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Take Your Images from “Meh” to “Wowza” With These Basic Compositional Skills

Bikes at Sunset

Composition and the skills related to creating compelling composition in photographs are something photographers spend a lifetime honing and improving. It is composition that plays a large part in setting one’s own style or signature ‘look’ in photographs and makes an image go from a snapshot to a thought provoking experience. You can spend years journaling, reading and studying composition. But, overall, a photograph with good composition has four basic elements all working together:

  • A clearly defined subject and background
  • Balance
  • A point of view
  • Simplicity

To begin, let’s look an amateur photo I took some years ago. At the time, I thought I was taking a great image. But when we evaluate it according to the standards of composition, it turns out to be nothing more than a mediocre snapshot. Why is this? First, there is no clear subject and background. One could argue that the trees are the subject, or that the building is the subject. Is it the red or green parts of the building?

Busy Photo Example

Example of Busy Composition

For the viewer, the question arises, “What am I supposed to be looking at?” And if this happens, your image has failed. Second, the image is not balanced. It is just one big blob of “stuff” going on. There is virtually no negative space, and no breathing room for the eyes. It’s busy and unfocused. Third, while this image has a point of view (that if a tourist looking upward from the street), it is not an unusual or compelling point of view. It is that which any of us see most of the time on any given day. Had I climbed to the rooftop across the street, or climbed one of the trees and taken a photograph, the point of view would at least be different. Finally, as we have said, this image is not simple. It’s crazy busy.
With a poorly composed photograph as a backdrop, let’s look at a much better one. And as we go through it, I will bring in a couple of other elements that you can be thinking about as you start to intentionally compose your own images. Looking at this image there is no question that the bicycles are the subject and that the sunset is the background. So, right off the bat, this second image is a million times better than the first. Just this simple “detail” is powerful. (This is why sunset images are so popular as nature does a lot of the composing for you!).

Bikes at Sunset

Family fun bikes at sunset.

An additional element that adds interest to the subject is that the bicycles are at opposite angles to one another. The one on the left leads the eye to the darker parts of the image, and the one on the right leads to the brighter parts. By capturing the bikes like this, the eye travels around the image in a natural way. In the Paris image, the eye does not “travel” at all. Instead it rests in one spot like a stunned starfish on the beach; lost and confused.

The sunset image is balanced in at least 2 ways: (1) by the use of light and dark tones and (2) by another object (the rock formation) to the right. The darker tones at the bottom of the image add weight and serve to steady the image. And of you look carefully, you will notice that some vignetting has either been applied around the edges in post-production, or as a result of the lens (some lenses have a bit of a fall off that can be a good thing). The small peninsula to the right that is just a smidge higher than the bike wheels offers balance so that the ‘weight’ of the bikes does not overpower the image. Although, even if this image did not have the rocks, but instead continued on with negative space, it still would work as a well composed image because the image is further balanced by tonal contrast.

The point of view of this image is subtlety different. It is not exactly from the bikes’ perspective, but it is not from the usual height of your average adult either. It looks like the photographer either knelt down or placed the camera on a tripod about 3-4 feet high. The result is a point of view that not commonly seen. This makes the viewer spend more ‘time’ on the image and makes the photograph more interesting. The other strong element in this image is that it has a clear foreground, middle ground (the ocean) and background (the horizon). Landscape images tend to offer this for you naturally, but this can be created by creative application of aperture, particularly with a prime lens.

The simplicity of this sunset image is obvious; two bikes overlooking the beach. With not much else going on, it allows the mind of the viewer to begin to create a story for the image. Why are the bikes there? Whose are they? And so on. The large sky is essentially good use of negative space. Negative space is one of those “issues” in photography. Some say not to have too much, others have mostly negative space in their images. But an image, like the Paris one above, with no negative space is unlikely to work.

Making images that contain strong compositional elements is mostly a matter of awareness. Take your time and try to address these 4 basics, and you will see a major improvement in your images.

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