With this post I start a series of photography tutorials, aimed mostly at photography beginners. There will be set of the articles about photographic composition, it’s rules and elements, articles about filters, photography techniques, tips and much more. I hope you’ll find them useful and that you’ll enjoy reading. I’ll try to be as clear as possible but I cannot explain each and every photographic term. If you run into something you don’t understand either ask in the comment or google it.

Let’s begin with some theory…

For the starters, you might want to ask yourself: what is photographic composition? Many of you will maybe think of things related to exposure, aperture, ISO, or any other technical details. But when it comes to photographic composition, we need to think about what is going on BEHIND the camera, not IN the camera. Technical details are the least important. What was going on in a photographer’s mind in terms of composition? Do we understand, in the end, what he wanted to ‘say’ with the photo?

When you are behind the camera and you’re shooting a scene, you want all the elements of the picture to be arranged well, so they can form a balanced and harmonious whole. Or at least you should. When we achieve  to do this, we will have a successful photograph which will convey our idea or feeling to a viewer and which will be pleasant and balanced whole to watch. It will catch the viewer’s eye and successfully transfer message.

When we are photographing something or someone and we share that particular photo with the world, it is the act of showing to the viewers your feelings, or your thoughts about that place or person. It’s the whole message you are portraying to the world that is the subject of the composition. For example, if you want to photograph a nice tree, make sure the frame does not also include half of the forest, a bench, a trail, nice clouds in the sky, a cottage and everything else that was in your viewfinder. If you want to show something – show it. Everything else has to be excluded from the frame.

If you compose your photo poorly and don’t think of all the elements in it as a one single whole, people might think that, instead of nature, you wanted to show nice blue car that was parked in the left bottom part of your landscape photo. Maybe you haven’t noticed those elements while you were looking through the viewfinder, or they were in your peripheral sight, but be sure they will be very much visible on the computer screen. In majority of occasions you don’t have a second chance for a photo. You have to think on-the-spot and remove all of the unnecessary elements from the photo.

If something draws your attention and you want to capture it in the photo, think about the composition and what should and shouldn’t be included in the photo before pressing shutter button.

Therefore, every photographer must learn to scan the whole scene, line by line if necessary, to search for the unwanted elements. It’s better to compose them out than to have to crop them out later. The biggest mistake is to rely on the post processing – the whole work has to be done out there. Post processing can repair some minor errors or distractions, but it will never make poorly composed photograph better.

You must know what you want to say with your photo and compose it for your message to be clear. “There’s nothing more useless than a sharp photo of a fuzzy concept“, Ansel Adams once said. And there’s nothing more I can add. High-end camera and best lens are just tools for your thoughts, they will never make good and thought-through photograph. It’s all up to you.

Composition is what distinguishes snapshots from the artistic photos. At first touch with the photography, we all take documentary snapshots of nature, family, places or animals. But as we go deeper into it, we begin think the scene through and ask ourselves why are we shooting that and why from that angle. If we are able to answer to that, then we have a big chance to have a good composition and to convey a message or an idea.

So, how do we begin with the composition?

First of all, you need to ask yourself few questions:

  • Why are you taking that photograph?  What feeling has made you stop and look around and take your camera?
  • What attracted you to think of photographing certain subject? What in the scene has caught your eyes and your attention? Was it a shape, color, texture, proportion, beautiful light or something else? Define that.
  • How can you emphasize what attracted you? If you have some disproportions to show, make sure you take the right angle, if you want to emphasize some nice color, make sure you combine it with another one which will bring it to front even more, or you just fill the whole frame with it.  If you want to show nice shape, make sure you remove any distraction from the frame. Put in the photo only what is necessary to show the subject or what is related to it.  If you don’t know what is the intention of your photo, most likely neither will you viewers know.[/fusion_li_item]
  • Try removing anything unwanted from the frame. By that I don’t mean you should bring down the house in the corner of the frame, chop off the tree growing behind your subject or yell at people passing by. Reframe, move a few steps left or right, wait until passers by go away. If you shoot close-up, watch for the distracting background and change the angle of shooting if possible, remove small branches in front of the flower. Avoid any unwanted object that is distracting or doesn’t add to mood, perspective or subject. After thinking all that through…[/fusion_li_item]
  • Take the photo.

You need to think about all of this before pressing the shutter button, not after – good analysis is the most important for the composition. Sometimes there is not much time to think abut that, but if you train your mind to think and to analyze in a photographic manner, you will learn to do that in a blink of an eye. Frames will compose in your head without too much effort. You will get yourself used to photographic thinking.

Besides that, we need to know how our vision and our mind works when it looks at a photo. That is an important element in knowing how people look at our photos, how their mind analyzes them and what is balanced or not.

Our vision doesn’t have 180 degree view. Our vision is closest to 50mm (48 degrees). And we don’t see everything sharp either. We only see about 3 degrees of the sharp image in front of our eyes! That’s pretty narrow isn’t it?

That’s why we scan the image before us when we look at it. Our eyes ‘move’ through the photo and stop on the most interesting areas. If your image is composed well, the eye won’t have many random movements through the image. The composition elements of the photo will guide it through the scene in derandomized fashion. If the eye roams randomly through the photo, we can call it unsuccessful.

Test yourselves and open any of your (un)successful photos. How does your eye move through it? Does it have a path you wanted, does it stop on important details? If yes, ask yourself why. If it does not, again ask yourself why and what have you done wrong. Simple analysis of your own photos can lead you to find out your own mistakes. And that is very constructive for developing photographic thinking. Be your own worst critic and you will realize what you need to correct in your future shots. Just follow the physics and the instinct of your own eye. The result will be very soon visible to you and to your viewers in your future works.

Yet, even the most ‘cleanest’ frame, the one without any distractions has to be balanced. And the basic rule for the photographic balance is the rule of thirds. You can read about it more in my next post about photographic composition.