In this lesson, we tackle a subject that scares some people: composition. Perhaps it’s due to old memories of school essays? Or because so many photographers tell you to follow the rules?
Let me tell you a secret.
You have all the skills you need to compose a photograph. You just need to forget what everyone says. Photograph as you feel: That’s all you need to do.
Giving You Confidence
Can you choose clothes that look good on you? Are you able to set a table with things lined up? Can you rearrange things till it feels right?
If the answer to any of these questions is “Yes,” you have the innate skills to compose a photograph. My advice is this, and I give it very strongly:
• Follow your instinct: When it looks good, capture it!
Don’t follow any rules of composition (unless you want your photos to look like everyone else’s).
Tricks up the Sleeve
It also helps to know a few tricks. I’ll share a few here. See what takes your fancy, and try to use them when you have a chance. Keep one or two in mind for use when the opportunity presents itself.
• Look out for patterns and strong lines with vibrant color: They work to shape and define space, leading the eye around the image to keep the viewer interested.
• Look for images with a single dominant color together with a main subject with a simple shape, like a triangle, square, or circle. Single colors catch the eye without confusing it with too many choices. (Review the red-walled passageway above.)
• Look for repeated patterns, such as trees in a forest or the slats of Venetian blinds.This way, you increase visual interest without having to use too many elements.
• Look for images with two main colors that contrast each other. This is why sunsets work so well: the reds of the sunset contrast with the blue of the sky. Flower shots are often effective when the flower color contrasts with the green of the leaves.
Avoid Using the Grid
Many smartphones, as well as cameras, can show a grid of lines over the screen. This is supposed to help you with compositions. My suggestion is this:
• Don’t use composition “aids” like grids.
They are a distraction because they take your eye of the subject itself. Worse, if you follow them, your pictures will look like those of everyone else who uses the same grid. They do have a use for lining up images very accurately, but that technicality doesn’t often apply to smartphone photography.
Strength in Combinations
The best trick of all is the power from combining these techniques. Work with strong lines and color contrasts: This gives more powerful compositions than using one technique by itself.
Remember yesterday’s lesson. Holding your smartphone down low or high up for high-energy perspectives. Now combine with patterns or lines or with color contrasts. The results can be stunning and far more exciting than you imagined they could be.
Try it and see!
Tomorrow, we look at my favorite subject: light itself and how not to fight it.
May the light be with you!
Sources of inspiration
Oman: the variety of composition techniques I use
Hot Light: photographs from the Tropics by Alex Webb, a master of a particular style of composition
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