Composition - A Beginner's Guide To Composing Great Photographs

Updated: Oct 24, 2020

By David Wheater

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Here are a few brief tips on composing great shots and injecting a little emotion into them. Knowing a few basic rules of composition can help, but never stop using your own intuition, which is often your best guide.


MOOD


Think about the overall mood of your photos. Try to always give your work a deliberate, consistent mood.


THINK FIRST – SHOOT SECOND


A good picture is made not taken. The difference between a good photographer and a bad one is the amount of thought they put into a picture – before picking up their camera. Stand and study your subject in detail. Walk around it 360 degrees and always consider the angles and the quality of light falling on it - is the light soft or hard, diffused or harsh? Always ask yourself what is beautiful or interesting around you and how you can capture the essence or soul of your subjects - whether an object, person or animal.


TELL A STORY


After studying your subject carefully, do not take a photo unless it has meaning to you. Always think about what you’d say about the picture if you were describing it to a stranger. Will you be able to tell a good story about your picture? Is there emotion behind your picture?


STOP WORRYING ABOUT YOUR CAMERA


The camera you have will never be more important than what you aim it at. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that an expensive camera will instantaneously improve your pictures. Entry level DSLRs are now so good that your choice of camera isn’t as important as it once was. How you compose your subjects is far more important than your technical ability.


CHECKLIST FOR COMPOSING A SHOT


1. What is this picture for?

2. What’s interesting or beautiful about this scene?

3. What is it about this scene that I really want to capture?

4. Does it tell a story?

5. Is there anything I should hide?

6. Is this the background I want?

7. Will I have room to crop this?

8. Should I shoot closer or further away?

9. What angle should I shoot at – up high or down low?

10. Should I zoom in or out?


CHECKLIST FOR CAMERA SETTINGS BEFORE SHOOTING


1. Am I in the right mode?

2. Check Exposure Compensation is set back to normal

3. Is my shutter speed going to be high enough to avoid shaky images/freeze the action?(the faster the action the faster your shutter speed – e.g. birds 1/1000th)


Rule of Thumb - To keep your shots sharp, try not to go lower than 1/60 s if you’re taking shots handheld!


4. Aperture - should the background be clear or blurred? (e.g. f2 background blur for portraits – f11 everything in focus for landscapes)

5. Can I keep the ISO as low as possible to reduce noise?

6. Switch off AUTO ISO and AUTO WB if you want more control

7. Is the colour temperature set correctly - or just keep it in auto?



CLASSIC RULES OF COMPOSITION


Composition is the pleasing placement of subjects against the background in a photo.


1. Rule of Thirds

Instead of centring your subject – place your subject one-third of the way through the frame. This makes your image more pleasing by creating “negative space” around your subject. Keep your camera’s rule of thirds gridlines switched on and even consider placing subjects at 4/5ths or 9/10ths of the frame if you think this will make it more interesting.


2. Rule of Space

If your subjects are moving in a certain direction (e.g. car, runner, animal etc) leave plenty of room in front of your subject to avoid the image feeling crowded.


3. Have a Focal Point

Often your focal point will be obvious e.g. a person, building or object, but if you’re taking a landscape you really need something in the picture to avoid all of it being regarded by the viewer as just background and a little boring. Look for buildings, trees or other notable features to include and even another person if you’re struggling.


4. Keep Backgrounds Simple

A busy, noisy and complex background can be very distracting. Move around your subject to find a non-distracting background – something plain and simple that keeps your subject the focus of the picture. If you’re struggling, consider cropping in tight or shooting up to the sky or down to the ground.


5. Less is More

Many beginners think they have to include all of their subjects, but you don’t have to include all of your subjects! Consider cropping in tight to your subjects and let the viewers' brains fill in the rest e.g. crop tight into someone’s facial expression or take just part of a flower. These shots will nearly always be far more interesting and striking. A mixture of wide angle and close ups, when viewed altogether, gives people a better understanding of subject and place.


6. Concentrate on the Detail

Don’t be afraid to zoom in tight on detail. Most beginners try to get everything into their shot – but the truth is that picking out interesting details nearly always make more interesting and pleasing photos. Start with the whole of your subjects in context with their surroundings and then start picking off detail. This way you’ll be able to paint a much fuller story of your subjects.


7. Zoom in On People

When taking portraits of people, take a few steps back with a telephoto lens (200mm) and you’ll see less of the background, which will be closer, while keeping the model taking up the same space in the frame.


8. Avoiding Uninteresting Backgrounds When Taking Shots of People

Find an interesting background by moving around your subjects 360 degrees.

Go low (blue sky) or go high (grass or ground) if you’re really struggling.

Move back and zoom in with a telephoto (200mm). The person will fill the same space in the frame, but the background will be closer, smaller & blurred making the person pop-out.

Change the aperture to blur the background with a small f-stop e.g. f2 to f4 for nice bokeh.

Use high-powered flash on your model which will automatically darken the background and disguise it.


9. Show Scale in Photos

If the size of subjects is important, always include something of a known size to give viewers a sense of scale. This could apply to small subjects such as babies, puppies or large subjects like mountains and waterfalls. In landscapes this could be as simple as including a person in your image.


10. Leading Lines

Leading lines draw viewers eyes through the picture to a focal point – often where the lines converge. This helps create depth and perspective which is pleasing to the eye.


11. Portrait

Many scenes lend themselves more to vertical or portrait shots than landscape. If you think it might work, always take a vertical shot. With the popularity of social media only increasing, it's possible that the next generation will increasingly shoot this way.


12. Experiment

It's definitely very helpful to know some of the rules of composition - but don't be afraid to break them. Try to use your instinct about what feels balanced and 'just right'. Explore your angles and do what feels right to you. Many of the most celebrated shots over the last few decades follow no discernable rules of composition. The photographer simply let their instinct guide them and they got it just right.

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Author: David Wheater

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