Friday, September 25, 2009

Photography: Composition

In high school, I was forced to take photography when there were no other electives available. I had no desire to take photography at the time, but ended up loving it. And from then on, I was the Teacher's Aide every term, and one of my responsibilities was to teach about composition. I thought that I'd share some of the little tricks that I use most frequently when taking pictures--keep in mind that these aren't "rules", but are just tips and tricks you can have up your sleeve! Thought I'd share, and I hope this is useful!

Off-Center Shots- Composing off center shots can be difficult, because you want the shot to look intentional, not as though it was an accident, or like you shot without looking through the viewfinder. One way that helps make this look intentional is the "Rule of Thirds". Now, there are many different interpretations of the Rule of Thirds, but the basic premise is that you want to divide the frame into thirds both horizontally and vertically. Some cameras have a setting that will do this for you, but essentially, it would look like this:

Some people say that the "Rule of Thirds" means that the focus of your shot should fall on one of those points of intersection. So basically, other than the dead center of the frame, there are four alternate points that you could use as the center of the shot. This is a good starting point. But I don't like "rules" and so personally, I find myself looking more for the bulk of the picture to fall into any four adjoining boxes. In the above picture, the center of the shot isn't one of those intersection points, but because the bulk of the photo is in at least four adjoining boxes, I feel that the picture still looks pretty well balanced. Sure, they could both be moved slightly to the left to make it better, but overall, it's pretty good.

Consider Light and Dark Balance- Over the summer, DH's band played at this absolutely beautiful outdoor amphitheater. Basically, it was a stage that had been cut into the side of a mountain. It took your breath away. Most of the band wanted me to take some promo shots there, but I had to tell them that it just wouldn't work. Can you tell why from the picture below?

The rock in the amphitheater, the band members' skin tone, and the band members' clothes are all in the same tonal region. There really wasn't much contrast, aside from Chuck's green hat, and the focus of the picture wasn't mean to be Chuck's green hat. When I'm taking pictures of someone, I often ask them to bring along several shirts--one light (but not white), and one dark. This helps me to control the contrast based on the surroundings.

It's also valuable to think about quick ways that you can balance contrast on your own. Take for example, the below shot:

This was a shot that Renee requested when I was doing their family pictures. Now, I don't have a studio, but I knew that finding a way to build contrast would be important in these shots to get the look that Renee wanted. So, I took a navy blue blanket, threw it over our bedroom door, and had them pose in front of the blanket. Even though it wasn't a black blanket, I knew that I was shooting these in black and white, and the navy blue would read dark, which was all that was important. Consider doing a bit of shooting in black and white--it's easier to see contrast that way, and it's a good way to train your eye for what will provide good contrast even when shooting in color. When you're shooting, keep an eye out for things that can provide contrast--dark green grass can contrast well with skin tone. Sky contrasts well with dark clothes. Things like wheat will also lighten up a shot, while bodies of water tend to give the darker contrast.

The one exception to needing contrast, in my humble opinion, is when you're shooting newborns or very young children, but that's a story for another day.

Change Levels-My niece and nephew are so used to me taking pictures of them that they hardly bat an eye anymore. The one for this example is one of my favorite pictures ever of Logan, and it was totally candid. One of the reasons that I love it so much is that you feel like you're right there with him. And that's because I was laying on the floor on my stomach across from him. One thing that I am almost ALWAYS doing when taking pictures of them is getting down on their level. I would ALWAYS suggest that for taking pictures of children.

But aside from getting down on the floor with kids, the idea of changing your level of perspective comes in handy in all sorts of ways. We're good friends with the photographer who did our wedding, and he is always carting around a ladder with him. In fact, one of my favorite wedding photos that he took is a prime example:

Keep in mind that it's almost always more flattering for a photographer to shoot down at a subject opposed to shooting up at them (double chin, anyone?). So, the next time you're taking pictures, don't be afraid to have people lay on the ground and stand over top of them to take your shot! Just play around with your shooting heights, and see what you come up with!


  1. great post, I enjoyed reading your tips! I have always wanted to take a photography class, I was homeschooled and went to a business university so neither had the option to take a class. I'm hoping to take a class or two locally next spring or fall.

  2. Love your tips! And I really do love off-center photos. Thanks for this post!

  3. Great tips. I am a huge fans of the thirds rule!

  4. Great tips Mer! Thanks. :)

  5. Great tips! I've never been a fan of taking pictures of subjects in the center of the composition. I think it's so much more interesting in the right or left third.

  6. I teach high school photography. It's my fav class to teach.

  7. Quit giving away all of our secrets! ;)


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