Take a look at photographs you see everywhere. What makes them interesting? How did they catch your eye? Are they visually appealing? Do they evoke a feeling or mood? Do they make you want to look even deeper to get the details?
One of the most important elements in photography is perhaps composition. Arguably more important, perhaps, than knowing your camera inside and out.
Composition can be simply defined as managing the viewer’s point of view of a subject. The subject is the main focal point (or points) in an image. This can include secondary (or minor) subjects leading the viewer’s eye to the main subject. Managing the point of view also means managing what is and what isn’t in the image. Including a shoreline or a rock in a landscape shot or capturing well defined and easily recognizable silhouette of a person or object for scale.
In my previous post, I demonstrated composition without any real explanation as to what or why I was choosing these points of view for particular shots. This is my attempt to show my thought process when photographing almost anything.
Don’t just stop and shoot. Walk around and really look at the subject and what frames it.
I went from dock to dock at Rideau Ferry Harbour to get the angle that I wanted for the above shot. There were some stressed trees in the background that I wanted for colour while capturing the failing evening light to add a bit of framing for the bridge.
Typically, when I am looking to compose a shot, I talk a walk around it to see it from different angles. I also look through the viewfinder. What’s in the shot? How does the light from this angle affect what we see?
Side Note: The camera’s sensor sees things differently than our eyes. When we look at a scene, we take in a whole lot of information and process it, without even being conscious of it. The camera is much more limited in that it doesn’t automatically highlight a specific area or give priority to a subject over others. We need to take care of this through various methods which will be discussed in upcoming posts.
Even more than walking around the immediate subject, change the actual location from which you are shooting to get a completely different perspective of the subject. The first image here is of Hogs back Falls in Ottawa from the lookout point. This is a good vantage point for tourists and I saw many people take snapshots of one another with the falls as a background. This is fine, I guess, but I wanted more. There is a chute at the bottom of this image that I wanted to capture.
The second image is the same falls but from the rocks below. It took a bit of effort to get down there and was able to do so without any risk to myself or my gear. I prefer the perspective from here.
By getting to this new location, not only was I able to get the chute I was able to compose it with the water in the foreground as well.
I see so many people that go through the time and effort to get a great exposure on their photos and still end up disappointed in the final product. This has happened to me as well more often than I care to admit. The images look flat and uninteresting. This is often because they are seeing the subject from where we are used to seeing them.
One of my favourite angles is to get down low. I mean really, really low! When you get this low, the view is reminiscent of your view as a child where everything is up high. It provides a unique perspective to the normal everyday subject. Sometimes, it’s to give this point of view. Other times it’s to highlight or capture an important element in the image that can only be included from this angle.
I have crouched almost to sitting in intersections as demonstrated in the photo above (not recommended, by the way), lain down on floors (both indoors and out), walked very cautiously into chest-deep water (be careful of your gear here) and sat in the middle of gardens and parks to get the shot I wanted. I’m thankful that there have been no mishaps thus far.
Another perspective is to get up high and look down on what we normally see from below or at eye level. This helps even when viewing subject we normally look down on but from a much higher plane. An example could be climbing on a play structure in the park to photograph down on your kids who are playing just below. This adds more depth to the image and if you get them to look up and smile, you can get a great image here!
Another little trick is to change orientation for your photos. There is no rule that says that you must use landscape orientation for landscape shots or portrait orientation for portrait shots.
We tend to take most pictures in landscape. This is partially due to how cameras are made. We see the top of the camera as the top of the image. Try flipping the camera on it’s side. In landscape shots, this can add stress by compressing the horizontal plane and givve a totally different view of the subject. In portraits, this can work effectively for a profile shot with the subject looking through the rest of picture.
This can also work with a vertical plane for a snapshot as demonstrated below with my granddaughter and her balloon.
While many folks out there tend to frown on cropping, I view it as an important part of the flow in photographs. We try to compose our shots so that there is minimal cropping. However, we do crop our images. They need to fit different formats and media for presentation. Maybe there is an unwanted element in the image that we need to exclude. Or maybe we didn’t compose the image correctly. Whatever the reason, cropping is not a sin. I try to get my composition correct to that the cropped image is as close to the original in size as possible. This is mostly for ensuring the quality of the prints I make.
It’s the Journey, not the Destination
All in all, my view of photography is as an attempt to visually capture a moment or scene that others can appreciate. By being conscious of elements of composition and taking the time to try and master it, we can all be better photographers. I’m still learning and perhaps always will be. The true adventure is in the journey.