Composition is one of the most important skills you can learn as a photographer. The interesting thing about composition is that it’s all to do with observation and learning to see. You may need to invest in a book or two to help you understand the basic principles, but nothing more. It’s a much more cost-effective way of becoming a better photographer than buying a new camera or lens!
There are five things you can do right away to improve your composition skills.
1. Learn how to use your camera properly
The aim is to know your camera so well that you can photograph without thinking about it. This comes through familiarity and practice.
Try this exercise. Close your eyes and pick up your camera. Which buttons and dials do you need to use to adjust aperture, shutter speed, and autofocus? How do you select the active AF (autofocus) point? How do you apply exposure compensation? If you don’t know the answers without looking, then read your manual. You should be so familiar with these settings that you can adjust them automatically, with no more than a glance at your camera.
Learn this simple approach
Digital cameras have lots of menu options and it’s easy to get caught up in adjusting settings. I suggest you ignore most of them and keep your approach simple. Here’s how:
- Always shoot RAW format and set White Balance to Daylight or Auto and keep it there. Pick one camera profile and stick with it. You can adjust all of these settings afterward in Lightroom.
- Don’t touch any settings such as lens corrections, contrast, dynamic range, noise reduction, sharpness or highlight preservation. These are all irrelevant if you shoot RAW.
- Don’t switch between metering modes. Stick to one and learn how it works.
- Understand your camera’s focus modes and when to use each one.
- Learn how to select the active AF point so you can make the camera focus where you want.
- Make sure you know how to switch to Manual shooting mode and when you should do so.
- Learn how to apply exposure compensation, preferably without taking your camera away from your eye.
For most forms of photography, you don’t need to know anything more than that. The main exception is anything that involves fast action, as you may need to adjust your camera’s autofocus settings to suit. The idea is to know your camera so well that you can concentrate on observing the subject and finding the best possible composition.
Fiddling with your camera’s settings is a distraction. The more attention you pay to your settings, the less you’ll pay to the composition of your images.
2. Look beyond the obvious
The first viewpoint you find when you take a photo of something may not be the best or most interesting.
When you find a worthwhile subject spend some time with it. Try and look beyond what first attracted you to it. This is called working the subject.
- What happens if you photograph it from another angle?
- With another lens?
- Or if you get closer or further away?
- Is there anything interesting about the subject that you have overlooked?
For example, if you are taking someone’s portrait it might be because they have a captivating or beautiful face. But what else is interesting about them? Their clothes? Jewelry? Tattoos? Look beyond the face and see what you can find.
3. Educate your eye
You can learn a lot about composition by studying the work of master photographers. It’s time to pick some photographers whose work you like and get analytical. I like looking at photos taken decades ago. Photographers back then worked with much simpler equipment and didn’t have our technological advantages. Yet the best still created beautifully composed images.
So, how did they do it? When looking at somebody else’s work ask yourself these questions:
- Are they working in black and white or color? How would switching from one to the other affect the composition?
- What is the focal point of the image? Is it positioned in the frame according to the rule of thirds or could there be other principles at work?
- What shapes and patterns do you see?
- Is there any negative space in the photo? How much room does the subject have to breathe?
- Is the photo balanced or unbalanced? What is the visual relationship between the various elements in the scene? Which are dominant and which are secondary in importance?
- Can you tell what lens focal length the photographer may have used? How would using a different focal length affect the composition?
- How did the photography create a sense of depth?
Questions like these deepen your understanding of the work of other photographers. The answers inform your work as you evolve as a photographer.
4. Work with geometry and symmetry
Learn to look for shapes in your photos. A good place to start is with anything man-made, as we tend to build things with recognizable shapes like triangles, squares, and circles.
Repeating shapes create patterns and symmetry that can also form the basis of an interesting composition.
For example, when you look at this photo, what do you see?
At first glance, it’s a photo of an outdoor cinema screen in a Chinese village. But look closely and you start to see shapes. The rectangle of the screen is an obvious one. But did you notice the diamonds made by the pattern in the flooring? Or the organic shapes of the Chinese characters on the wall?
5. Use punctuation and gesture
Jay Maisel talks a lot about gesture and Bob Holmes talks about punctuation. Look up the work of these two photographers to learn more about these concepts.
Punctuation is the addition of something interesting, often a human figure, that completes a scene. The photo needs that little something extra to lift it above the ordinary. Punctuation is an important part of street and travel photography.
For example, this photo is completed and made stronger by the presence of the woman in the doorway.
In his book “Light, Gesture & Color” Jay Maisel defines gesture as the thing that reveals the essence of the subject. Everything has it. Gesture takes us beyond the superficial to the essence of the subject and reveals itself through observation.
Imagine you are photographing a mountain. What do you see? Maybe it’s the shape of the mountain against the sky. The textures of the rocks scattered over the surface, the steepness of its cliffs, or the way that clouds wrap themselves around the summit. All these things are part of the gesture of the mountain, the things that make it what it is.
With people, gesture is a mixture of body language and attitude. If you are making a street photo it may be in the body language or appearance of somebody in the photo. If you are making a more formal portrait it is something in the model’s expression or body language that helps create mood or communicate character.
In this photo the pose and expression of the dancer are gesture.
Punctuation and gesture are advanced concepts. But it’s worth thinking about how you can apply them to your photos, as they help make the composition of your images stronger.
Composition is an important skill. It takes time to master, but it’s worth the effort as the quality of your photos will improve immensely.
Do you have any other suggestions for ways to improve your composition skills? Please let us know in the comments. I’m looking forward to seeing what ideas you come up with.
Andrew is the author of the ebook Mastering Composition.