This photographer’s thoughts on Composition

Much of the time the photographers I meet and talk to really have only one interest in photography and that is to discuss equipment.  Nowadays, especially, they are very excited about the newest products.  Photographers should be building a selection of equipment that will allow them to do photography the way they like and that works effectively for the subject they want to photograph.

As much as I do like talking about cameras, lenses, and other assorted equipment, what I really like to talk about is photographs.  So, last week, when a photographer stopped by with some nice enlargements, I was pleased to say the least.  We talked about how successful her photographs were at capturing the viewer’s attention, where the photos were taken, her objectives for each, the colors, and why she cropped them the way she had.  They were good photographs and looking at good photos sometimes lets you know a bit about the person who took them.  We started talking about photographic composition; not so much of the photos we were looking at, but just a general discussion.  So today I thought I’d put some thoughts down that people could think about when composing a photograph.

A person painting or drawing can truly compose an image; they have total freedom to place, arrange and alter the appearance of visual elements.  Photographers are limited by the actual physical appearance of the subject being photographed and depend on using camera position, point of view or the perspective created by different focal lengths of their lenses.  With photography we try to produce exciting, well balanced images, depending on the subject and how we want to communicate with those elements in the photograph.

What is your photograph about?  Instead of shooting right away, stop to decide which part of the scene you really want to show. Let the content determine the size and importance of the objects.   Try what I call the apple technique:  You are driving along and see an inspiring scene. Don’t just point your camera out the car window!

1. Stop the car.

2. Get out.

3. Leave the camera in your bag.

4. Get an apple and eat it as you are looking at that inspiring scene.   Think about what you like about it. Make some choices. What would you like to say to the viewer?

5. Then get your camera and make the picture.

As you are making your basic choices and deciding on what visual elements are important think about what the famous War photographer Robert Capra, known for the intensity and immediacy of his images, said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”  Getting closer eliminates distracting objects and simplifies the contents of a picture. It reduces busy backgrounds and focuses attention to the main subject or center of interest.

Another consideration is whether to photograph horizontal or vertical.  I listened to a discussion by successful magazine photographer, Scott Bourne.  He asked the question, “When do you take the horizontal?”  His answer was, “After you take the vertical.”

A final thought is to think about important visual elements and how best to arrange them in your photograph. The Rule of Thirds – Draw imaginary lines dividing the picture area into thirds horizontally, than vertically. Important subject areas should fall on the intersections of the lines.  For example, a photograph of an old barn in a field; move your viewfinder around to see how it would look placed in the upper right intersection the each other after that. If you take the time to decide and compose, your photographs will be much more successful.

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