Understanding the rules of composition can help any photographer with any kind of camera. Although an SLR camera (a camera body with interchangeable lenses) will help one take the most advantage of these tips, even an amateur with a point-and-shoot camera can immediately improve his photography by applying these rules.
First and Foremost – The Rule of Thirds
Understanding the Rule of Thirds is the single most effective way to immediately transform your image capture skills. Using this rule is achieved by mentally dividing the image into thirds both horizontally and vertically. The points where the lines intersect are called ‘power points.’ Placing the subject at one of these points and placing other areas or secondary subjects in the photo along the dividing lines or along other power points will draw the viewer into the photo and will cause the image to be a much stronger and balanced image.
Using the Rule of Thirds means that the amateur photographer must purposely override his initial tendency to place the subject square in the middle of the photograph. Every once in a while it is ok to center the photograph. But initially it is important to become very familiar with the Rule of Thirds and to use it consistently. After the photographer is comfortable with this concept he can later learn when it is appropriate to actually break the rule.
Fill the Frame
Another useful compositional rule is to make sure and ‘fill the frame’. The first mistake many amateur photographers make with a digital SLR camera is they tend to capture the subject so that it is far too small within the frame. In other words, the subject and the important parts of the image don’t extend to the edges of the photograph. Don’t make this mistake. Use the zoom on the lens to get closer to the subject or even use the built in ‘foot zoom’ – i.e. get up and physically move closer to the subject.
Format – Vertical or Horizontal?
Don’t forget that the camera doesn’t just have to stay in the horizontal position. It can actually turn vertically too. Most new photography enthusiasts whip out the camera and just start shooting. The natural tendency is to shoot horizontally and some new photographers will go years without ever turning their camera to the vertical position.
Some subjects simply require a vertical orientation. Photographing taller subjects or using a wide angle for unusual viewpoints work well within a vertical framework. If in doubt, shoot it both ways. It is a digital world – it never hurts to have more shots of a subject than a photographer thinks he needs.
Simplify the Image
A good photograph should reveal a single subject or idea with as little clutter as possible. If someone has to ask what it is a picture of (unless it is a purposeful abstract) then the image doesn’t work. If the photographer has to defend or explain the image, then the image doesn’t work.
Try to describe in a single sentence what the image is about: “This is a photograph of driftwood on the beach at sunset.” Then begin to eliminate all but the essential visual elements. Is the family walking down the beach the background necessary for the image? Are the random sticks at the edge of the photograph adding to the idea? Probably not. Zoom in or recompose to capture only exactly what is necessary to the image.
One way to isolate subjects is to experiment with different angles of view. This means getting up above or down below the subject. Sometimes shooting from an elevated vantage point will help you eliminate distracting or cluttered backgrounds. If you shoot from below you may be able to isolate subjects against the sky. Also consider using different lens lengths. Zooming in on your subject is an excellent way to reduce clutter.
Look for Lines
Lines are extremely important in a photograph as they can have many uses. If they are interesting enough, they can become a visual topic in themselves: Who could resist the lines of a spider’s web glistening with dew or the soft yet sleek lines of a desert sand dune?
Lines lead the eye into a scene and they are often essential for showing distance and depth in a photograph. Leading lines appear in various ways. Curved lines can lead just as well as a straight line. Just think of a winding country road that draws the eye into the frame. Also look for intersecting lines, converging lines and even implied lines to help draw the viewer into the image.
If a photographer incorporates all of these tips into his image capture process, it is sure to make quite a positive change in his photography. Just remember: What format is best for this image – vertical or horizontal? Are there any leading lines that will help pull the viewer into the image? Is the subject on a power point or one of the dividing lines? Does the subject fill the frame and have all distractions been eliminated?
If a photographer asks himself these questions when composing an image, he is guaranteed to end up with drastically better images.