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Photography basics – composition part 1

Good composition makes your images stand out

When you first go out with your camera, You may be clear on what you want to achieve, but may struggle to put that idea into practice. Even in full auto mode – where the camera is sorting out shutter speed, ISO, and aperture, the camera can’t decide what you include in your shot, or what you leave out.

Composition, framing and viewpoint are the keys to producing great photos.

What you need to understand is how to compose your image to include the important elements of the scene. How much of the scene to capture, and where to shoot the photo from. By this I don’t just mean where you stand, but also would a lower angle give a better shot. Would getting a higher viewpoint reveal more. Would the image be better in portrait or landscape view.

When taking a photo, or a series of them you are telling a story. Where you’ve been, who was there, what was happening at the time you took the photo. The composition of the image can help you tell the story, or send the wrong message.

What is “good” composition?

This will vary from person to person, as it is a subjective thing. What I like isn’t necessarily what will appeal to you. However there are some guidlines which if followed will produce a more pleasing image. You may well have heard of some of the before:

  1. Rule of thirds. By this I am referring to the division of your image both horizontally and vertically



Rule of thirds grid can help composition when cropping
HDR image Glasson Dock showing Rule of thirds grid.

The image above shows the grid lines dividing image horizontally, and vertically into thirds, hence the name. As it stands the image is OK, but could be better. Below is the crop that I felt was most asthetically pleasing.

Cropped version of original image

If we add the grid lines to the image we get :

Cropped image showing grid lines.

In the cropped image, the image is divided roughly into thirds – foreground, middle, and sky. The setting sun is now on the junction of two of the lines, and because of cropping, the sunset colours appear to be more vibrant.. Other possible variations can be seen on my FB page.

2. Rule of odd numbers.

An image of three birds sat in a tree, will be much more interesting than an image of two after one of them has flown away. This is because the human eye naturally moves towards the center of any group. If there’s empty space then that’s where your eyes will be drawn to. You want your viewer to be looking at a subject, not at an empty space.

gulls in flight
gulls in flight

3. Fill the frame.

Probably one of the biggest mistakes made, especially when photographing people, or pets is trying to keep the person in the centre of the frame.This leaves a lot of unwanted space above, and around them. When photographing people, if you place their head towards the top of the frame then your subject fills the image, and not the background.

Look at your subject carefully. Would the photo be better in portrait or landscape orientation? Not sure? then capture both images, and keep the best one. Focal point for shooting people, and pets should of course be the eyes of the subject. If other parts of the image are slightly out of focus due to aperture setting, this just emphasises the eyes even more.

Image of Dalmation

The final thing that I want to mention in this post is preventing camera shake. Not strictly part of composition, but if you are moving the camera as you take your image, Then it’s going to be no good at all. There are a few key things to consider when taking a photo.

1 What lens is being used, and what is the shutter speed set? As a rule of thumb, your shutter speed should not be greater than focal length of the lens being used. So if Lens is 50mm then your shutter speed should be 1/50th sec or faster. 100mm lens no slower than 1/100 sec, and so on.If you are needing to use a slow shutter sped, consider increasing ISO, or opening aperture. If this is not possible, consider using a tripod, or rest of some sort.

2 Are you holding your camera correctly? Hold your camera firmly in your right hand, most DSLR’s have a built in grip. This allows you to access the shutter button, and the main camera dial easily. The camera should sit on your left hand to give support, and allow you to focus with left thumb, and index finger. Tuck your elbows in to help brace the camera.

You can easily switch from shooting in landscape, to shooting portrait orientation by simply rotating the camera through 90 degrees, keeping your right hand uppermost. If you need a little more support to steady the camera, lean against a wall, or tree, or fence. Or you could try sitting down and place your elbows against your knees as a support.

3 If using your smartphone to take photos, camera shake is more likely, since you need to hold the phone away form you to see the screen and compose your shot. Again, hold it as close to your body as you reasonably can, and again think about sitting down, or at least resting your elbows on something steady to give you the best chance to grab a clear shot.

That’s it for this post, in the next one, I’ll be looking at some more of the rules of composition.






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