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Composing Photographs - Introduction

Composing photographs

You will come across many rules, some may work in some situations, but many can often be broken.

An example:- you may have seen it said that horizons should not run across the centre of a landscape photograph, but if you look at most of the paintings by John Constable, our most popular artist, then you discover that in the majority of his paintings the horizon runs right across the centre.

Another popular compositional rule is attempting to put centres of interest at the points a third of the way in from each side, and a third the way up and down on both sides. While sometimes you can arrange some items to fall onto one or several of these four points, it is very limiting and often is just too restrictive to use. Where it will work it may well be worth experimenting with.

Perhaps a more useful technique is one of looking for sight lines or items that lead the eye into the photo or from one part to another. Often we will find that there are items within our photos that can be positioned or arranged, to help our eyes to follow easily a route to the point that we are making the central point of interest in the photo. It maybe a hedge, wall, line of trees, or any of a large variety of other features or items. Even lines of clouds can help with this.

Framing is another compositional technique, perhaps using the over hanging part of trees across a corner of your photograph or looking through a doorway in a stone wall.

The problem in each case is that you can very rarely go out intending to capture this particular view, its far more likely that when you are there, you spot the opportunity to use something as a sight line, or find you can use something else for framing.

Rather than develop a set of rules, what is more practical is to work on developing 'an eye' for the photo opportunities that come up.

Developing an eye for photo opportunities

If we took three or four experienced photographers to a location, we would be likely to get a wide variety of photographs, with very few the same or similar between them.

Each experienced photographer will interpret and record the image as they perceived it. While one might have chosen to use a lens to control perspective, another has spotted a possibility to frame images, while another has put on a macro lens and is concentrating more on the plants or miniature wildlife. One may be driven to record the effects of the light in the situation, another want to portray it as a quiet and peaceful place excluding people, while another may be concentrating on how people move through the scene, or on candid photos of people.

There are far too many possibilities, to take every one. So we take a selection of the images that we personally want, using a mixture of our technical ability and artistic experience.

The experienced photographer will have spotted most of the opportunities, and decided which to take and which did not offer what they were looking for. If you have a less experienced photographer along, they often say afterwards that they did not spot many of the opportunities taken by others.

As photographers get more experience, and are critical of their own work, they start to spot missed opportunities or situations that, with more thought, they feel they could have got. Later with more experience, most will find this happening far less, although as they progress they are likely to become even more critical of their own work.

This process of developing 'an eye' for photo opportunities will happen over time, like all art forms and in other areas, experience eventually will usually show.

Aids and Exercises to develop the eye

While you could wait for it just to happen, we can also undertake some positive actions to help us to develop it faster, and even those who have developed the 'eye' will find the opportunities become more numerous with some exercises.

To achieve this we have two techniques or exercises that you can experiment with:-

Take a look at each of them and, when you have the time, try to put them into practice, you don't need to spend much, I have broken down the exercises into easy to use, self build articles. There are extra pages off one of the pages but these return you to the point in the main page.


By:  Keith Park  Section: Photography Section Key:
Page Ref: Compose_intro Topic:  Photographic Techniques  Last Updated: 07/2009

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