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Composition - Is there an artist within you?

 
 
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      5th Jul 2002
Anyone can take good photographs with any camera. Creating good photographs has less to do with the equipment you have and more with the composition you use - it's not what you see, but, how you see it. When someone looks at a picture and utters words like “an artistic, pleasing image, or a harmonious balance among the elements of a scene,” you know that the picture is nothing but – a good composition.

The viewfinder is the small window to the world around you on the outside of a camera. The photographer decides on the limits and boundaries of the scene and finally what he/she includes or excludes contribute to the final composition of the picture. Remember - variety is the spice of photography. Composition is only limited by your imagination.

Taking a photograph is in itself a selection process; I call it selection because the photographer has to make the choices. It could mean the subject itself, environment, light and shade, shape, texture, patterns, scale, and line. The details a photographer chooses to include can create the meaning and provide clues to the identity of the photograph. You can read a photograph as you would a book, from left to right, and then downward.

There are as many ways to take photos as there are photographers. However, good composition affects all photographs and is not produced by tricks or special equipment; instead it is the result of careful thought and planning. In order for an image to be successful and pleasing to the eye, it needs to be composed correctly. This way, a better chance will be had to capture that special something that triggered the desire to take the photograph.

So what is composition?
Are there any rules that one must abide by? Without getting into the many fine points of composition, there are a few basic rules that should be applied; even though, as every one knows, "rules are made to be broken"... But, the rules do need to be known before they can be broken.


Rules of composition


Light


Light is a critical element in any type of photography whether one shoots indoors or outdoors. Learn to observe it relentlessly . For landscape photography, the most spectacular light happens when the sun is low in the sky-- early morning or late afternoon. Clouds are a big help. The worst time for taking pictures is when you are encountered with a cloudless sun, particularly near midday – the light is in one word, harsh. The drama of early morning or late afternoon light is what is needed to shoot breathtaking landscapes. I rarely use my flash unit and try to do without it unless it is absolutely necessary. Northern light is the best for portraits by the window. If you have a window facing north, consider yourself to be blessed with a perfect light source indoors.

Simplicity


The biggest enemy of good images is too much stuff. The camera actually sees more than we do - a lot more. That’s because we usually focus our attention on our subject and fail to notice the surroundings – that means everything else. And that “everything else,” more than anything, keeps an image from greatness. You must learn to develop the habit of scanning the entire image in the viewfinder, not just the subject. As for the digital camera’s, its always a good habit to check what is on the LCD before shooting since most of the camera’s below $1000 are not SLR’s (single lens reflex) and do not comply to “WYSIWYG” (what you see is what you get) when you view through the viewfinder.

Angle of view


A walk around the object gives you an idea of the best possible views. Determine where the light is coming from and try to find different variations by choosing very high or low standpoints. The distance and the focal length should be adapted to the perspective you're looking for: Have you seen photos of kids taken from the adult's perspective, looking down at the subject? The kids look like just that: kids down below us! However, if you get down to their level, looking at them in the eye, you feel more in touch with the subject, more as an equal. In addition, you can see them better. The effort involved is minimal. You can always do a few deep knee bends to get into shape for it.

Portraits should preferably be taken with a lens not less than 70mm (preferably 80-90mm) to avoid distortion. If you are close to the subject and use a wide angle setting, your subject can end up with a very large nose, disappearing ears, and a generally distorted face. You owe it to your loved ones not to portray them in that manner. Basic zoom lens cameras usually have a range between 35-70mm. If you have a basic point and shoot camera with a fixed focal length (usually 35mm) keep your distance, do not go too close to the subject. A 50mm lens roughly has the same perspective as the human eye, anything below is considered wide angle and above, telephoto.

Framing


Most of us take photographs with the camera held horizontally. After all, this is the way the camera was designed to be held and is the most natural way to hold it. Some photos are perfectly suited for this horizontal format. Most landscapes seem to flow from left to right, and need the wide-open spaces of the horizontal shot. But, when thinking about composing your shot, don’t forget the other option you have. Vertical shots are sometimes the perfect choice. One that comes to mind would be a waterfall. This format adds a feeling of height to the photo that you don’t feel with the horizontal shot. This would also work well with other tall objects such as buildings, statues and trees. The landscape format gives a feeling of tranquility and harmony. The portrait format can add an exciting dimension. Check to see the horizon is straight before you squeeze your shutter. Following picture of “The Arches” is an example of tight framing. The lighting was not easy to tame as highlight and shadow details was to be preserved.



Another example of framing a subject is in the follwing picture entitled "Framed Statue"




Golden Rule/Rule of thirds
For many centuries now, first architects, then painters, and much later-photographers, have used a grid based on the Golden Rule, to guide them in the composition of their images.

The golden rule establishes an ideal ratio between height and width.
More or less, the ratio corresponds to 2/3 x 1/3; and this is a ratio that can be recognized in the size of most film frames and, today, in the image sizes of digital cameras. These proportions are derived from the field of view of the human eye, and are used, often with slight variations, throughout a large number of commonly used objects. Examples can be found in architecture, in the shape of doors and windows, to more mundane items such as picture frames and sheets of paper.

