, a blurred foreground provides a sense of closeness to the subject. Same with sports photography, much like wildlife, you want your subject to pop off the screen, not blend into the background.

And again, a soft wash of unfocused color in the foreground can be used to fill an otherwise too-empty frame with useful soft color. And how much background sharpness is called for. The background should compliment – never compete – with the subject.

Use complimentary and supplementary colors in the background and foreground to highlight your subject. This is not always possible in sports photography, but look for it, it may be there and you just didn’t look for it. The image of my friend Heath below is a good example. The orange of his shirt and the green of the grass are very complimentary and make for a great background/foreground combination.

Portrait of Heath

12. Filters? Flash? Special effects? Yes, but if and only if you can explain in one sentence why it is needed and what it will do to make the shot better. This isn’t as needed with digital as it was with film, but it should still be part of the consideration.

13. What have you missed? How about your exposure? Are you sure about it? Have you considered all the rules of photography, such as the rule of thirds? Looking through the viewfinder, do you still love what you see? Would you change anything? How about your technique? Is the camera steady on a tripod, with the head locked?

14. Now it’s time to make magic. Though it sounds painstaking, this checklist becomes second nature; the point of the exercise is to make taking pictures more successful and therefore more fun.

3 thoughts

  1. YES! I’d love a series like this. I have two new lenses arriving today. I’ve been without a lens for a few weeks as I sold my only lens to help pay for these better lenses. I’ll tell you, getting closer to what your shooting and using the flash sparingly are very important. I’ve discovered this on my own and can’t wait to try out your other tips. Keep them coming!

    Ryan Rays last blog post..Two Funny Twitter Videos

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s