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Creating Better Photographs - Part 3 Composition
Written by Derek Christy
Created / Updated on Saturday 19th of March 2011

Composition - Part 1

A definition: " Composition is the selection and arrangement of elements within the picture area ".

Traditionally this has implied a set of "rules" which can be stated thus":

  • A picture must have a strong centre of interest.

  • Avoid placing the centre of interest in the centre of the picture area; it is better to place the centre of interest at or very near the intersection of a "third" (the 'rule of thirds'). Avoid subject moving or facing out of picture.

Rule of Thirds
Offset main centre of interest
  • Angle of view. Select a point of view that shows the subject to best advantage - a high angle or low angle can make a subject more interesting.

  • Backgrounds. Take care - keep them simple. Watch out for trees, power poles, chimneys and the like that can seem to 'grow' out of a subject's head!

  • Foregrounds. The foreground can help or hinder a composition: in a landscape rocks, trees, people etc. can help to frame a picture and add interest to it. However, be careful when using wide angle lenses - they can produce large areas of uninteresting foreground.

  • Leading lines should run into a picture - NEVER out. Leading lines produced by roads, rivers, railway lines etc. can lead the eye into a picture to meet the centre of interest. They are stronger moving diagonally from left to right.

Diagonal Leading Lines
  • Timing. Photograph at the peak of the action.

  • Move in close!

  • Keep pictures simple. Reduce the number of elements in the picture Eliminate clutter.

But remember - these "rules" were valid from about 1500 to 1850 and come from painting (which has largely abandoned them), and reflects the concerns of artists of the period in which they were formulated. Treat them not as rules but as guidelines, particularly if you are a beginning photographer. Soon you will learn when the "rules" can be disregarded in order to produce a "good" photograph.

Remember too, that you are attempting to convey something or other (feelings, mood, outrage etc) in your image, and adherence to the rules may inhibit you from doing this.

Good reference: "Practical Composition in Photography" - Axel Bruck (Focal Press 1982 ISBN 0-240-51060-7).

Composition - Part 2

Everyone knows that you can use telephoto lenses to photograph distant objects, animals or people. Without these lenses we would have been spared neat shots of celebrities in the nude, but we would not have pictures of dangerous or shy animals. On the other hand it is well known that wide-angle lenses can be used to take pictures in restricted spatial circumstances. Tourist agencies, for example, need them to show mere holes of hotel rooms as palatial apartments.

These practical considerations do not come into creative photography at all. The reason for this is that each lens of a given focal length renders spatial relationships between the objects depicted which is quite specific to it and different from the effects provided by lenses of other focal lengths.

This is what makes them so valuable for composition and is the reason why we should understand completely the influence of interchangeable lenses on the appearance of our photographs.

Most people start their photographic life with what is generally called a "standard" lens with "normal" focal length. This lens is not called "standard" or "normal" because most cameras are equipped with it, but because it produces an image which comes closer to what we see with our eyes, than the image produced by any other lens.

Now although this statement seems quite true and is a well-known platitude of the photographic literature, it is more wrong than right because it is based on the assumption that the camera and the eye are very similar. Mechanically or physically this may be true: both have a lens, an iris and a plane on which the image is projected. But here the similarities end. This is because composition (and indeed the whole of photography) draws its impact from the dissimilarities between camera and eye.

This needs explaining.

The camera produces photographic images, if necessary, automatically and without human interference. The eye cannot "see" by itself - we see, using our eyes. This means that seeing is a process which involves not only our eyes but also our cerebral system and has nothing to do with the production of photographic images.

Here are some of the important differences. You will see that these differences each indicate one of the compositional possibilities of photography:

  • The photographic process produces a two-dimensional image. We "see" (experience) the world in the spatial perception. (The transformation of space into planes gives a first means for composing a picture).

  • The spatial effect of photographic images can be changed (for example by the use of lenses of different focal lengths). The perception of space depends on seeing with two eyes and on eye- and body-movement. The perspective effect of the perception of space is unchangeable. (That is why changes of this kind work especially strongly in composition).

  • The photographic image has a clearly defined distribution of sharpness and unsharpness (This can be influenced by the choice of lenses and other factors, thus giving us an additional means of composition). In seeing, the field of perception is scanned in steps with changing sharpness, partly conscious, partly controlled by our interest and the situation.

  • The photographic image is "total" or "complete" in that everything which can be shown with the given technical means will be contained in the final image. In contrast to this, human perception works "selectively". It is subjective and we do not necessarily "perceive" everything that we "see".

Although this comparison could be continued, this should be enough to show that the photographic process (and its results) are entirely different from human perception. The photographic image never shows us "a true image of reality" or anything of the kind - at best it contains our interpretation of it, "filtered" and changed by the composition.


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