Make Better Photos NOW! Part 1 – Composition Transition

NOTE: I often have friends and clients ask me for tips on taking photos.  With that in mind and being an educator I naturally started to think of ways I could help teach some things to those who are wanting to learn.  Thus begins my series Make Better Photos NOW!  I don’t promise that these posts will come with any regularity.  These will be a mixture of information that I have shared in workshops and answers to questions I have been asked about shooting.  They will mostly be directed at beginner photographers who have cameras with advanced capabilities such as dSLRs and ILCs but many of the tips will be applicable to any sort of camera.  I hope you enjoy them and please feel free to offer up ideas for future content. 

So you just got yourself a fancy new dSLR, ILC, etc.. and you know that it is capable of capturing your vision but all you seem to come up with is the same thing you were coming up with on your iPhone?  Fret no more – here are some tips that will improve your photography immediately.  I’ll try to minimize the technical mumbo-jumbo here and stick mostly to practical advice.  Let me know if you have questions!

Part 1 -  Transition your composition!

Before we start making purposeful photographs we take snapshots.  That usually means we just put the camera to our eye, put our subject right in the middle and press the button.  The key thing we’re gonna look at here is the composing of the photo – in other words, where you place your subject or subjects in the viewfinder/photograph.  Take control of that and start being purposeful and your photos will improve.  The most simple way to improve your composition immediately is by using what artists and photographers call “the rule of thirds.”  The rule of thirds is not so much a rule but just a way to compose that often just looks better.  There is some psychology and sensory explanation behind it but I’ll mostly keep that in my head for now with the technical mumbo-jumbo.  Here’s how to use the rule of thirds:

As you’re framing the scene in your camera imagine that the rectangle you’re looking at is a pan of brownies that you’re going to slice into 9 pieces (now we’re talkin’!).  To do that you would make 4 slices – two across at more or less equal distances from each other and the sides of the pan and two up and down at equal distances from each other and the sides of the pan.  It might look something like this:

rule of thirds grid Make Better Photos NOW! Part 1   Composition Transition

This doesn’t need to be exact so go ahead and put away your engineering tools.  One nifty fact is that because the rule of thirds is so commonly used most cameras can actually display them across the viewfinder or the LCD so that you can use them to help you compose.  Check your manual to find out how to do this.  Maybe look for “grid” in the index.

Now as you’re imagining (or seeing) these lines across the viewfinder of your camera when you raise it to your eye decide what is really important in the picture and either put it at the intersecting points of one of these lines or perhaps along one of these lines.  With pictures of people the head and/or the eyes are often the most important part so try to line those up with a line or an intersecting point.  I often put the eyes at the top right or top left intersecting point so that it looks something like this:

Rule of thirds example 2 Make Better Photos NOW! Part 1   Composition Transition


The way I framed this photo is no accident.  Even though these were just pics of some visitors our school had during Red Ribbon week I’m almost ALWAYS thinking about the Rule of Thirds even when I’m purposefully breaking that rule.  Here are some other examples where I composed the picture so that key parts of my subject were at line intersections:

Rule of thirds example 1 Make Better Photos NOW! Part 1   Composition Transition Rule of thirds example 3 Make Better Photos NOW! Part 1   Composition Transition

The first one wasn’t quite at the intersection because I wanted to include some of the sky and clouds.  Notice that the man in the foreground, the truck in the background and the helicopter all lie at key points on the grid.  Bonus points for all three vehicles being lined up in a nice left to right diagonal line that leads the eye through the photo.  In the second photo I left the empty space on the right side because that is the direction in which the man was facing.  The empty space (sometimes called “negative space” in graphic design and photography) adds impact and sends attention to the space that is NOT empty.  This picture would feel really cramped if I framed him at the top right intersection with him looking directly at the edge of the picture and the empty space behind him.  When someone is looking or MOVING in a particular direction you want the empty space to be in front of them almost always.  If someone is looking straight ahead I will personally most often put their head/eyes at the top right intersection of the frame because in the west we read from left to right and I feel like our eyes are conditioned to start at the top left first and move to the right.  So if you follow that theory your eyes would start in the most unimportant part of the picture and naturally move to the important part.  Keeping the viewer looking at a photo is one thing you want to think about in a composition.  Whether it be locking their eyes on a particular point of interest or causing the eyes to move around the photo without leaving it.  If you’re taking a closeup picture of a face put the eye that you’re focusing on (always focus on the eye!) at an intersecting point.  This keeps the eye of focus from getting too close to the side of the frame and feeling crowded as well as drawing attention to it and creating a good amount of space.

Sometimes it just doesn’t make sense to put the head or eye on an intersecting point.  For instance – say you’re taking a headshot type picture in portrait orientation (vertical) or you’re taking a picture of someone who just won an award that they are wearing around their neck or something.  It doesn’t really make sense here to compose to the left or right interesecting points because it will feel cramped but you can still apply the rule of thirds – the intersections are the most powerful points but the lines themselves are also key.  So just line up the person’s head so that the top line goes through it and their face is kind of framed by the two vertical lines like this:

Rule of thirds example 4 Make Better Photos NOW! Part 1   Composition Transition

The rule of thirds was used by painters before it was used by photographers and it doesn’t just apply to portraits.  It also applies to landscapes, still life, etc..  Here you can see how I applied it to a basic landscape shot:

Rule of thirds landscape Make Better Photos NOW! Part 1   Composition Transition

The composition here is such that the top line is lined up with the point where blue really starts to become black, the bottom line is lined up roughtly where the lighter blue starts to become much darker and the trees are both more or less contained by the two vertical lines.  What you do NOT want to do with landscapes 99.9% of the time is put the horizon line right smack in the middle from top to bottom.  When you do that the top and bottom compete with each other in the photo.  Put the horizon along the top horizontal line or the bottom horizontal line.  If the sky is more interesting then show more of it, if the land is more interesting then show more of that.  The .1% of the time that you might consider putting the horizon line right in the middle is when one is a reflection of the other or they play off of each other in some similar way.  I composed the picture above to emphasize the bands of changing color.

As you look through the pictures on my website try to identify how I used rule of thirds.  You’ll see that like many photographers I use it a lot.  You might also find some instances where I purposefully broke that rule.  Once you learn a “rule” you are free to break it with a purpose!  Some photographers have even made the breaking of a “rule” their trademark style.

 ASSIGNMENT - I’m a teacher so of course there’s homework, but this will improve your compositions.  For every picture you take this week decide what is important in the photo and try to place it logically on an intersecting point or lined up with one of the grid lines.  If your camera doesn’t have them then imagine that they are there.  You might have some awkward results as you try to perfect it but overall you should start to see the strength of your compositions increase.  Have fun and feel free to share some of your photos with me!


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