As photographers, we all know that composition of your photos is important. I’m going to venture out and courageously say that composition is probably the single most important factor involved in creating a great photo. For new photographers, learning camera functions and SLR photography is naturally top of mind (and it is important), but we need to also remember that composition is always king. One of the things I notice about learning photographers is something that I was guilty of myself when first starting out (and occasionally to this day); that is – concerning composition.
If there’s one big takeaway from this entire post, here it is: Great photographs tell a story. Understanding how to use your gear gives you that ability, but the camera won’t tell a story nor evoke emotion from your viewers – that’s your job. The power in all art comes from the artist.
Of course, there are many factors to consider when shooting a photograph, especially when learning to shoot with a DSLR. For many, the thought process goes something like this:
Set and/or check white-balance settings > set camera to manual mode > check metering mode > point camera at subject > set aperture and shutter speed > compose shot > fire!
That’s how I did things when I was first getting started, it seemed right at the time. The problem with this is that most of your shots can end up looking like uninteresting snapshots which have no lasting viewing value. Until I learned that photography is more about seeing creatively and telling a story, that’s when my photos improved drastically. So how exactly do you tell a story through the instantaneous capture of a moment? Through primary emphasis on composition.
Improving Composition Before You Even Shoot
Yes, improving your composition is the one thing that will instantly help you to make dramatically stronger photographs that speak, but that’s easy to say and much more difficult to do. Thankfully, there is an easy way to improve your composition. The key is learning how to shoot with intention. Here’s what I mean…
While you want to make sure your creative juices are flowing strongly, by asking yourself a few quick questions prior to shooting you will give yourself an advantage over the scene before you. Like most new techniques, this takes some practice. You may find that it slightly numbs your creativity in the beginning, but as you learn to ask yourself a few simple questions mentally, they will start to become second nature. When you first learned to ride a bike, there were so many things to consider to stay upright, including reminding yourself to keep your head up! Once you learned how and practiced riding, you didn’t even have to think about the little things anymore, and the same goes for learning photographic composition. Learn these techniques, and your composition will improve even before you put your camera to your eye.
Remember that photography is a communicative art. Our photos are meant to communicate something to the viewer, and the most interesting photos provoke our viewers’ thought processes. Ask yourself these questions before taking your next photo and you’ll find a dramatic improvement in your photos as well as some hints as to what camera settings are most appropriate:
1: What or Who is the main subject of this photo?
If your subject is a person or people, what are they doing that is important to the scene? Remember, you are going to attempt to tell the story of the moment with your photo. Is the person’s expression the most important factor in this story? Or perhaps it is their placement in the scene as a whole? If you are shooting an object, why is it important and what does it represent? Would a different shooting angle help to better represent the subject’s purpose in the scene? Once you start to figure out the answers to these questions, you will find that you draw more importance to the subject and will capture it more effectively. Is the subject of your photo moving or in action? If motion (or stopping motion) is important to the subject in the photo, that’s a good indication of what camera mode you could be using. Though manual mode offers the most flexibility and control over your shots, it is not always the best or most necessary shooting mode to use, especially when you need to shoot a photo quickly. If motion/action is important to your subject, consider shooting in Shutter Priority Mode.
This is one of the most commonly overlooked aspects of photographic composition. It may sound a bit silly, but remember that the background is… the background, not the main subject. While backgrounds may or may not hold importance to the overall scene, your story is about the subject, and the background is secondary. So, is the background important in relation to the main subject of your photo? Whether it is or not, you will want to consider the angle you are shooting from so that it can be featured appropriately without being a distraction to the main subject. Discovering the answer to this question can also help you decide if shooting in Aperture Priority Mode may work best. You will have control over the depth of field, either keeping your background in focus, or blurring it out completely in relation to your main subject.
3: Where is the light?
Since you are the artist and your camera is your tool, it is important to remember that all your camera does is capture the light which enters it. Photography is all about capturing light, and doing it effectively. Be aware of the angle of the light you are working with, and if shadows are present or not. You may need to employ the use of a flash to “fill in” shadow areas if they appear distracting in your photo. Also, some subjects (landscapes especially) can look dramatically different depending on the position of the light. If you are shooting outdoors and sunlight is your main source of light, consider the position of your subject as well as the time of day you are shooting. While you can’t change the position of the sun, you can change the time of day which you elect to shoot your scene, or you can manipulate the light through the use of flashes and reflectors. Light is important, so make sure it is flattering to your main subject! By considering the lighting and how it affects your subject, this can also help you determine which metering mode is best for you. Evaluative metering takes into consideration the lighting of the whole scene, where as spot or center-weighted metering measures the light in the center of your photo (which you can use to determine the best settings based on your subject).
4: Do I have time to compose the subject?
Are you shooting a subject which you are able to pose or position in a certain way? If so, you can take a moment to figure out the best position for your subject based on the answers to the previous questions. If you have no control over the positioning of your subject (or if it is moving), you still have control over yourself! Find the best vantage point possible based on the type of lens you are shooting with (wide angle or zoom) and shoot your photos from that location.
5: What is the mood/atmosphere of the moment?
This is actually a two-part question. Ask yourself: What is the mood of the moment and what is the mood am I trying to create? Which is the more important of the two? If the two are synchronous then you have the recipe for a brilliant photo. If the mood or atmosphere of your scene is not the vision you want to create, it can be a tough choice in deciding what to do next. It is much more difficult to create a mood that is not present in an image, since you are altering the true story of the subject. This is more of an artistic decision and it is important to remember that manipulating the mood of your main subject can also require a lot of time spent in post processing.
While there are plenty of questions to explore in realizing your photographic vision, I have found these to be the most important and effective in my own work as a photographer. The answers should come to you quickly based on your intentions and given scenes, but being aware of them puts you in the driver’s seat for controlling your composition. Once you have that figured out, the camera settings are secondary and they too become second nature as you gain experience. Through asking yourself some basic questions you uncover a true meaning behind each photo and create a stronger connection with your viewer. I hope these tips can help you as they have helped me. Keep practicing, and happy photographing!
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