The act of creating a photograph typically falls into two broad camps. I would argue that in both camps, there are several fundamental tips around composition to always keep in the forefront of your creative mind whenever you reach for your camera or smartphone to capture something photographically. But before we get into that, let’s take a look at the two broad camps of photographs that I just referred to. They are:
- Camp 1. There is the off-the-cuff snap, usually relegated for documentation purposes, like receipts or parking spot reminders, and quick candids – the ones where you whip out your camera or smartphone, point and shoot something or someone that catches your eye.
- Camp 2. Then there is the deliberate photo. Whether it’s instructing the person who is in your frame to tilt their head a few more degrees to the right or it’s climbing up a few more feet along the side of a mountain to get a better vantage point, the primary difference here is that there is clear methodology being put into practice to create a photo. If anything, the intent to create something substantial is more present here.
Now, you may think that photos from Camp 1 would be excused from having any sort of meaningful thought invested around composition whereas photos from Camp 2 would absolutely have compositional concepts thoughtfully applied. Well, I’m here to remind you that there hardly should be a time when you should excuse yourself from thinking about how you compose your photos. Thinking about your composition is an exercise much like the bench press or arm curl at the gym. The more you execute on that practice, the more adpet your mind will become and the faster your mind’s creative muscle memory will engage. So, let’s go over five tips around composition best practices that you should keep in mind any time you reach for your photo taking device.
1. Fill the frame, even if it means not capturing the totality of the something or someone in it
We’ve all seen photos depicting the full expanse of the Golden Gate Bridge or the Coliseum. I think it’s instinct that initially drives us to fit everything in the frame, which often times means that we’re either zooming out or walking away from our subject to get every corner in. For the purpose of basic documentation, this may very well work out just fine. However, I challenge you to abandon that idea and focus on filling the frame with your subject in such a way that may sacrifice getting every detail for something that piques the viewer’s curiosity.
Take this photo of the Golden Gate Bridge. Instead of using a wide-angle lens to get the same photo that everyone else could get, I decided to put on my longest telephoto lens and find a way to fill my frame while still capturing the bridge’s essence. And when I look at the photo, my mind automatically starts filling in the gaps of what the rest of the bridge looks like. You begin to actively engage your viewer and thus make the photo more memorable to them.
2. Isolate your subject to minimize clutter and add impact
It can be very easy to allow your subject to get lost within the general chaos that often surrounds it. Whether it’s competing colors or contrasting textures, there always seems to be variables that add clutter and reduce your ability to let your primary subject stand out. Sometimes, all it takes is a bit of patience, as was the case with this girl fishing in the ocean. For a while, she was surrounded by a few friends, but I found them to be distracting. So, I waited for a few minutes until her friends walked off frame and then got my shot. The same principle was applied with this tiny ladybug. I saw that it was walking towards the edge of this branch and took my time to photograph her just at the right position.
Realistically, though, you simply may not have the choice to wait. When I photographed this surfer in Brisbane, there were plenty of other beach-goers there. The surfer was meandering back to the sand and if I didn’t get my shot then, I would have missed it. So, I’m here to say that it’s ok to become friendly with content-aware heading and cloning. I ended up removing every other bystander, leaving the surfer along with his beach.
3. Use your corners
I love effective use of my frame’s corners as a starting point or terminus for my subject. Some photographers may disagree but I find something very pleasing with this arrangement. Often times, if my subject is crossing through most of my frame, I’ll tilt my camera in such a way that it bisects a corner, thereby accentuating the path to the vanishing point, as is illustrated with this photo of an Amtrak train zipping by downtown Portland. Ultimately, my goal is to provide a clear path for the viewer’s eyes to travel through each photo and leveraging your corners is a great way to establish a start and/or a stop point.
4. Look differently.
I know that this last tip may come across as cryptic or intentionally elusive but don’t look at it that way. Look at it differently (see what I did there?). The bottom line is that we’re all trying to leave our own indelible marks on the world through our photography. You’re probably here, reading what our Photofocus authors have to say, because you’re looking for ways to help you empower yourself to leave your own mark. To that end, getting in the habit of always looking for a unique way to compose and present your photos is so critical. And my best advice to achieve this is to look differently.
One of my favorite photos that helps illustrate what I mean by looking differently is of the Brooklyn Bridge that I took several years ago. You and I have undoubtedly seen countless photos of the Brooklyn Bridge during the day and at night and from just about every angle. However, on this particular day as I was walking across the bridge, I found myself standing under one of its arches, staring straight up, and realizing that I don’t recall ever seeing a photo like this one before. That’s not to say that no one has ever captured the bridge this way, but I certainly never have and that was more than adequate for me.
My point here is that looking at your scene needs to go beyond simply putting your face to you camera, angling it a bit, and pressing the shutter button. You need to take your time and think about the qualities of the scene in front of you. Ask yourself whether it’d be different if you walked a quarter mile away from where everyone else was standing, as I did with the giant Gundam statue in Tokyo, or if pairing an ultra-wide angle lens with an aggressive angle would yield a more interesting result, as was the case with this ordinary payphone.
Use all of these tips as a launchpad to get your creative juices flowing and be sure to always pay close attention to identifying what styles and compositional techniques work best for you and the sort of photos that you’re trying to capture.