|An Eye for Composition
Gary W. Stanley
Vivid Light Photography
No matter where in this world we live the subject matter for
photographers is for all practical purposes, never ending. We are limited
only by our imagination and creative vision. I've related in the past the
story of a well-known photographer who told his audience not to look at
other photographers' work, but to develop their own style.
My comeback to that is pretty simple: how does one go about developing
his or her own style, without something or someone else's work with which
to compare it to? "You've certainly taught yourself a lot about the
game of golf over the past few years Bob, now would you like to try using
I believe that it is important to be able to visually see someone
else's work, style and approach to photography, not to become a copycat of
that specific style, but as an aid in developing your own style.
Perhaps you've learned some great landscape technique from David Muench,
a great close-up idea from John Shaw, or how to use vivid colors in your
images for impact from Pete Turner. Each idea gets logged into the brain,
absorbing and remembering those points or styles that interest you the
most. Then when you find yourself in a particular shooting situation, you
draw upon that knowledge and apply it to your own images.
While I credit much of my success as a photographer to folks like John
Shaw, Art Wolfe, David Muench and others, I've had to continually be
willing to learn from others and from my own personal experiences.
Composition is one area of photography that begs for constant
nourishment. I keep looking for new ideas and new subject matter with
which to test my skills and creativity as a photographer. Sometimes I feel
a little stale, and other times I'm "on the jazz" so to speak.
It's those times when I'm on the jazz that I feel like a creative Superman
and my excitement level for photography is so high.
In this article, I'll use some visual examples of basic and creative
compositional techniques that I hope will stimulate your own creativity as
I'll assume that you have a good basic understanding of how your camera
works, how to get correct exposure, the compositional rule of thirds, and
the good basic compositional elements of line, shape, and texture. What I
hope to do for you is stimulate your creative thought process by sharing
my own thought process as I compose a shot.
What Lenses Do:
| Remember first that your choice of lenses will play an
important part in your composition and how the final image will look.
Wide-angle lenses expand the apparent distance between objects,
and a telephoto lens will compress the apparent distance between objects. Knowing this, you can choose your lens based on the compositional
effect that you want.
Making Good Choices: One very important element in developing an eye
for composition has to do with making good choices within your
composition. First of all, I'm very big on finding a great foreground
subject such as a big rock, an interesting tree or something similar to
give the eye a point of entry into my composition. Your eyes will
naturally see that subject, then, move across comfortably through the rest
of the composition.
This foreground subject also helps to make the viewer
feel as though he or she is right there seeing what I saw and experienced
at that very moment. This adds a three-dimensional quality and great depth
to your image, which of course is a technique used by many 4x5 shooters.
Develop an awareness of what to include or exclude from your composition,
with a mind for keeping your compositions simple.
Achieving Balance: There are a few basic approaches to this technique.
You can have a very large dominant foreground with a complimenting
background, such as a large rock framing or leading you to the smaller
appearing lighthouse in the background. This tends to add drama
or a unique quality to an often-photographed subject.
Or, you can balance
the foreground and background subjects by keeping them similar in size.
This technique is used when there is not an overpowering, dramatic
subject, even though you find the overall scene pleasing. You can
also build that drama or emotion in your photograph by looking for smaller
foreground subjects that lead to that large dominant background such as
when a stream gently leads your eye back to the much larger and more
dominant mountains in the background.
The Compositional Rule of Thumb: There are of course many ways to
compose your subject, but if you have a good understanding of how to use
line, shape, or texture to your advantage, your compositions are far more
likely to have impact than if you did not use them.
Lines: I use lines (usually diagonal lines) as a direct way of leading
your eye from one point to another.
Using triangular lines will
help you find your way back. One line leads your eye to the subject and
the other brings your eye back to your starting point. I will also look
for a good foreground subject and a diagonal line to lead your eye from
one point to another.
S-Curves or Shapes: I use shapes as a more relaxed casual way to lead
your eye through the composition. A road, a stream, or even
the shape of the ground or grasses in front of you can do this very well.
Texture: I look for texture in my composition, because it can add depth
and detail to the image. Texture is usually a direct by-product of side
lighting. As the light from the sun comes across your image, it sheds
light on one side and shadow on the other, thus creating texture and more
interest than a flatly lit subject.
Depth of Field: You may have exercised any one of these standards of
good composition, but if you failed to achieve adequate depth of field,
your images may leave you dissatisfied. Unfortunately many of today's
lenses lack a depth of field scale and/or depth of field preview buttons.
One easy way to assure maximum depth in your photograph is use as small
lens aperture such as f/16 or f/22 and then focus a third of the way into
the scene. Not the actual physical distance of the closest object in your
picture to the farthest, but a third of the way into your frame as you
look through the viewfinder.
Use your depth-of-field preview
button (if you have one) to stop the lens down to its taking aperture to
visually check and see if everything looks sharp. Take your time and allow
your eye to adjust to the darkened image in the viewfinder. A 'dark cloth'
or coat can be handy to shield the sun as you look into the viewfinder.
Depth-of-field and critical focus is very important to the finished image.
Another way to get maximum depth of field is to focus at your lens'
hyper-focal distance which is what you're simulating by focusing 1/3rd of
the way into the scene. For a complete explanation of hyper-focal distance
and free hyperfocal charts for both film and digital formats see What
is Hyperfocal Distance and Why Should I Care? in this
Food for Thought: Finally, here are a few good review points to
remember each time you compose an image.
1. Make sure your horizon line is level.
2. Look for distracting elements in your viewfinder that
might take away for an otherwise excellent composition.
3. If you want sharp front-to-back detail, make sure you
have enough depth of field.
4. Look for things in the composition that will allow you to
use the basic design elements of line, shape, texture and form.
5. Look for good foreground subjects to add that
three-dimensional look to the composition.
6. Finally, when photographing at the top of high cliffs or
overhangs, don't step back to admire your work! Just checking if
you're paying attention.
Give these few suggestions a try as you develop you own eye for