FUNDAMENTALS: COMPOSITION

Black & white photography relies on composition more than anything else for its artistic and aesthetic success. Lee Frost looks at the factors we should consider when constructing an image.

If you take a dozen photographers to the same location and ask them all to make one image of it, chances are every image will be different. Why? Because we’re all different as human beings so it’s natural that we’ll all see the world in a different way.

The books we’ve read, the movies we’ve watched, the places we’ve visited, the music we enjoy, the clothes we wear, the way we were brought up, where we live and have lived, our personality, our state of mind, the subjects we studied at school — all these factors (and more) shape our way of seeing the world around us and therefore how we photograph that world.

The way these differences manifest themselves is primarily through composition — how we arrange the elements of a scene or subject in the camera’s viewfinder. Some photographers are naturals when it comes to composition and quickly find their own visual voice, but for the majority of us, the art of composition takes time and patience to master, mainly because we’re not conscious of the factors that influence the way we compose, or what constitutes a successful composition — we point the camera, press the shutter release and hope for the best, without thinking about what we’re seeing or why we’re seeing it in that way.

I know that from experience — in my early days I took some truly appalling photographs and at times wondered if I’d ever manage to turn out something worth hanging on the wall. But eventually things started to fall into place and my photography improved dramatically.

For me, the solution was to embrace convention, use the tried and tested compositional tricks and understand why they worked. By doing that I then had the confidence to ignore them when the feeling took me and try something more unusual.

I still work that way today, which is why I guess I’ve become a Jack-of-all-styles rather than a master of one!

This month’s Fundamentals feature concentrates on the basics of composition, before looking at ways of helping you to develop an individual way of seeing.

THE RULE OF THIRDS

This classic compositional rule was originally devised by painters, but it works just as well in photography and is a great way to create compositions that are balanced and easy on the eye.

To use the rule of thirds, all you do is divide your camera’s viewfinder using imaginary horizontal and vertical lines into a grid of three horizontal bands and three vertical columns. Both the lines and the intersection points of the grid can then be used to aid the position of important elements in the scene.

For example, if your composition has a focal point — a boat on a lake, a castle in the distance — you can place it on one of the four intersection points created by the grid. With landscapes, the top right intersection point tends to be the most effective one because the eye scans a scene from bottom left to top right or left to right, so if you position the focal point off to the right and towards the top of the frame, the eye will take in most of the scene before reaching the focal point and this holds the attention for longer.

You don’t have to limit your use of the rule of thirds to scenics. When shooting portraits, you could compose so that your subject’s eyes or head are positioned on one of the intersection points. The same applies when shooting close-ups, architecture, action, still life, even abstracts.

The lines created by the rule of thirds grid can also be used to help you divide up the composition and achieve balance. The horizon can be located on the top line so you’re emphasising the foreground, or on the bottom line so you’re emphasising the sky. Either way, this 2:1 ratio works well. The two vertical lines serve a similar purpose when it comes to positioning vertical features.

FOREGROUND INTEREST

One of the most important elements in a wideangle composition is the foreground — the area of a scene closest to the camera. Emphasising foreground interest will help to give your images a strong sense of distance, depth and scale due to the effects of perspective, as well as providing a convenient entry point into the composition for the viewer’s eye.

The foreground also contains more information than the rest of the scene and being close to the camera isn’t affected by atmospheric haze, mist or fog-like features that are more distant — a handy advantage when shooting landscapes.

The strength of the foreground is controlled mainly by lens choice — the wider the lens, the more foreground you can include. Moderate wideangle focal lengths around 15-18mm (24-28mm full frame) are ideal as they’re wide enough to let you include lots of foreground but not so wide that the rest of the scene seems to disappear in the distance.

If you go wider — down to 10mm (16mm on full-frame) — you can create incredibly powerful ‘in your face’ images, but you need to get in close to the foreground otherwise the composition will look empty. Turning the camera on its side and composing in portrait format also lets you include much more of the foreground vertically and this can make a huge difference to the impact of the image.

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