Stay Composed, Part 2

Outdoor Photography

In part 1, we covered some techniques to consider when composing your shots. Review those tips before continuing on with the final part of this two-part series. 

Photography is an art form, yet as photographers, we’re at a great disadvantage.  A painter can create his own dramatic light, an impending storm, a howling wolf upon a rocky precipice or a bald eagle swooping from the water with trout held firmly in its talons.  A photographer, on the other hand, starts with a canvas that’s already painted, has to eliminate distractions and hopefully encounters dramatic moments. A photographer has to find serenity amongst chaos and confusion. He or she has to wait for quintessential events to unfold and be lucky enough that they do. So how does a photographer find pleasing compositions within all this complexity?

In a photo, the primary subject is the first element that attracts the viewer’s attention. Ideally, the supporting details lead the viewer around the photo while at the same time enhance the center of interest. If the subordinate details work in harmony with the main subject, the picture shows balance and is deemed successful. A poorly composed photo confuses the viewer and loses his interest.

Good composition starts with choosing a good subject. The subject should inspire the photographer. If the subject isn’t intriguing, chances are the photo will reflect this. What is it that provoked you to raise the camera to your eye? Was it a strong color, the shape or texture, an interesting face or was it emotional? The final composition should be dictated by the answers to these questions.

Once a captivating subject is chosen, selectively eliminate all distractions that impede the viewer from focusing on it. Decide what should be included and emphasize that aspect. Study the setting and decide if what you’ve seen with the naked eye is conveyed through the lens. As you continue to ask yourself questions about what attracted you to the subject, conclude whether or not you’ve gotten to the root of the attraction.

Persevere in your quest to eliminate undesirable elements. Move to the left, right, higher or lower until all is finely tuned. Deciding what to exclude is equally as important as knowing what to include. Study the entire viewfinder. Don’t get caught up in zeroing in on the main subject while disregarding what surrounds it. The sensor records everything in the viewfinder, be it wanted or not. Slow down and study the entire scene before you press the shutter.

Simplification

The U.S. national parks conjure up images of majesty and beauty in my mind. Millions of photos are made in them every year, yet only a few make it to print. Why is this so? How is it possible to make a bad photograph in the Grand Tetons, Yosemite, Glacier National Park or the Pacific Northwest?

A boring photo can be made from a grand landscape the same way an excellent photo can be made in an ordinary location. Simplification of the composition is a key factor. Humans are very selective in their vision. Try to not get wrapped up in the moment. We are guilty of tunnel vision and notice just what we view as the main subject. A camera, on the other hand, isn’t subjective.  It sees everything and records it as such. To create successful compositions, isolate the main subject and eliminate all distractions. Why photograph the entire harbor if it’s a single colorful boat that catches your attention?  Learn to be selective. Move in closer, change your position or, if possible, change your subjects to produce a cleaner image.

Lens choice plays a big part in simplifying photographs. Longer lenses bring subjects closer and compress perspective. Wide-angle lenses include a larger field of view. They record more of the scene and give greater separation between the elements. If simple cropping of the scene can improve its composition, use a longer lens to exclude the unwanted areas. If there’s a strong foreground that leads out to a dominant background, change over to a wide angle. Move in close to the foreground to give it emphasis.

Learn how to use perspective! Stand in one specific location and photograph it using as many lenses as you have. Get down to ground level with both a long and wide-angle lens and make images. Do the same from a kneeling position and then stand. Try the same with a smaller subject. To make good photos, use the same procedure one uses to get to Carnegie Hall: Practice, practice, practice.

Shapes, Lines And Textures

Hand in hand with simplification, a sure-fire way to lure a viewer’s attention is to emphasize shape, line, patterns and/or textures. When combined with strong sidelight, very powerful yet simple images can be created. Look for contrasts between light and dark areas created by the side lighting. Study the scene to see how curves play off each other or how they’re offset by straight or diagonal lines. In addition, note how different colors blend together to create patterns.

Lines play a strong role. Diagonal lines imply action and movement. They move the eye across the frame rather quickly. Zig-zag lines accomplish the same. Curved lines also have this effect, but the speed is slowed down due to a curve’s implied serenity. Horizontal lines symbolize peace, restfulness and tranquility. When you lay down to sleep, it’s in a horizontal position. Vertical lines evoke power and strength. Think about standing at attention or how an animal stands erect to ward off predators.

Use lines to lead the viewer’s eye to the main subject. Depending on your main subject, use horizontals, diagonals or verticals to harmonize with it. Don’t overlook the fact that interesting line patterns can be photos unto themselves.

good composition

Texture makes a viewer want to reach out and feel the image. It may convey a tactile sense of roughness, smoothness, be jagged, wet or parched. Sidelight enhances images of texture. It creates highlights and shadows that differentiate the high and low spots. This gives the viewer the impression of how the surface would feel if touched.

Framing For Good Compostion

The compositional technique of framing has a direct correlation to shape, line,and texture. Framing does exactly what the word implies. By tactfully placing sections of manmade or natural forms or shapes around the center of interest, a frame is formed. Items encompassed within the frame become the primary focal point. The frame the photographer creates can encircle the entire subject or could flow around parts of it.

The primary function of the frame is to draw attention to the subject. Yet framing is used for other purposes. Reasons that come to mind are to hide distracting elements in the foreground or to fill in areas that otherwise may lack interest. Framing can also be used to create depth within the image.

good composition

The frame a photographer chooses should have some connection to the center of interest. For instance, overcast skies lack interest. To divert the viewer’s eye away from bland gray clouds and simultaneously add interest to what otherwise would be lackluster, successful photographers use the space more wisely. Include low-hanging branches of trees to block the sky and add a frame around the main subject. The result is a stronger image.

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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