Wednesday, 21 September 2011

One rule and ten guidelines

Everyone has their opinion on what elements a good photo contains... when you enter a competition, judges will look for things the average person will not even think to look for. I will never forget hearing feedback on an image I entered into a competition; there was a twig hanging into a silky stream of water flow below a waterfall backdrop and it was distracting. I thought WTF, I didn’t even see that... how anal retentive is this guy?

I can also remember a time when someone contacted me to purchase an image of mine from flickr. This was one of those photos that I posted of a house on an island, house was centered, followed no conventional rules, yet they wanted it to give as a gift. Who was I to argue, I knew it wasn’t my best work, but this person was willing to pay good money for an 11x14 print.

For the newer photographer trying to get a grasp on what makes a quality photo it can be confusing and frustrating. If you’re serious about photography and you want to learn more, you have two choices. One, return to school and take college courses. Start at the basics and get the technical side of being a photographer. Or two, you become a student of the successful photographers before us. There is enough information on the web, there are professionals that run workshops and local photographic clubs where you can meet and learn from everything the club would offer.

I took the latter method. I read, I watched, I tried, I asked questions, went out with professionals, put myself out there and constantly asked for feedback regardless of how hard it was to hear the constructive criticism at different points. Now, after taking more than 30,000 digital images I have the confidence to teach others, write articles and hang my images in galleries.

The following are the eleven things that always stay with me, yes eleven... I can’t refine it to ten.

These are things I heard, I tried and I now run through my mind when I stand behind the camera ready to take a photo.

The Rules of Photography

It may sound like a cliché, but the most important rule in photography is that there are no rules. Every situation is different and you are the one taking the photograph. Interpret the scene in your own style. If you and I were standing beside each other, and unless you were mentored by me, our final photographs would look very different.

There are however, a number of proven compositional guidelines which should be considered and are applicable to almost any photographic situation.

These guidelines will help you take more compelling photographs, lending them a natural balance, drawing attention to the important parts of the scene, or leading the viewer's eye through the image.

Once you are familiar with these composition guidelines, you'll be surprised at just how universal most of them are. You'll spot them simply walking down the street, and you'll understand why it easy to see why some photos "work" while others feel like simple holiday snapshots.

Rule of Thirds

Imagine that your image is divided into 9 equal segments by 2 vertical and 2 horizontal lines. Think of it like setting up a game of X’s and O’s. The rule of thirds tells us that you should position the most important elements in your scene along these vertical or horizontal lines, better yet, at the points where they intersect.

Doing so will add balance and interest to your photo. To help you out, some cameras even offer an option to superimpose a rule of thirds grid over the LCD screen, making it even easier to use. If your camera has this, use it for awhile... after some time it becomes second nature.

I put the focal point off to the right and aligned the subject along the right vertical line and the bottom horizontal lines of the grid.
Vancouver Inukshuk

Balancing the Elements in the Photograph

Placing your main subject off-centre, as with the rule of thirds, creates a more interesting photo, but it can leave a void in the other side of the scene can make the photo feel empty. You should balance the "weight" of your subject by including another object of lesser importance to fill the space. The main subject could possibly be larger, or the main subject might be the subject more in focus than the other.

I placed the stainless steel bean off to the left side and balanced the photo with the building to the rear in the right hand side of the photo.
Chicago Bean

Symmetry and Patterns

Everywhere we look we are surrounded by symmetry and patterns. They can be either natural or manmade, and they can make for very a eye-catching compositions. This is especially true in situations where they are not expected.

If you want to create a great effect with symmetry and patterns use them is to break the symmetry or pattern in some way. This introduces a focal point to the scene and increases interest of any image.

I used an entire image of one pattern. The pattern reaches the four corners of this image, but I broke the symmetry by injecting a colour that grabs the viewer’s attention.
Christmas Ornaments

Leading Lines

When we look at a photo our eye is naturally drawn to lines. By thinking about how you place lines in your composition, you can affect the way a person may view the image, pulling us into the picture, towards the subject, or on a journey "through" the scene. The decision is ultimately yours. Remember that there are many different types of line - straight, diagonal, bending, etc... – any will work if applied to the right scene.