Within that frame, another rule is used: the rule of thirds. The idea is that the "hottest" zones of the image are the zones a third of the way from the borders (1/3 from bottom left, top left, bottom right and top right), and the most important parts of the subject should be placed there. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. Learn this rule and break it! Draw an imaginary grid on your viewfinder and place your subject at one of the spots where two of the lines intersect. Your subject will be off center, and has a stronger impact than one that is centered. The most important thing to remember here is to use those other 2/3 wisely. Similarly, compositions containing diagonals can also be based on the golden rule and the rule of thirds, so that the resulting image is balanced


Foreground and Background
Keep an eye on the background, busy backgrounds can add to confusion and steal attention from your subject. Foliage or blue sky makes a good background. Whenever you take scenic pictures or pictures of buildings or monuments, try to include something in the foreground to add interest and dimension. Also include people for a size comparison. How you want people to view your picture determines what you do with the foreground and background. For example, zooming in, and choosing a large aperture setting, blurs the background while keeping your subject sharp. This is a pleasing effect for portraits. Conversely, zooming out to a wide angle setting, and choosing a small aperture, allows you to show the subject and their surroundings in more equal focus. Have your subject prominent in the foreground, and use the background to tell more about the subject or the environment. The following picture entitled “View from a window” is an example of how the three - foreground, middle distance and background can be effectively composed to tell the whole story.




Center of Interest
One element is dominant - which tells the story. The viewer should be able to easily identify the center of interest. Following image of “The minaret” is an example of how you can use the rule of thirds effectively. Notice how the center of interest is placed?



Depth
You can create the illusion of depth in your composition by overlapping objects and natural lines, 3-D effect when objects and people occupy the foreground, middle distance and background. “View from a window” is an example of how to create depth in the picture.

Selective Focus

The trick is to use shallow depth of field to emphasize the subject by rendering the background out of focus, this way the eye is drawn to the center of interest. This is a common practice which is used for outdoor portraiture. This is something which I am afraid cannot be accomplished by those who use point and shoot cameras but surely by those who have the option for manual override when it comes to focusing and selection of the aperture and shutter speed. Following picture entitled “Mariah” gives an example of how you can use selective focus to emphasize the subject.



Leading lines/Curves
Select a camera angle that will allow a leading line, such as a road, path, fence, railing or river, to lead into your picture. This can create interest and also lead the viewer to the main subject. An important thing to note here is that, you should use a smaller aperture (increased depth of field) to keep the entire image in focus, right from the foreground all the way to the background. Following picture entitled “Birds on a line” is an example of leading lines.



The following picture entitled “Enjoying the rain” is an example of curves.




Conclusion
The rules of composition are based on patterns identified in several artistic works that are commonly accepted as having good composition. The theory behind the rules is that if you try to follow them the odds are in your favor that your image will look properly or pleasingly-composed.

Many artists and photographers rely on the rules of composition daily in their work – some instinctively and some with a bit of effort. These rules are very useful particularly to the photographer who is starting out and feels that his or her photography could benefit from better composition. If you ever encounter a situation where you are not sure what to do to tell your story better, you can always fall back on the rules, then judge the results. But, if you are pleased with a composition that conveys the meaning you want in your images, but that completely violates the rules, then ignore them. The rules should be broken when you feel that by applying them it would negatively impact your picture’s meaning.

I remember a wonderful quote from the Reader’s Digest which I had the pleasure of reading over two decades back, I like to share that with you. “An ordinary artist is the one who can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become, a better artist is the one who can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl she used to be, but, the greatest artist is the one who can look at an old woman, portray her exactly as she is and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be.”


You
are an artist! Pick up that camera of yours and start shooting. Show us what You see.

 

 
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      22nd Jan 2003
Spot on. A good photograph should speak for itself and only contain the elements required to achieve the desired composition. Simplicity is the key.
A classic mistake people make is attempting to get too much into a photograph, which often results in a cluttered unpleasing image. Attention to detail and a good understanding of what it is you want to achieve brings out the best results, whether you're shooting with a Nikon D100 or a point and shoot...
 
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      22nd Jan 2003
Quote:
Originally posted by Elastikman
Spot on. A good photograph should speak for itself and only contain the elements required to achieve the desired composition. Simplicity is the key.
A classic mistake people make is attempting to get too much into a photograph, which often results in a cluttered unpleasing image. Attention to detail and a good understanding of what it is you want to achieve brings out the best results, whether you're shooting with a Nikon D100 or a point and shoot...
Your feedback is very much appreciated. Looks like you are not only into photography but audio as well (I saw your post PC Audio).

Welcome to PC Review!

 

 
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      27th Apr 2005
nice article,. what is the last image in the thread for,. with the circles on green,. it has no description?

are those circles something to do with the golden mean or whatever it's called ?

Sil
 
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      27th Apr 2005
The GRID represents the Rule of Thirds as mentioned in the article and the circles are guidelines to place the object or subject rather than in the centre of the frame.

 

 
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      27th Apr 2005
ah - I confess I skimmed through some of it

yeah 1/3 rule thing works for some pics

Sil
 
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      27th Apr 2005
I like to use a rough approximation of the golden ratio (1.61803399) which i think they are refering to as the "rule of thirds". A number that crops up everywhere in biology, often associated with natural perfection.

I do think you can over-think composition sometimes though, people will make an instinctive judgement about how well or poorly your image looks so I think you too must use artistic intuition in most cases.

Good article, makes me want to grab my camera.
 
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      28th Apr 2005
I always like to include just a little extra around my photos than i actually want to shoot. And then I crop all my images on the computer to the desired size and shape etc
 
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      10th May 2005
Never did digital imaging, took photo in High school, Only really like studio light painting and spot coloring. We should have a contest for amatuere photography. Post pics, or better yet links to your art work for review.

 
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      12th May 2005
An amateur photography contest sounds a fun idea Raje.
 
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