Stay Composed, Part 1

Outdoor Photography

I begin this week’s tip with a definition:

Composure – The state or feeling of being calm and in control of oneself.

To create a good composition, it’s beneficial to remain calm and composed when the light, animal, wind, water flow, etc., all fall into place. When everything is perfect, excitement overwhelms the brain. During these times, it’s essential we remain calm to apply the rules of good composition. Composure and composition have the same derivative and I love how they interconnect relative to photography—stay composed to create good compositions!

When my camera is to my eye and the photo gods bestow me perfect conditions, I experience a rush of adrenalin. I temper my impulsivity, focus on how to arrange the elements and concentrate on both technical and creative aspects. Proper shutter speeds and apertures must be applied. The placement of key components is imperative. Using the best ISO for the conditions and other factors must be considered.   

To attain a properly exposed and in focus picture in this day and age of computer-driven camera bodies is simplified. Yet, training yourself to know what constitutes good composition, learning how to evaluate light and being cognizant of what constitutes a good subject are what dictates whether the image is destined to be hung on a wall or relegated to the trash.

Composition can be defined as the intentional arrangement of elements seen in the viewfinder. It’s how secondary lines and shapes impact the main subject. Composition is how separate elements are juxtaposed to create a pleasing form. Be cognizant of textures, patterns, colors and tones that blend in harmony to form a unified mass. Where each component is placed is the responsibility of the photographer.

Regardless of the direction in which a lens is pointed, it sees everything. I often hear photographers say their photos on the LCD look nothing like what they saw when the shutter was pressed. The primary reason is a phenomenon called tunnel vision. When the eye is to the viewfinder, all too often the only thing the photographer sees is the primary subject. Peripheral areas go unnoticed. The photographer’s eye zeros in on the part he/she sees as important. But the lens takes in the entire scene. Distracting backgrounds, areas of bright spots, mergers of subjects and more are all recorded. Stay composed and look at the entire viewfinder! Here are some techniques to consider when composing your shots. 

Rule Of Thirds

The rule of thirds is an important rule of composition. Like all rules, it can be broken, but it must first be mastered to know when it can successfully be broken. This rule was created by the classical painters of long ago. It states that a center of interest has more impact when placed a third of the way from either the side of the frame or a third from the top or bottom. Envision a rectangular tic-tac-toe board placed in the viewfinder. The point at which the lines intersect become “points of dominance.” (See sidebar below.) Strategically place the center of interest at one of these power points and a more intriguing composition is created. If it’s placed in the center of a photograph, the result is often static or mundane.

When the rule of thirds is used in composition, the eye flows through the photograph rather than jumps from one element to another. The rule of thirds can be used with single or multiple subjects. When a single center of interest is placed at a point of dominance or when multiple centers are positioned in this way, the potential to create a pleasing composition greatly increases.

To really see how the rule of thirds impacts a composition, make two pictures of the same subject; one in which it’s placed dead center and another where it’s placed in one of the areas of thirds. Compare the two and see which one works better and then analyze why. As you use the rule of thirds more often, it will become second nature and your compositions will improve.

Create Depth

Depth in a photograph is conveyed by creating a spatial relationship between foreground and background elements where those nearest the lens are emphasized and the rest of the composition recedes into the distance. The foreground object can be exaggerated in its size to make it a dominant feature. Simultaneously, the viewer is led through succeeding layers in the rest of the photo. This technique is commonly used in landscape photography to create a three-dimensional feel of depth.

To produce this effect, wide-angle lenses are used because of their inherent ability to produce more depth of field. Find a good scene that has a strong foreground element. Don’t be hesitant to get up close and personal with it. Compose the picture so the foreground element is exaggerated and the rest of the composition recedes into the distance.

To achieve maximum depth of field, stop the lens down to its smallest aperture and focus the lens about one third of the way into the picture. This mimics what’s referred to as hyperfocal focusing, a technique photographers use to maximize depth of field. Though all the elements in the viewfinder may not look sharp, take it anyway. Due to the physics of a lens, the end result should be sharp throughout depending on the focal length—the wider the lens, the more depth of field. The use of a tripod is essential in that corresponding shutter speeds to achieve proper exposure will be slow.

