I got a message from Carl, a friend from the climbing gym, asking if I have any advice about photography composition. In short, I feel really unqualified to give an answer. My practice of photography relies heavily on luck and intuition.
But, I’ve been attempting a more serious study of photography over the past year, which has included joining a local camera club and reading about photography. In particular, I’ve been reading Creative Photography, a 1984 reference book that I found at a charity shop. In the spirit of learning in public, I’m going to write down some of my functional understanding.
Before thinking about composition, there are two things that I hold as deeply important:
- Understand the exposure triangle
This is the basis of photography — even smartphone photography. You don’t need to understand it when you take your first pictures, but you’ll need to understand how it works in order to understand the mechanics of photography. The exposure triangle defines the rules of photography, even if you’re using a full-auto point-and-shoot or a smartphone.
- Keep a camera with you
The classic saying is: “The best camera is the one you have with you.” Edward Steichen said it more incisively: “No photographer is as good as the simplest camera.”
I really believe this.To me, photography is about engaging with your subject and composing your image. Gear can help, but it can’t solve photography. The best advice I’ve received is to take photos often. That’s how you get better. And the easiest way to do that is to find a camera that makes you feel comfortable and bring it wherever you go. For me, that’s my Olympus Trip 35. I can always put it in my pocket when I run to the store.
Photographers often say that there are three aspects of photography:
(Rather than space, photographers tend to say “composition,” but I “space” fits better with how I understand it.)
Here’s how I understand these things:
Space describes the area of the photo and how all of the elements of the photo relate to one another. The best way to learn how to work with space is to practice. Go outside and take photos of random objects, trying to arrange them in a way that makes the photo interesting. Take pictures often and you’ll develop a sense for arrangement.
The first rule of space is to avoid symmetry. To me, symmetry creates a clean divide between objects that makes them feel separate.
Symmetry can make a photo feel more bold.
A symmetrical photo can feel like two photos side by side. Asymmetry creates tension that pulls the objects together. That’s why photographers default to thirds in their composition.
The “rule of thirds” says that compositions should be divided into thirds, or else objects should be placed at the thirds lines.
This signpost sits one-third from the right.
The sidewalk takes one-third of the photo and the truck takes up two-thirds.
You can create tension by pushing your subject to the edge of the photo or leaving large areas of negative space.
Practice taking photos with the rule of thirds to see how it feels. By default, I put my subject dead center in my photo. When I practice using thirds, I notice that (1) photography becomes more challenging and (2) my photos become more dynamic.
In photos, a series of dots (like buttons on a shirt), an edge (like a crease of fabric), or a ridge (like a railing) can create a line. The viewer’s eye will follow the line.
These shadows push the gaze downwards.
The fences and bushes guide the eye around a loose triangle.
Your goal as a photography is to use lines to engage the viewer. If your lines are too few, you will lose the viewer’s attention. If your lines are too many, you will confuse the viewer.
The railings brings the gaze to Allister and Jesse.
Strive for a balance where the lines guide the viewers eye around the photo. Most photographers try to engage the viewer with loose triangles.
Roads converging at odd angles add energy to this photo.
Cities are built of rectangles — grid streets and box buildings. These make for boring photos. When I’m out walking, I look for unusual spaces, like a bend or a fork in the road, where I can find interesting shapes. If I can’t find that, I will take my photo at an angle to the street, to force the lines of the buildings into a triangular shape.
An intersection breaks a line. This will create dynamism. Sometimes you want to avoid this. A line that intersects your subject’s head, neck, waist, or knees will break their body, creating a faint sense busyness (or in extreme cases dismemberment).
The lines of the curb and cars create unwanted busyness around the man’s head and neck.
Pay attention to where the lines of your photo are crossing each other and your subject.
Here, I’ll start to discuss gear. (This is where the exposure triangle become relevant.) Your aperture defines your depth of field — how blurry your background is. A wider aperture allows more light into your photo and creates a blurrier background. A tighter aperture allows less light into your photo and creates a sharper background.
The sharp background situates this woman obviously in a neighborhood.
A blurrier background will be less distracting, so it will be easier to compose. It will also create a more arty or dreamy effect. The subject feels separate from their surroundings. This is why a shallow depth of field is popular in wedding photography: it makes composition easier and it puts all of the focus on the subject.
This extremely blurry background creates an surreal feeling that threatens to overwhelm the photo.
A sharper background can potentially produce a more interesting photo, because you can use the elements in the background to engage the viewer and create tension around your subject.
You lens’s focal length determines the breadth of your photo. A 17mm lens is a fisheye; it creates a visibly warped image that can contain an entire room. A 200mm lens is a telephoto; it zooms in on a detail, like a bird in a tree. A zoom lens is one that allows you to change the angle, zooming from wide to narrow.
Your lens angle is probably the most profound variable in your camera gear. By widening or narrowing the field of view, you completely change your composition. A 50mm lens and a 70mm lens will produce very different photos of the same scene.
Personally, I mostly shoot with 40mm and 50mm lenses.
A 50mm lens narrows the focus on the subject.
50mm is the default lens that comes with most SLR cameras. I think it’s a beautiful angle because it just slightly constrains the photographer. 50mm forces me to commit to a specific subject, because most of the time it’s not really wide enough to capture a scene. But it’s still wide enough to include the subject’s surroundings and compose an interesting photo.
