The rules of good composition

Good composition in photography is an artform and will make your photographs stand out from the rest. Marette Bennett from Refined Edges Wildlife Photography & Training gives some pointers which apply no matter whether you are using a smartphone, entry-level DSLR camera or a full professional kit. Photography is about seeing and capturing your surroundings, and by composing correctly and creatively, you can take your images to a whole new level.

1.   When to fill the frame

The background or surroundings of the main subject will usually determine whether you should fill the frame when taking the shot, or crop in post processing. A busy or distracting background will lessen the impact of an image. Particularly when capturing wildlife or portraits featuring people, it is important to have a strong subject focus to keep the viewers’ attention.

2.    Define the edges

When filling the frame, avoid cutting off limbs, ears, tails, etc. Of course, this rule can be broken when done right, but cutting off the tip of a leopard’s ear or the fingers of a person will detract from the subject. In post processing this rule can be ignored if you, for example, feel that the eyes of the lion are the subject and you need to crop the head and mane to add emotion and drama.

3.   Watch the background

Where possible, choose or compose the background to suit the subject. In wildlife photography that is not always practical, but a distracting background to a good subject can ruin the image. Try to avoid overexposed and particularly bright areas, spots of bright colour that will pull the eye away, and patterns that compete with the subject for attention. A good tip is to watch out for (and recompose) if objects like branches, grass or poles are sticking out behind the subject’s head.

4.   Depth of field

By choosing how much blur will be in your image, you are in effect composing your shot. A shallow depth of field (low F-stop number) will isolate the subject from the background or foreground. A wide depth of field (higher F-stop number) will keep most of the image in focus. Deciding when or when not to separate the subject, will produce totally different images.

5.   rule of thirds

The rule of thirds divides your frame into nine sections with two horizontal lines and two vertical lines all equally spaced. Placing the most important elements in your shot where the lines meet, gives an image good balance. Landscapes work best with the horizon on one of the horizontal lines, with onethird sky and two-thirds earth/water or vice versa. A good tip is to always keep your skyline level, especially a water horizon. This formula can be adapted when there is a strong creative reason to try an alternative.

6.   Frame the shot

One creative way to add impact is to frame your subject. This is not about taking a picture frame and holding it up (as is often done with social media cut-out boards), but rather finding frames in the environment. Examples include tree branches, doorways, windows and railings. Frames help isolate your subject, drawing the viewer’s eye directly to it. Make sure your focus point stays on the subject,and not on what is framing your subject. Alternatively, you can use a wide depth of field to have both the frame and subject in focus.

7.   Follow leading lines

The eye unconsciously follows the lines in an image and using this wisely in composing your shot can add tremendous impact. Leading lines direct the eye through an image to a main focal point or several focal points along the way. Leading lines could be anything from a winding road to tree branches. Apply the rule of thirds along with the rule of leading lines to ensure good balance.

8.   Keep it simple

Having too much going on in your frame distracts the viewer from the intended point of focus, and weakens the image. Often the strongest impact comes from a simple and clean composition. Crop out the clutter when you compose the image. For example, a single flower on a plain background, or a few flowers with the focus point on the nearest flower against a plain background will have much more impact. Again, apply the rule of thirds to ensure good balance.

9.   Look for patterns

Repetitive subjects that create a pattern, or symmetry in the subject, has huge impact. Light poles lining a road, a long tree line, or a line of similar arches, could be the entire subject of a photo. The pattern or symmetry could also lead to a focal point at the end. The depth of field will mostly be wide open (high F-stop number) in these images, but a shallow depth of field could also be used in a creative way.

10.              Create depth

To add depth in your landscape images, include elements in the foreground, middle ground and background. This will draw the viewer’s eye through the picture. Use elements that complement or relate to each other, or that have some colour association. Be careful with the sizing of your elements, though. Don’t let a huge rock in the foreground distract from the hills in the background. Adding water to the foreground can add great depth and interest, without being a distraction.

11.              Change perspective

Get creative and find a new perspective, adding drama and impact to your photograph. Get down low, get up high, shoot from the side. Basically, try anything except the ordinary or obvious. Capture reflections by changing your angle correctly. A creative perspective can transform an ordinary subject into a spectacular photograph.

12.              Look for contrast in colour and texture

High-contrast images can exhibit a wide colour spectrum or as little as two or three colours. For example, a yellow flower against a blue sky, a zebra against a green background, canola fields, rock formations and silhouettes. Contrast is the scale of difference between light and dark in your image. Good contrast adds drama, excitement and interest to any photograph.

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