Balance And Viewpoint

Symmetry and tension work hand in hand to create balance. When key pieces are equalized by others, a sense of harmony either on the left and right or top and bottom exists. Ironically, when elements are too balanced, the composition becomes static. To create visual impact, tension has its benefits.

One way tension is created is with contrasting color. They could be opposites on the color wheel, strong primaries juxtaposed with soft and subdued pastels or large areas of darkness offset by light tones. Tension is also created by combining asymmetrical subjects and/or opposites that work together to create a balance. Themes that come to mind are big and little, old and new, round and triangular, etc.

In regard to the rule of thirds, tension can be created in a horizontal when one subject is placed in the upper right while another is placed in the lower left. To add further intrigue, recompose the image so a third subject is added to another point of dominance. This concept works equally as well with vertical subjects. Subjects triangulate and create balance.

Before I walk away from any scene, I view it from all angles. I walk to the left and right and move closer and farther away. I also look at it both vertically and horizontally. Exhaust all possibilities! I analyze the scene through the viewfinder and begin to fine-tune the composition. I may raise or lower the tripod to create something more dynamic. I look for distracting elements and shift to the right or left to eliminate them.

Every day, people view the world at eye level from a standing position. When most photos are made, the camera is pointed down at smaller objects and upwards at taller ones. Compositionally, pictures made from these angles are mundane because of this common viewpoint. To make a photograph more engaging, get down low or get elevated. I’ve never been too proud to lay on my belly to photograph a turtle or too scared to climb a ladder to get images of nesting robins. Sometimes, just a small shift in one direction or another drastically improves the composition.

Another thought about viewpoint to keep in mind relates to power. When a subject is photographed from a high viewpoint, it implies the photographer is superior. The subject is inferred to have a diminished quality. Think of the expression, “Don’t look down on me.” The opposite is true for subjects shot from a low angle. Power, strength and dominance are inferred as the subject seems to tower above the photographer. When photographed at eye level, everyone is on even par.

Format 

When you have some time to spare, go back through all your pictures and count how many are verticals. If the answer comes out to less than 30 percent, you need to broaden your compositional horizons—or should I say “verticalize” them. True, a camera is designed to be held horizontally, but that doesn’t mean you move farther away from the Empire State Building to shoot it horizontally to include the entire structure. Move closer to it and turn the camera vertically to create an image with greater impact.

Before you make a photo, study the lines of the subject. Are they primarily horizontal or vertical? In addition, study the flow of elements. Do they seem to go across the photo or up and down? If the analysis determines an up and down flow, use the camera in a vertical format. If the analysis is horizontal, hold the camera as such.

With most subjects, it’s easy to determine whether a vertical or horizontal format is the way to go. Yet some lend themselves to both. To make them both work, a change of lens or a shift in camera position to the left or right is often necessary. As much as possible, I try to shoot both formats and evaluate which form I like better when I do my edit. Challenge yourself and photograph every subject vertically and horizontally. Get a feel for how the composition needs to be modified to accommodate either format.


Stay Composed—Do’s And Don’ts 

Do’s—Apply These Concepts 

  • Scrutinize the entire viewfinder.
  • Incorporate the Rule of Thirds.
  • Exhaust all possibilities.
  • Foreground to Background sharpness.
  • Use leading lines to lead the eye.
  • Keep the composition simple.
  • Use color to your advantage.
  • Simple backgrounds are the best.

Don’ts—Avoid These Pitfalls

  • Don’t cut off important parts.
  • Don’t always bull’s eye the subject.
  • Don’t lock yourself into a given format.
  • Don’t ignore the working aperture.
  • Don’t lead the viewer out of the photo.
  • Don’t create a busy photo.
  • Don’t include colors that clash.
  • Don’t include clutter in the background. 

Rule Of Thirds Grid As A Guideline

Place subjects near the blue dots:

Horizontals

Verticals

To learn more about this subject, join me on one of my photo safaris to Tanzania. Please visit www.russburdenphotography.com to get more information.

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