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Become a Composer?

September 23, 2017

Did you think this was about composing a symphony? Well, no, I mean this is a photography blog after all. What I’d like to write about this week is the art of composition, or how to compose a great image.

 

Have you ever seen a photograph, and something about it just makes you want to be in the photography? Or it just really connects with you?  You might not realize it, but there is a ton of phycology involved when someone is viewing an image. Understanding a few of these principles can lead to dramatic improvements in your photographs.

 

Principles of composition are not new concepts. Many of us remember taking those required art history classes in middle and high school, right?  We learned about things like perspective,  the rule of thirds, leading lines and focusing the viewers’ attention. I bet you might have forgotten most of those terms, or probably had no idea they could become powerful nuggets of information as you explore the art of photography.

 

Let’s talk about some of the basics in composition as they relate to photography.

 

Perspective

 

The principle of perspective can have many meanings in photograph, but easy to understand, and some that may require some explanation.  The most basic definition of “perspective” is “ (Collins, 2017)the art of picturing objects or a scene in such a way …as to show them as they appear to the eye with reference to relative distance or depth (Collins, 2017).”

 

Sounds nerdy right? This is how I break this down. Perspective is all about looking for the best way to position the main subject, and its complementary elements in the frame of the photograph in a way that creates the most interesting, or attention grabbing, relationship between the objects when viewed.  Still too nerdy?  Ok, let me show some examples.

 

Every image has a perspective, weather it is attention grabbing or not is how we want to employ the use of this principle.

 

 In the picture of this Mustang (Left), the photograph chose to simply shoot front the side, level with the windows. This is not a bad shot, but it really takes a 3 dimensional object and represents it as a 1 dimensional image flat on the print.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What makes this image (right) better is the use of a more interesting perspective.  We now see this object as a 2 dimension object, and because of the lower (subservient) perspective of the viewer, the true “Muscle” of this car is implied by giving the subject extreme dominance, again by shooting from a low angle and looking up to the car.

 

 

 

 

 

The same concept of getting down low can change the feeling of every photograph you take of your children and your pets.  Don’t believe me? Try it.. Get down on the floor, go down to your children’s level, get into their world for a change, and take a few shots of them from the floor up. The dominates that you invoke in the image will overtake the views awareness that the subject is a child…but they have the dominance and presence of a giant. This is a great juxtaposition, another term many of us may have long forgotten from school.

 

Just remember that an accurate perspective, while important in life, does not always make photographs that exciting.  But throwing off the perspective a bit, and disrupting the subjects true relationship with its environment can really make a unique photograph.

 

Below is another great example.  Did this house just tip over from an earth quake?  Nope, it was built that way.  Your mind is playing a trick on you. There three elements in the photo that have relationships with each other, the house, the street, and the cars parked on the street.  You’re brain is working democratically, it things that since the street and the cars are on the same angle, then the house must be the subject that is out of whack.  But in reality, simply tilting the image a bit you will see that the house was build on a street on an extreme hill, it’s the street and the cars that are not level.  But the perspective the photographer gave you with this image left you thinking, if only at first, that there was something seriously wrong with that house!

 

The Rule of Thirds

 

The Rule of Thirds is a powerful principle to use any time you are composing an image. In order to understand the rule of thirds, you need to image lines over your image that divide the area you are composing into three sections. This is done by imagining two lines running down the image, and cross the image dividing the image into 3 equal parts.

 

Once you have done this, place your subject along one of (or at the intersection of) the lines that you have created. By offsetting your subject using this method, not only are you maintaining some consistency in your composition, but you are connecting to a long-proved fact that people find images that are off balance to be more interesting to look at.  Imaging this same image of the surfer, if he was directly in the center of the image. It would be much less exciting.

 

Also in the image of the surfer, can you tell the photographer also used a lower perspective in order to create additional dominance and drama in the way the viewer sees the surfer?

 

Another way to us the rule of thirds, would be to compose your image in such a way that main elements in the image are nested into one of the three sections. In the picture of the puffin, you can see that the grass line reaches up to the bottom rule of third line. The photographer could have taken the image from a different angle and perhaps had too much grass in the background, or not enough.  But filling the bottom third of his imaginary grid pattern, the photographer has created a perfect balance of foreground and background, which is aesthetically pleasing to look at. Now, how they got the puffin to do the roundhouse kick, I have no idea.

 

 

I’d like to recommend a nice little online booklet I stumbled on that provides an excellent overview of the rule of thirds. You can find it here: https://www.mystorybook.com/books/252177

 

Leading Lines

 

The last principle I’ll talk about in this blog is that of leading lines. It is possible, and quite desirable in fact, to bring your audience into your image. Make them follow the lines until they fall into your artwork and feel like they are standing right there where you took the picture. Sound crazy? Well, it works. And painters have been using this concept for thousands of years.

In the farm image, Carolyn of Carolyn V Photography demonstrates this perfectly. Not only do these lines pull you into the photography, but they also take you to a place that is slightly off center. This is a great use of the principle of leading lines.

 

 

A note about composition and printing

 

If you follow me you know that I have been teaching digital photography to scouts for the past 5 years. This year I was asked to pull together an Advanced Digital Photography class, the first of its kind.  I was worried, and wasn’t sure really what I would want to cover in such a class. 

 

I pulled together a few topics and quickly found that most of the girls in my class were on the same level as me. But rather than being a bad thing, it because a class of collaboration, and we shared issues, and experiences, and we all learned from each other.

 

At the end of each class, I offer to print one photograph from the nature walk we take after class. This year, I offered to print then on canvas gallery wraps.  But I forgot one small detail…the wrap allowances.

 

When you mount a canvas print you lose about 1.5 to 2 inches of the image as it gets wrapped around the wooden frame.  I almost never think about this and when I find a print that I really want to mount on canvas, I then realize that the entire look of the image is off now that I took away the edges.  There are a few creative ways to extend the edges of the canvas in photoshop that require some knowhow, and can be kind of tricky to line up when mounting on the frame.  Its best to plan ahead and shoot something knowing that you plan to mount it on canvas if you can.

 

For an example of what I mean, take a look at the image below, one of the best of the best images taken by one of my students Allyson Ruth, an up and coming photographer who makes me feel like I need to try harder before she outshoots me!

Photo by Allyson Ruth, 2017

Photo by Allyson Ruth, 2017

 

Photo by Allyson Ruth

The image on the on top is her original image, as it was being uploaded for printing using a full frame metal printout. You can see how well composed this image is, her subject is off centered, looking off frame leading the view to wonder what he’s looking at. It’s a great image, and the subject is perfectly sized in order to really bring out the blown-out background which I think makes this a great image.

 

As you can see in the image below it, the printing tool has already cropped off space along the left and bottom side of the image.  Once this image is cropped all the way around, it will have a completely different look to it. The subject will be too large for any real meaning of its scale can be seen, and then with its nose almost off the page, it would really just have a boring look to it.

 

Understand the basics of composition is an easy way to up your game if you want to take better pictures.  Play around with the rules, and remember that rules are always meant to be broken when you are trying to be artistic.  Find what works for you, use the rules and principles as a guide, and then develop your own style.  That’s where the real magic happens in Photography.

 

Keep shooting! 

 

 

Bibliography

Collins. (2017, 9 22). Perspective Definition. Retrieved from Collins Dictionary:  https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/perspective

 

Sumners. (2014). The Rule of Thirds. Retrieved from My Story Book: https://www.mystorybook.com/books/252177

 

 

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