I used the pier along the left of the image, and the row of stumps to create lead lines to take the viewer into the photograph.
Fifty Point Pier


Before you photograph any subject, stop and take time to think about where you will shoot it from. Our viewpoint has a massive impact on the composition of a photo. Rather than just shooting from eye level, consider photographing from high above, down at ground level, from the side, from the back, from a long way away, from very close up, and so on.

My advice to you is to try this. The next time you are going to photograph a scene, think, “from above, from below, close up, far away”... then shoot the scene from all the different vantage points. When you get home, look at them and see the difference the viewpoint of a photo makes.

I could have taken this photo standing up and centered the house, but i wanted the ground to lead the viewer up to the house. I also wanted the sky in the image as well. So, I used a wide angle lens and laid on the ground to get this image.
Talbot Trail Home

How many times have you taken what you thought would be a great shot of a subject, only to find that the image wasn’t as good as you thought because the background was distracting? Go on, you can admit it, no ones around to hear you agree. Hey, I have done it many times... i was so focused on a subject that i forgot to pay attention to the background.

This sort of goes back to the viewpoint as well... taking the background into consideration when choosing a viewpoint is usually something i take into consideration.

The human eye is excellent at distinguishing between different elements in a scene, whereas a camera has a tendency to flatten the foreground and background, and this can often ruin an otherwise great photo. We see in 3D and a camera does not...

Thankfully this problem is usually easy to overcome at the time of shooting - look around for a plain and unobtrusive background and compose your shot so that it doesn't distract or detract from the subject. If you are photographing a stationary object like a flower, a person, a hummingbird feeder, throw up a solid colour backdrop. You might feel silly, but your image will end up being head and shoulders better than someone who didn’t have the foresight to think about this.

I used a black background to keep the focal point on the flower in this image
Velvet Petals


Because photography is a two-dimensional medium, we have to choose our composition carefully to convey the sense of depth that was present in the actual scene. You can create depth in a photo by including objects in the foreground, middle ground and background. Another useful composition technique is overlapping, where you deliberately partially obscure one object with another. The human eye naturally recognizes these layers and mentally separates them out, creating an image with more depth.

Another way is using the depth of field that different aperture settings can create an open aperture of f/5.6 to f/8.0 will give the photo much more natural depth than an f/20. The smaller aperture setting, f/20 will compress the image and keep the majority of the final photo in focus.

I used the stream and light to help bring the image together. I also included the foreground, middle ground and a background in this image to convey depth and create interest.
The Farm

The world is full of objects which make perfect natural frames. As a photographer we can use trees, archways and holes. By placing these around the edge of the composition you help to isolate the main subject from the outside world. The result is a more focused image which draws your eye naturally to the main point of interest.

I used an interesting frame, a clock, to frame in the Sacre Coeur in the background. The Pope was there giving a mass and I wanted an interesting image of the church.
Paris Trip

Often a photo will lack impact because the main subject is so small it becomes lost among the clutter of its surroundings. By cropping tight around the subject you eliminate the background "noise", ensuring the subject gets the viewer's undivided attention.

You can do this in the camera, or in post processing. My preference is to maximize the pixels of the image and crop in the camera. You can adjust in post processing, but you start with a better composed image versus an image that you might not be able to work with.

I wanted to focus on the facial expression and get the guitar in the image, but i did not want all the clutter of bystanders in the image. So, I cropped in the camera to just focus on his eyes and expression.
Playing for his Food

Now that most of us are shooting with a digital camera we no longer have to worry about the costs of film processing or running out of rolls of film. I can remember a time when i would have a bag of film when i was taking photos of my baby brother laying on blanket, just to make sure I didn’t run out. But now, digital memory cards have the capability of holding 500 to 1000 RAW images. That would have been a lot of drool photos of my baby brother some 30 some years ago.

As a result of the digital age, experimenting with our photos' composition has become a real possibility; we can fire off numerous shots and delete the unwanted ones later at absolutely no extra cost. Take advantage of this fact and experiment with your composition - you never know whether an idea will work until you try it.

As I mentioned earlier, composition in photography is far from an exact science, and as a result all of the "guidelines" above should be taken with a grain of salt. If they don't work for a particular scene, ignore them. But they can often prove to be spot on, and are worth at least considering whenever you are out taking photos.

Someone once said to me, “it’s the 6 inches behind the camera that has the greatest effect on your photography”... so learn, exercise the brain muscle, try different techniques, but most of all, have fun.

Happy shooting!