Photo Composition Tips

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Photo composition tips are everywhere. You usually get the same advice, too. Use the Rule of Thirds and Leading Lines. We’ve shared that info also, as it’s useful advice.

However, we’re sharing something a bit different this time. These are the photo composition tips and suggestions that no one ever really seems to talk about. The lessons below are things you mostly learn as you experiment, but just never talk about with other photographers. OK, maybe there’s one or two you talk about.

The idea is to share some ideas for photo compositions that go beyond the generic lessons of filling your frame with leading lines and third-sized bits of things.

How Do People View Photos?

There are a lot of studies about eye movement when people view photos and images. As photographers, we’re often told that your eye gets drawn first to the brightest thing in the image, and secondly to the sharpest thing in the image.

It turns out that there are bottom-up factors and top-down factors that play an immediate role in how we view a scene or photograph.

Bottom-up factors focus on sensory input, are data driven and occur in real time. Top-down factors relies upon prior experience and we interpret information using contextual clues.

What does that mean when someone views a photograph?

The first thing they’re doing is absorbing the sensory data of the image. Your eye gathers information about light, color and other factors and sends it on a one-way path to your visual cortex.

This is raw, evolutionary perception of what you see. You know what you see and accept the components in the image.

Top-down factors help us form our perceptions of what we see. We use context, concepts and ideas to understand specific information about the image.

Think of bottom-up as a general view while your mind then processes and reveals the specific details to you. It’s the top-down processing that allows us to pick up on patterns. It’s also where your previous experience may cause you to interpret a photo differently than when you first see it.

What Does All That Mean?

Our brain starts off with basic perceptions. Things like lines get processed first. The V1 center of the brain processes horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines and edges. A high density of lines (bottom-up processing) grabs our attention very quickly.

Stimulus from busy sensations grab our attention. Whether it’s from lines, contrast or color, that bottom-up processing gets your viewer’s immediate attention.

While those bottom-up sensations grab your attention, they don’t necessarily mesmerize the viewer. Something emotional that the viewer recognizes has a lasting impact.

You can use lines, color and contrast to get attention. However, the lasting impact of your photograph still needs an emotional context to keep the viewer’s attention and get them to feel something deeply about your photograph.

Grab them with graphical elements. Keep them with emotional ties.

How to Get Better Photo Compositions

There’s more than one way to improve your photo compositions. I’ve listed a few of my favorite techniques below. I don’t always know what composition will work best for me, which is why I try more than one technique to work the scene.

How to Get More Impact from Wide Angle Photos

One of the common tips for photo composition is to have a foreground, middle and background. Yet we don’t get told quite exactly how to make this happen.

One way is to shoot with a wide angle lens. Stand up, and aim slightly downward. That creates a visual sense of depth as the foreground starts at the bottom of your photograph and allows the viewer to move through the depth into the background.

This isn’t a replacement for having a subject in the middle or background, but it’s a nice compositional technique to boost your foreground element and start creating depth.

Separate Elements in Your Photograph

Overlapping elements create a busy sense in your photos. One of the things you should try to do is keep various elements from blending into one another.

It’s harder for the mind to process and accept a clash of competing elements. That’s why we don’t like busy backgrounds, since they detract from a subject in the foreground or middle.

Sometimes you can easily separate elements in the foreground, middle and background by changing your perspective. If you’re shooting a lone tree or building, don’t let its form get lost in the middle of a horizon line.

You can make very simple adjustments to the camera’s position to keep the elements in your photograph separate. Just be aware of elements that collide. Then determine if you could prevent that overlap by moving the camera vertically or horizontally to recompose the scene.

Eliminate Anything Unnecessary

As much as possible, eliminate distracting and unrelated elements from your composition.

Sometimes that means moving the distracting object. Other times it could mean moving the camera’s position. Maybe you get closer to your subject or narrow the angle of view.

Something caught your eye and made you want to take a photograph. Don’t lose site of that subject by allowing distractions in your frame. Your subject should be the hero of the photograph, and should stand alone as much as possible.

Move to Try Different Perspectives and Photo Compositions

If it seems like moving the camera is a recurring theme here, you’re right.

Sometimes the reason to move your camera isn’t about eliminating distractions or avoiding colliding objects. Instead, it’s about finding the most interesting view of your subject – the strongest composition.

Don’t assume that the place you’re standing (or sitting) is the best view of your subject. Get up, move around and work the scene.

Look for opportunities to add compositional elements like triangles into your frame. Diagonal lines create a sense of movement in your photos.

If you just think of leading lines, you’ll wind up standing in the middle of a road or railroad tracks shooting down the center.

What happens if you move off the road or tracks and have it lead diagonally though your frame? Is one side of the road more attractive than the other? Does it look better from a higher or lower perspective?

How does the lighting on the scene look as you move around your subject?

There’s more than one place to photograph most things. Follow the advice of Jay Maisel and move your ass.

Focal Lengths and Angle of View

Many photographers think of focal length as merely getting closer or farther from their subject in the frame. That’s part of how lenses work. The other part is the angle of view.

There’s a reason we refer to short focal length lenses as wide-angle view lenses. They bring in more on the sides of the frame than telephoto lenses, which have a narrow angle of view.

Part of your compositional strategy is to determine what gets in your frame and what shouldn’t be there. Your lens selection is as much about angle of view as it is relative distance to your subject.

Perhaps sometimes the best course is to get a telephoto lens for a narrow angle of view and back up so you aren’t shooting up someone’s nose.

When you combine angle of view with your own mobility, you can create some photo compositions that others aren’t even considering.

Use Distortions for Creative Effect

Some lenses are fun merely because they create distortions. Lee and I both love using our fisheye lenses to create interesting results. Some people like to use tilt-shift lenses to make their subject look like toys.

There are other ways to get some creative results.

Try taking your lens off the mount, but hold it just in front of the sensor. You’ll need to use manual focus and you may get some interesting results.

A lens ball is a popular gimmick these days. It’s essentially a glass ball that you put between your lens and subject to create a different view of things.

Even lens flare from shooting into the light is a popular creative effect. I wouldn’t use it as much as JJ Abrams does, but there are circumstances where some flare can help to tell your story.

Photo Compositions Are About Sharing Your Story

Stories aren’t about the facts. They’re about the experience and how they impact our emotions.

The bottom-up and top-down discussion I shared earlier is about how the mind processes information. You can use that info to create some striking results that capture attention. However, a photograph is ultimately about making a connection with something that your viewer recognizes and creates an emotional response.

So the tip about the eye going to the brightest thing first and sharpest thing next is true, but it isn’t what keeps the eye in place. If you don’t have a subject that engages and attracts your viewer, then you don’t really have anything.

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