In photography terms, composition can make the difference between a good image and a fantastic one. Yes, you need all the other components; the light has to be dramatic, the subject compelling, and the colours vibrant. All of these will add to the final result. If you have all that, but your composition is not great, the image will fall flat.
Jay Maisel has a quote that goes like this, “As the photographer, you are responsible for every inch of the frame”. This is true, and one of Jay’s other mantras is that he prefers to speak about framing and not cropping. His view is that framing is done at the time of making the image. Cropping is done afterward in post-production. He maintains that cropping changes the original intent of the image. If you frame an image in a particular way and then crop it afterward, it really is a different image.
I don’t think Jay is saying that you shouldn’t crop, but rather that you need to compose with intent and purpose, not simply hope for the best and try and “fix” the image later by cropping. Good composition can really be impactful on your image. Changing your composition is free. You don’t need any special equipment or lenses. There’s no need to wait for a specific type of light. You can shoot at any time of day. Composition is the one thing in photography that is easiest to fix, yet it is most often overlooked.
There are many articles on DPS and other sites about composition and the best techniques for improving composition, so I won’t try to reinvent the wheel. What I want to talk about here is visual flow. This is more about the visual journey you are taking your viewer on than the destination. In this article, we aren’t going to discuss the rule of thirds and powerpoints, but we will discuss how framing, removing distractions, and how light, shape, and texture will all contribute to your composition.
We will look at how someone’s eye will travel through your image. You want the viewers of our images to look at them longer, to find them interesting and to be captivated and inspired by what they see.
Framing not cropping
As the photographer, you need to take responsibility for everything in the frame. That means, you decide what will be in the shot and sometimes more importantly, what will NOT be in the shot. Your subject needs to be in the frame obviously, but what else absolutely needs to be included? Ask yourself if all the elements in the frame are adding to the narrative or story you are trying to tell. If not, get rid of what is not working.
In this case, less is definitely more (and usually better). Be aware of visual clutter in the frame, objects that are distracting or drawing the viewer’s full attention away from the subject. This is really tough to get right and it takes time and practice. But once you become aware of this and work hard on fixing it, it will become much easier.
This sounds obvious but is not always easy. There are many things that can cause your viewer to be distracted when they look at your image. Any words in your photograph will automatically draw they eye. Signposts, graffiti, street signs…anything with words or letters will cause the viewer to look at that part of the image. If the wording is not the reason for the image, then try and remove that item from the frame as it may be distracting.
Color can cause the eye to wander. If your scene is full of color, that’s great, but if it is largely monochromatic and there is only one color in the frame, that color will become the focal point. Warm colors like yellow or red will very quickly pull the eye across to them, so be aware of the colors in your image.
The human form will also draw the eye. Again, if the person in the frame is a key part of the image, that’s great, leave them in the shot. But if not, then wait until they leave the scene or reframe the scene without them. As humans, we tend to find the human form in an image very quickly and this will become the main focus of the image.
Using light, shape and texture
These three elements (there are more) will greatly help you in your visual flow.
Light is key to making any image. Without light, we cannot do photography. Light also informs so much in your image. You can use side light to emphasize texture in your image. You can use front light to create a silhouette, which will emphasise shape. These three elements are important tools in making sure your image compels people to look at it.
Shapes in your image add a dynamic feel. Get in close and emphasize the shape of an object. If it has a curve, make that curve fill the frame. Shapes can make a great subject too. They are all around you too, you just have to start looking.
Texture is a great way to emphasize your subject. To get great texture images, your light needs to come from the side. Side light enhances texture and each granular detail can be seen if the light is right. Texture will make your images seem three dimensional. Using texture is a great way to communicate more information about your subject.
Get in close
To make sure that you get the most out of the scene, you can do a few things. First, move in closer and fill the frame with your subject. This is especially useful if you are doing abstract or creative images. If you are not going to fill the frame, then decide where to put your subject. Yes, you can use the rule of thirds for this (this would be my last choice), but you can also use the Fibonacci Spiral (Golden Ratio) or any number of other compositional techniques.
The most important part of an effective composition is to make sure that your viewer knows what they are supposed to look at in your image. If your subject (the reason for the image) is unclear, your image will have little impact. You have likely seen this happen. You show someone photos from your last trip and they simply glance at them in passing. Then suddenly, something catches their attention in a particular image and they stop and look intently at the scene. That’s when you know your image has hit the mark.
As I said earlier, all the elements need to come together to make a great image, but if you have good light, great exposure and bad composition, chances are, people will just flip past the image.
So, how else can you improve your composition? It is deceptively simple but easily overlooked. Some of the things I do is get inspiration from the top photographers in the genre I want to shoot. If it is street photography, then I am looking at Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jay Maisel, Ernst Haas, and others. If it is landscape photography, then I will be looking at Ansel Adams, Charlie Waite, and Koos van der Lende. I look at photographers who inspire me. I also make a point of visiting art galleries whenever I can.
Photography is not even 200 years old as an art form. Much of the techniques we use as photographers have been learned from the painters and artists of old. Spend time looking at the composition of master painters. Look at how they placed subjects in their scene. See how the light works in their paintings, is it hard light or soft light? Spend time taking note of how they used color and shapes in their images. Then, go out and apply that to your photographs. Over time you will begin to see your eye and your images improve.