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Composing better photos: Why expensive cameras aren’t enough

October 11th, 2010 No Comments

Regular readers of camera catalogues could be forgiven for thinking that the secret to improving your photography is to buy a bigger or better camera. However, the well-known photographer Ansel Adams often said to students, “You don’t take a good photograph, you make a good photograph.” This remains true even in the era of automated photography and digital cameras.

Capturing that perfect image takes more than the press of a button, and even if it did, that isn’t what true photography is about. There is tremendous satisfaction in capturing an image through foresight and planning, ‘visualisation’, as Ansel Adams called it. When you take a concept for an image and bring it to fruition it is an incredibly rewarding feeling.

Looking at a photograph

Many of us can view a photograph and make an immediate assessment about its artistic qualities. We are able to do this subconsciously, our brain measuring it against a predetermined list of factors. In this article, we are going to try and identify two of those factors and provide some simple hints for using them in your photography.

Composition

Composing a image involves a direct attempt to arrange the different parts of the photograph into a balanced and aesthetically pleasing arrangement. At its most basic level it also includes checking to see that all the important parts of your subject (like arms and legs!) are completely within the photographic frame.

There are many general formulas for composition that have been established (for a good discussion see:http://photoinf.com/General/Geoff_Lawrence/Composition.html) However, for our purposes we are going to focus on the way we can use space (and in particular the lack of space) to achieve better composition.

In looking at photographs of objects in motion we often subconsciously expect them to continue in the same direction. If our picture has captured the object just before it leaves the picture’s ‘frame’, the viewers eye is sharply blocked. By leaving an amount of space in front of the moving subject, we can create something that seems more natural and compositionally correct. This same rule applies where our photographic subject is looking at a point off camera. Our composition should allow enough space to allow our eye to follow the direction of their gaze.

Empty space can be used in dramatic and powerful ways. Many photographic manuals will tell you to arrange your photograph to focus on a single subject. However, a composition that includes empty space can often convey strong feelings of loneliness or freedom. The sheer simplicity of a longely figure standing on an isolated headland could not be communicated if there were more detail or visual clutter in our frame.

Symmetry

People who are beginning to explore artistic photography, will often capture the image of something reflected in still water. These photographs are often beautifully composed. In the same way, we will usually make sure that family portraits are symmetrical, because this kind of composition seems formal and dignified. However, breaking the rules of symmetry can create some of the most powerful photographs.

One of the most fundamental photographic techniques is the ‘rule of thirds’ which suggests that the subject of an image should be placed 1/3 of the way from the edge of frame. This kind of off-centre composition seems more natural and aesthetically pleasing. To see this rule illustrated see: http://www.photozone.de/4Technique/compose/third.htm

While a random placement of images in the photographic frame is not encouraged, strategically using asymmetry is something to explore. If the main elements of our picture are unbalanced, we force the viewer to reconsider what they think is happening in the frame.

A final word

While there are many more techniques to be explored as part of photography, understanding these simple rules can be an important part of developing your skills. An intuitive knowledge of these principles allows you to rapidly put them into practice when you are presented with the perfect photographic moment.

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