Composition isn’t just how you choose to frame a shot. It’s the process of arranging the elements in a photo so that the viewer can more easily understand your image. Rather than memorise a list of composition tricks – such as the Rule of Thirds – think about composition as the process of making your subject clearer and your image less complicated. No matter what composition rules you follow, clarity of subject should always be your main goal.
Pick a subject
This is the most important composition concept to remember: your image must have a subject, and the subject must be obvious to the viewer. Getting a clear subject and background is the most common problem for beginners.
For example, you might say of the top image below: “This picture has a subject. It’s my friend Hans.” But the picture also has a beach, some other people, and the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the greatest engineering feats of all time. Any of those are worthy of being the subject. As a photographer, you have to choose whether your subject is going to be the person, or the bridge – you can’t have both.
The recomposed shot at the bottom of the page is framed so that Hans is clearly the subject. We’ve still got the bridge in the image and a general sense of the place, but more importantly, we have a very clear subject and background.
Another reason the background is not distracting is that it has been thrown out of focus. A shallow depth of field is a great tool for separating your subject from its surroundings.
For more information see ‘How to use depth of field to take better pictures,’ at www.macworld.com/7047.
Be aware of balance
As you organise the components of a shot, keep an eye on the balance of your image. Different things in a photo have a different compositional weight and you need to balance them.
You don’t just have to balance an image in terms of people and objects; light and shadow can also work to create balance. For example, think of the kind of image that is half in shadows and half in bright light.
It’s fine to let shadows fall into total blackness. We don’t necessarily need to see all the details there. The goal is to reduce clutter and simplify, so if letting portions of the image fall into darkness helps simplify your image, then work with it.
The trickiest part of getting a good photo isn’t fitting what you want in the frame, but rather keeping what you don’t want out of the frame. In photography, less is almost always more. Before you shoot, trace your eyes around the edge of the frame and ask yourself if you really need to see everything that’s there.
If you’re unsure of how close you want a final image to be, you can do the cropping once you upload the image to your computer. Composition doesn’t just happen while you’re shooting. By using the crop tool in your photo editor, you can reframe your shot later, effectively recomposing it. Through cropping, you can eliminate clutter, or rebalance your image. Sometimes you shoot with the idea of cropping later, because you can’t get the shape you want in-frame – for example, if you want a wide landscape.
But whenever possible, you should always try to compose correctly in-camera – if you have to crop later, you’ll be throwing away pixels, and therefore reducing your maximum print size.