A 40mm lens captures a wide scene.
40mm is a popular angle for street photography. It’s wide enough to capture an entire scene, like a group of people or a streetscape, but it still keeps the focus on the subject. I find that this challenges me to compose a photo that is harmonious.
A longer lens, like a 70mm, is very good for portrait photography, because you can get an intimate shot of your subject without putting the camera right in their face.
Light — the interaction between energy and surfaces — determines how the objects in your image appear. Light creates color and shadows, which create photos.
Your lines are created with contrast — either the contrast of one color against another, or the contrast of a bright area against a dark area. The implication of this is that your compositions will be very different if you’re shooting color film or black-and-white film.
The bright colors of the fruit disappear in these photos, leaving shapeless grey textures.
The light and dark boxes contrast against each other and against the light and dark background.
Strong light creates drama in an otherwise boring picture.
In color, you can create dramatic effects with tiny elements.
The four red clothespins define the photo by contrasting against the green. With the wooden post, they create a triangle that guides the eye.
This is the strength of shooting in color: you can create compositions with subtle elements, like the blue of someone’s eyes or a fire hydrant on the street.
Use contrast where you want to grab attention. Put your subject against a contrasting background, or create tension between your subject and contrasting elements nearby.
If the light is drab and flat (like on cloudy days), rely on color for your contrast.
You don’t always want strong contrast. Sometimes you just want some gentle shading, like for portraits. Outside, you can get gentle light a few different ways:
- filtered through light cloud cover
- bouncing off of a building
- angled by the earth’s tilt in the morning, evening, or winter
Gentle light will create shadows on the face that bring out features and wrinkles.
Indirect November light in Glasgow gently contours the man’s face.
Sun shining directly in this woman’s face removes all detail and forces her to squint.
The best way to find good light is to be prepared. Bring your camera with you wherever you go. Sometimes the sun breaks through and everything looks beautiful. The second-best way to find good light is to go out around dawn and dusk.
Film interprets light to produce a photograph (or a photographic negative). There is no objective “green.” Each film manufacture decides what they think green should look like. As a result, each film has its own unique quality and color profile.
This expired film is heavily de-saturated and tinted blue.
Kodak Gold is known for its lovely reds.
Beyond that, all films have a standardized level of sensitivity, called ISO (this is one of the points of the exposure triangle). ISO generally trades sensitivity for film grain. The more sensitive your film is, the grainier it will be. This used to be a much bigger concern. Today, you can find high quality film with very little grain, and most film photographers actually like film grain because it adds character.
This crop reveals the grain of the film.
There is no correct film to use. Like a cheap camera, a cheap film can offer beautiful photos. But pay attention to the colors and quality of different films (including the difference between color film and black and white film) to see how the film affects the feeling of the photo.
You photo needs a subject, which could be a person, an object, or an empty space. It should be something that can catch the eye. Consider what the subject of your photo before you take your picture.
I’ve taken many photos of abandoned buildings and empty landscapes, which often feel unsatisfying. If your photo doesn’t have an obvious subject, you need to work a lot harder to create an emotional connection with the viewer.
Once you’ve chosen your subject, explore how it is positioned relative to you and your surroundings. Make yourself uncomfortable: get down on the ground, climb up on a fence, get up close to your subject, stand in the street. Look at how different angles change the perception of your subject.
If your subject is a person, get comfortable telling them what to do. Tell them specifically what you want. “I want your hand on your face, but I don’t want it to block your mouth.” “I want this blue door directly behind you.”
The two men create an unsteady balance.
Also think about the relationship between your subject and other objects in the photo. You can balance a photo and create tension with multiple elements.
This photo by Henri Cartier Bresson is one of my favorites. It should be a messy photo, but it’s incredibly harmonious. All of the characters in the photo play off of each other, making your eye wander.
The final point of the exposure triangle is shutter speed. A faster shutter speed demands more light, but the picture will be sharper. A slower shutter speed risks motion blur or camera shake.
A slow shutter speed makes the passing water appear soft.
Depending on the picture, some motion blur might be desirable. If your subject is blurry, it can emphasize that they are moving. If your subject is sharp but other objects are blurry, it will emphasize that your subject is still.
I want to take pictures that tell a story, and I want to do that by creating an emotional connection between the viewer and the subject. So, as a photographer, I try to have empathy with the people I’m photographing.
I try to remain relaxed when I take someone’s picture. I pay special attention to my voice. If I sound anxious, the person I’m photographing will pick up on it. I want the person I’m photographing to feel and look natural.
I try to be polite and friendly. I offer an explanation for why I want the picture. And then I try to move quickly to get the picture before the person gets stiff.
The most important things I’ve learned about photography since I got back into it is this: I do it for myself. Photographs are beautiful not because they capture a scene. Rather, they capture the photographer’s subjective impression of a scene. They put the viewer in the mind of the photographer, looking outward. Photography is a chance to share your eyes with the world. In that sense, it’s very intimate. Self-consciousness kills intimacy. The best photos will be the ones that you take for yourself. As you take pictures, think about what you care about, what scares you, what you love. Try to approach those emotions as you look through the lens. At least, that’s what I’m going to try to do.