This is an edited reprint of an article I wrote several years ago in my blog, www.ChobeSafari.com. Same text and many of the photos have changed, but the need to know the basics of composition is timeless.
Many see a photo they like but when asked why they like the image, they lack the words to describe why the photograph was successful. Often the keys lie in the proper use of one of the following elements within the image. These are not the only elements of composition, but this group are some of the most common and easy ones to incorporate. If you know and understand these basics, you will naturally begin to incorporate them into your photography.
As you review these elements, keep in mind that you don’t need all of these in a single image. Matter of fact, most often only one of the elements will be used in a strong composition, but that one is enough to carry the viewer through the image and effectively convey the feeling of the artist.
There are patterns all around us if we only learn to see them. Patterns are more obvious in macro-photography and man-made designs, but also exist on the grand scale in nature. Emphasizing and highlighting these patterns can lead to striking shots – as can high lighting when patterns are broken.
Symmetry is a really powerful tool. Use it with care. Symmetry can work, but can also cause a lack of interest. The ‘rule of thirds’, for example, is based on the idea of asymmetry having a more pleasing feel that symmetry. Depending upon the scene – symmetry can be something to go for – or to avoid completely.
The key to symmetry working in an image is to have a strong point of interest. Without the strong point of interest the eye will not instinctively flow through the image.
Photos are flat, two dimensional artwork yet with the clever use of ‘texture’ they can have the feel of a third dimension.
When looking to incorporate textures, I my mind always goes to the axiom that light illuminates and shadows define. Use the light and shadow to create the illusion of that third element.
Depth of Field
The depth of field that you select when taking an image will drastically impact the composition of an image. In macro photography, it is one of the most important tools to separate the subject from the background. It can easily be used in wildlife also.
It can isolate a subject from its background and foreground with a large aperture (small f-stop), you can minimize distractions in the image. The telephoto lenses used in safari photography work well to create separation, but any lens is up to the task. While we like using this technique, be careful to use enough depth to have the key elements in your composition tack sharp.
This ‘element’ is the most natural one for me to use in my landscape photography. Leading lines create flow. They draw the eye to key focal points in a shot. This progression through the image helps create a harmony when looking at the composition..
Leading lines can be diagonal, horizontal, vertical and converging lines. My preference is the diagonal line and I most often use this line coming from the lower left of the image and pregressing toward the upper right side of the frame, but this note is added as commentary. You can use leading lines in many, many ways. The key is that you need to spot the leading lines while framing a shot and then utilized this element to strengthen it.
Think Foreground, mid-ground and distance
Layers allow the eye to progress through the image while conveying a since of scale.
Incorporation of shapes and diagonal lines allow the eye to move around within an image.
Combinations of Elements
We have noted that a single element is all that is needed. You will probably never have an image with all 5 of the above elements. Matter of fact, if you did, the image would probably be confusing to the eye. However, in some of the images above, you may see a secondary element that also helps build the image. Below is another example of combining elements.
Many camera owners are ‘picture takes’ who take ‘snapshots’. this is fine if all you wish to do is to document an event. However, it is just as easy for a camera owner to create images that are ‘wall hangers’, images that everyone wants a copy of and that you will want to frame. To transition from picture taker to photographer is as easy as understanding a few elements to consider while looking through the viewfinder of your camera. If you can master the above elements above, you will begin to shoot winning compositions.