Problem 3: “I don’t know how to compose”

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‘“Beauty can be seen in all things, seeing and composing the beauty is what separates the snapshot from the photograph.”

Matt Hardy


Do you ever wonder why you like some photos more than others? Why some make you smile or feel emotional or tell you a story and others leave you cold?

You may be thinking that it's the photographer’s inner artistic genius (and don’t get me wrong - there are some absolutely outstanding and exceptional photographers out there) but often the difference between a strong photo and a bad one is in understanding some common photographic composition rules.

And these rules are all about translating how our brains process visual information, especially when you take a rich and multidimensional world we see and translate it into a small flat rectangle.

And it all comes down to how the eye travels around the image - we already mentioned a little bit about that in the previous lessons when we talked about distractions. 

When you pick up a photo - any photo, try this - close your eyes and when you look back at it just let your eyes fall where they wish. Just pay attention to what you're looking at first, second etc. 

We usually look at the thing that's sharpest first. We also have a bias for people, so those tend to have our attention too.  but once the eye has seen the 'person' it goes on a journey around the image in search of 'meaning' and clues and context. 

And rules of composition are simply about making that journey easy. Well composed images know what they're about and maker it easy for the eye to go to the thing that matters fast and to get to the other good bits next. 

There is usually A LOT of info to analyse so your brain likes a shortcut - if someone can make it easier for your brain to know what to look for, point it out, it gets instantly happier and it simply follows. It’s like playing Where’s Wally and then playing Where is Wally with a great big arrow pointing to Wally.

So we’ll start you off with two ways of making that journey easy for the eye.

Both of them are pretty straightforward and chances are you have already heard of them - but it’s one thing to have heard about something, and quite another to take the time to use it.

1. Leading Lines

We like to be shown where to look and get there straight away. We like to be ‘visually’ taken by the hand and led to the subject. And one of the easiest way of achieving it is to use lines or linear elements that already occur in nature. 

Because if there is a line in your image – and it doesn’t need to be a straight line, or even a particularly well-defined line – our eyes will surely follow it.

This is to your advantage because if you can KNOW that the viewer’s eye will be following a line, all you need to do is make sure your subject is right at the end of it and that’s you done!

The lines that are easily identifiable and that you can take advantage of straight away are things which are all around you anyway – paths, roads, pavements, curbs. But also, if you position yourself more to the side and let the camera’s shooting angle follow the edge – fences, stairs, even edges of furniture.

One important thing – the lines need to lead to your subject. It means the eye needs to follow the line first and THEN encounter your subject. If you plonk your child at the opening of a path, with the path visibly moving way past them, the impact will be completely lost. They need to actually LEAD to them.

Try to take advantage of how perspective and the optics of your camera treat parallel lines too – the further they go, the more they converge, further strengthening the effect.

2. Frame within the frame

The second compositional element is creating a ‘frame’ within your image which surrounds your subject, acting a bit in the same way that making a circle with a highlighter around a word makes us look right at it. 

And I don’t mean a ‘frame-frame’ like you sometimes see at the weddings where people peek through a decorative picture frame as the photographer takes their photo. I mean finding elements in nature that can create a full or partial frame around your subject and make them really stand out.

Those frames can come in many shapes and sizes.  Look out for more than just physical shapes and formations – light, colour and texture can play the same way!

Check out the examples below – they should give you a good idea of what to look out for.

Lesson 3 Challenge

Capture something using lines and / or frames!