Seven Tips for Better Composition
Various combinations of compositional ideas come together in a single image. Which ones can you identify?
By Donald Tipton
Have you ever looked at two images of the same subject and wondered why one image just seemed to grab you but the other did not? Sometimes it’s the lighting or the technical precision of the shot, but most often, the reason an image speaks to you is artful composition. The way in which the elements of an image are arranged within the frame can make all the difference in the world between a so-so shot and a portfolio piece.
In this article we’ll cover seven techniques I use for better composition, but they should only be considered as suggestions. Lighting and exposure are the science of photography; composition is the art. You should feel free to compose your images any way you like. But at the same time, these guidelines exist because they create compositions most people find attractive. In other words, you need to find a balance between “the rules” and your own creativity.
Tip # 1: Makes Use of Geometric Shapes
We respond to geometric shapes in nature, whether we realize it or not. Consider the half circles of brain coral or the triangles created by a shipwreck. Try looking at some images that you like and make a conscious effort to find the geometric shapes within them. Circles, ellipses, triangles, spheres, rectangles and combinations of geometric shapes exist everywhere you look, even underwater. You just have to look for them. And once you know how to see them underwater, you’ll know how to put them in the frame.
Tip # 2: Try Different Points of View
By moving your camera position a few feet to the left, right, up or down, you can have an profound effect on the composition of your image. Consider the humble sea fan. As you swim around it, the fan’s profile in your viewfinder changes dramatically. Notice how the sunlight changes, too. If it’s early or late enough in the day, the sea fan may be back-lit, side-lit or front–lit. As you change your camera position, you are changing your perspective on your subject, the lighting and the background, giving you more elements to creatively frame. One of my favorite tricks is to get as low as possible to a subject and shoot up. The water’s surface makes a wonderful background that you don’t even need to light.
Tip # 3: Consider the Rule of Thirds
The “rule of thirds” is a compositional trick in which you divide an image into three, equal vertical and three equal horizontal sections. Horizons, surface water or anything occupying a large horizontal area, should be placed on one of the imaginary horizontal lines. In the same way, anything occupying a large vertical area should be placed on one of the vertical lines. Of course this is just a suggestion and following the rule of thirds too literally can produce contrived, boring images. The primary benefit of following the rule of thirds is that stops you from automatically placing subjects dead center in the frame. The reason you never (well, almost never) want to place verticals or horizontals in the middle of the image it that is gives a sense of rigidity or immovability. In practice, I find it considerably more interesting to fudge things just a bit and place verticals and horizontals in a less predictable place. I like to place subjects at the point where the imaginary horizontal and vertical lines intersect. This off-center composition gives a sense of motion. A photograph should always seem to be in motion or give the impression of motion. This is one of the primary goals of composition.
Tip # 4: Diagonals Are Dynamic
the diagonal created by the baby whale seems to imply it’s forward motion
Another way to imply a sense of movement within an image is with the use of diagonals. The eye naturally follows the course of the diagonal giving the impression of movement within the image. You can create a very strong feeling of movement with the use of multiple diagonals that converge. This point of convergence within the image is where the eye will finally come to rest. It is here that the viewer has been visually transported by your composition. By creating this sense of motion, you allow the view to travel within your picture, helping them to share in your experience.
Tip # 5: Make Use of Patterns and Textures
the world is full of textures, sometimes it requires slowing down and looking close to find it
As with geometric shapes, patterns also occur in nature. We only need to look around to discover them. Think about the repetitive pattern in coral polyps, the eyes in a tightly packed school of fish or the bright patches of sunlight playing on a shallow seafloor. Patterns are interesting in themselves, but when you break the pattern with just one differing element, then all the attention is drawn to that single element. It is a way of manipulating the viewer. We respond visually to patterns. They give us a sense of order, structure and stability. Patterns are more dynamic and seem to have a sense of motion when the repeated pattern does not terminate within the image but continues out of the frame.
Everything has texture and just like all the other elements in composition, we must learn to see the texture around us. We considered various aspects of underwater lighting in my first article for Seaduction.com, “Go Wide: Five Tips for Shooting Shipwrecks.” In that article, I mentioned that side-lighting reveals texture by creating shadows from surface features. Use your lighting to emphasize this texture and then use the texture as a component of your composition. Texture and pattern are great compositional elements to use in conjunction with one another as texture often reveals the repetition in pattern and patterns frequently have very interesting, repeating textures. Another option: Make texture itself the subject of your image.
Tip # 6: Create a Sense of Depth
"creating layers in your images sometimes requires some planning, find a spot in the reef that will afford your foreground, midground and background interests"
Since photography is limited to two dimensions we need to imply a third dimension, that is, imply a sense of depth. We do this by having a foreground, a mid-ground and a background. This allows the viewer to visually move into the image and relate to various compositional elements. Resist the urge to always make the foreground prominent. Sometimes there is a more interesting shot to be had if the area of principle interest is in the mid-ground or even the background. Play with this technique. It can be used with everything from wide angle to macro, but the goal is always the same -- create a visual sense of depth.
Tip # 7: Identify Your Subject
here the dolphin is prominent with minimal background
in this image the subject is an early morning sunrise with a dolphin in the foreground
I have saved the most significant tip for last. Let this one sink in, because of all the tips, it’s the one that will yield the best results in the shortest amount of time. When asked to critique the portfolios of frustrated photographers, I frequently find myself asking one question over and over: “What was your subject?” Often, there will be lots of very interesting things going on in the image area, but all of these items are in competition for the viewer’s attention. The subject is the ONE thing that you are photographing and it should be apparent at first glance. Of course, it’s great to have other elements in the image, but they must be minimized and are best used to provide context for the subject. There is so much cool stuff going on underwater that it may be difficult to select just one subject. But that’s the drill and I promise you that a little discipline will make for stronger images. The best way to select a single subject is to get close -- and then get closer. (Sound familiar? See: Go Wide: Part 2). What if there are two sea lions fighting underwater? Then, two sea lions are your subject. What if there are 37 Atlantic spotted dolphins right in front of you? You guessed it: a pod of 37 dolphins is your subject. Although in this case, I would also try to make one dolphin prominent, that is closer to the viewer, if possible.
Putting it All Together
Rarely, if ever, will you use all seven of these tips to capture a single image, but # 7 -- Idenitfy your subject – is the one tip you should keep in mind for every single shot.[/private_Supporting]
Now: Go walk on the wild side. Enjoy the adventure as you learn how to see the world around you. And as always, I love to hear from you. Please feel free to comment about this article below or pop over to the Seaduction Forums to share ideas for future columns or start a whole new topic.