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Composition - The Key to Prize Winning Photography

Composition is the start of the photographic process on the creative side. On the technical side we start with light, which is the raw material for our image, and work with the exposure controls to capture the image.

Composition is the placement of elements within the restriction of the frame of the photo.

On a 35mm camera and most digital cameras the frame is a rectangle. On a Twin Lens camera it is a square. In either case, the frame of the camera is going to see LESS than our eyes can see. Because of this the challenge is to decide what to point the camera at to capture the same feeling we saw with our eyes.

A photo has two main parts.

Boat Shot

First is the subject which is what we take a photo of. The subject above is the boat on the Sea of Galilee. The subject is usually a person or a place or it can be a story or express an emotion. It is the message of the photo and the reason we decided to click the shutter. The subject should be obvious to the viewer.

Second element of a photograph is treatment which is how that subject is arranged within the frame as well as the technical representation of that photo including contrast, lighting, colors and design elements like texture or shape. The photo above placed the boat over to the left and exposure was set to cause the boat to turn black to drop out detail. Reflection is an important element and exposure was again a big part of getting that to show up in the final print. This was an overcast day on the lake and it felt a bit gloomy. Does the photo demonstrate those feelings to you?

RULE OF THIRDS - Placement in the Frame

thirdsPerhaps the most important guide for composition is called the Rule of Thirds. When the frame is divided into three parts horizontally and vertically we get the arrangement shown here. The lines of intersection are ideal placement points for the dominant element in our photo. The dominant element is the part of the photo that attracts our attention. We call that the center of interest or subject. Each photo should have a specific point that grabs our attention. If there is nothing that attracts your attention then the photo does not communicate as well as it could. The boat is the center of interest above. Notice that is is NOT placed in the center of the photo. Even though it is called the center of interest it seldom looks good in the exact center of the frame.


Subject placement can also put the center of interest along one of the thirds to be effective. The horizon line should be placed on the thirds line and never in the center if it is visible. Be sure to keep the horizon level. It makes the photo feel odd if it tilts to one side.

This is a photo example of Thirds. Notice that the dot represents the part of the photo our eye comes to rest on.This part of the photo is different in contrast in color and shape to the rest of the photo and thus attracts more attention.


LINES - Photo Design Elements


Pay attention to lines in your photo. Lines can be actual lines from a road or fence, or from an arrangement of objects such as these cars. Lines that are horizontal or flat tend to be peaceful and reduce the excitement of a photo. Diagonal lines make a photo have a feeling of action or excitement. Many times a movie producer will tilt the reality or point of view of the scene by tilting the camera to throw the balance off and make a viewer feel the tension or action more than if it were horizontal or level. Here we are using the natural curve of the seating to control the eye movement in the shot.

CURVED lines also are important. ANY line in the photo adds to the composition feel. Here we see curved lines made by the pattern in the rock seating that add to the feeling of peacefulness. Notice also how the lower right corner is brighter than the upper left which also tends to draw the viewers eye into the photo.

leadingLEADING LINES: The photo above illustrates the use of a different type of line called leading lines. The photographer used a wide angle lens to do this shot. A wide angle lens will make things close to you look larger than normal. With the size and lines and shape moving off and up slightly to the right the photographer adds depth to the shot. Contrast in texture and color also attract attention. All of this is example of the thought by the photographer to make the column look and feel as big as it did in real life. It is almost as good as being there. Only a 3D photo would capture this depth more realistically.

frameFRAMING - is used by a photographer to add a feeling of depth to a photo. In this photo it helps focus the eye on the graveyard and it adds the added piece of information about the type of material used for building in this area. By simply adding a tree or a rock or part of a building or some object in the foreground to frame part or all of your center of interest the photographer can improve the composition and the story that it tells.

To really understand composition a new photographer must look at good photographs like those found in National Geographic magazine and examine and analyze how the composition was accomplished.


Additional Treatment Considerations


runThe motion of our subject is where the composition meets the technical. The shutter controls motion of the subject in our photo. If the shutter is fast (like 500 or 1000) the motion is frozen and if it is long or slow like 60 or less the motion becomes a blur. Each has its effect on the final photo. The important part is that the photographer has decided in advance how the photo will look. When the shutter is set to a fast speed like 250 - 500 - 1000 the camera is not getting much light - the aperture will then need to be set to a wider setting letting in more light in order to get an exposure. The result is less depth of field and a background that becomes less clear. In this photo, however, the aperture was small enough to produce good background focus. That was an equipment issue. A telephoto lens with a large aperture (like f2) can cost several thousand dollars. The lens for this shot was set to f8 which still produces good depth. It would have looked better if it could have gone down to f4 to make the players in back less focused and not at obvious. We will spend more time with this in another chapter.



moonThe final technical concern in composition is in the background. Is there an object that is right behind our subject that might look like it is MERGING or growing out of our subject? Is the background needed or not. There see two ways to deal with background - include it or simplify it. In this photo the angle of view was adjusted by waling back and forth and adjusting the zoom lens to get the moon in the photo along with the color of the clouds.


The APERTURE controls the background focus, although most cameras will only show you the sharp view when you focus. The aperture works with the shutter to control light and exposure. Background is simplified or made less sharp by a wide open aperture like f 2, f4 or f 5.6. Close pictures or a telephoto lens make the effect more dramatic. By setting our shutter to a high number the aperture is forced to a LOW number and depth is reduced. By setting our shutter to a LOW number the aperture is forced HIGH and depth is increased. The two controls work together. In this photo exposure was a challenge. It was important to have the clouds and the wall in focus which calls for a closed down aperture (like f16) but that does not let in enough light to get an exposure. The compromise? Set the shutter to a longer time and put the camera on a tripod. That will let the aperture stay at f16.

The key to all of this is to keep an eye on what is going on in the frame of your photo and take steps to change anything that does not add to the message or impact of the photo.

The photo on the left is something we call a merger. In this shot because we are viewing in two dimension and because a zoom or telephoto was used the pole of the tent looks like it was stuck in the girls head. Avoid this by looking for a different camera angle if you can do that without loosing the mood.



Prize Winning Photography Notes

In the 1980's Kodak published a movie that I found helpful in my photo class. Someone has turned that movie into a powerpoint type slide show if you want to view it -- View Slides

Here are notes from that show:

Blur creates a feeling of speed - panning or moving the camera along so that it follows a moving object takes practice but makes a photo more interesting.

SIMPLICITY is the key to good pictures that win awards Everybody looks but not everybody sees. Imaginative seeing the potential of a photo is the skill to develop - look for pictures in the things you see Little extra touches in a photo such as a moon in the sky for comparison of shape or for a distant focal point is good. Take the time to examine the objects in your photo and look for the best viewpoint to show them

Lighting plays a part in a prize winner. A silhouette or sunset can do a lot to make a photo simple and interesting. To make the exposure aim the meter away from the sun to the bright part of the sky and adjust exposure then hold it and recompose the photo for a dark sky and a silhouette of your subject. A silhouette simplifies the photo

Time of day - the proper lens and vantage point as well as care in focus and exposure is what makes a prize winner. The telephoto lens makes things look closer together - it can be used to select the portion of the photo you like best Prize winners are EASY TO LOOK AT with the eye following the action - the subject is obvious and has impact

LESS IS MORE concept of getting in close and checking the frame for a photo that tells a story or sets a mood. People pictures are popular subjects. Look at the camera angles or vantage point to find one that gives a simple background with colors and objects that do not compete with the subject. Good expression is key to people shots -- look for how the mood is expressed -- be alert and have camera ready.

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