Here’s where things get a bit tricky but with a few pointers, it just might help you avoid some of the more common pitfalls.

What you see through your lens as you prepare to take the picture isn’t necessarily what you will see when you upload the image to your computer. The human mind edits material. The camera does not.

The shot of the fireworks is a perfect example of a shot gone wrong in just about every way imaginable. The result is a shot worthy of the delete button while it was still in the camera. You may be enjoying the display but the camera captures one moment in time so the settings must be right and the shot have some sort of context. This one has neither done correctly.

Composition Basics - Static Fireworks
Static Fireworks

Photo composition and the weather from all angles

You are in the park, taking pictures in the playground. What looked exciting at the time now looks boring. Quick fix: Be on the same level as the kids and take the shot from their vantage point. Take a shot of the playground but in unusual light or weather.

Composition Basics - Ice Fog in a Playground Cardinal ON

Frame it differently

That bridge is spectacular and you are sure the photo is going to knock their socks off but now it looks like just another bridge shot.

Quick fix: Change your angle or wait for interesting weather or a different time of day to make it stand out.

Vantage Point: The Provencher bridge has been shot every way you can imagine so I opted for evening at -35˚ and shot it through the trees, then converted to black and white.

Photo composition and the background

The group was in place and the light was perfect. Now there is a tree branch growing out of someone’s head. Quick fix: Improve your photo composition by taking your time to notice the background and clean it up by moving your subject or moving yourself.

The animal appeared out of nowhere and you were so excited to get that shot but now it looks a lot further away than you remember. Quick fix: Zoom in tight. One of the oddities of wildlife photography is the animal seems so much closer through the lens and then when we look at it later, it’s lost in the surroundings.

Keep the context

Another very important factor in photo composition is context. You are doing artistic shots of a rusty old fence and zoom in for lots of detail. Now it just looks, well, without purpose. Quick fix: Zoom out. Make sure to include context, otherwise it has no meaning.

You get the idea.  The beauty of digital photography is that we can retake the shot as many times as necessary until we get it right, so experiment.

Context: This tricycle was abandoned under the trees in a forgotten and neglected area. It was the perfect context for the urban berries.

Photo Composition Basics - Tricycle in the Trees with Berries
Tricycle in the Trees with Berries
Photo Composition Basics - Cardinal on a Branch in Winter
Cardinal on a Branch in Winter - Morguefile

Photo Composition and The Rule of Thirds

This is a good rule to follow when you start taking pictures. Basically, all you have to do is imagine the image sliced into thirds horizontally and vertically. Next, position things so that your main focal point is located roughly at one of the intersections. Avoid having the horizon hit the centre of your viewfinder and either raise it to the top third if the foreground is interesting or the bottom third if there is a spectacular sky. Wildlife should be facing the ’empty’ area so there is visual room for the animal to move forward. This example is from Morguefile. The bird’s eye is positioned perfectly for balance and there is visual room for him to fly.

Let's Experiment

It was a bright day in mid-afternoon, just the time to avoid when taking photos but in this case, I needed the bright light. I love the look of macro but don’t have a macro lens so have to make do with what is at hand. The camera was set at ISO 400, 1/250 sec. at f11 using an 18-55mm zoom at 52mm and manual focus.

Photo compostion and your subject

Your photo should communicate an idea. Something attracted your attention and you grabbed your camera. What are you photographing? In this case, I wanted to capture the bee on the colourful flower.

Photo Composition - Bee on Flower Rule of Thirds

Notice the bee is exactly at the crosspoint in the upper right third and the flower is in the lower right third. Because this is a living creature who is expected to move, it is important to give the bee some flying room in the right direction inside the frame.

Photo Composition Basics - Bee on Flower Static

In this version, the bee is in the centre of the frame and the image seems static.

There is no expectation of movement and the eye doesn’t move.

The shot is boring.

Photo Composition Basics - Bee on Flower No Room to Move

In this frame,  the bee’s head and wing is in the upper left third of the photo but there is no room for it to move.

The space on the right serves no purpose.

Nothing draws the eye. The shot feels confined.

Photo Composition Basics - Bee on Flower No Foreground
In this frame, the eye and wing of the bee is in the lower right third of the photo.

There is room for the bee to fly in the correct direction so it is not confined.

However, the bee’s body takes up the full space in the lower right third of the frame.

This might work if we had something interesting and relevant in the background, like an open field of flowers and a hive in the distance. Unfortunately, this shot is just plain boring and leads the eye nowhere. Yes, it’s a closeup of a bee but that is all it is. There is no foreground to give it context and no background story.

The rule of thirds is a guideline and not a hard and fast rule. There are times when having your subject dead centre in the frame may work to capture the moment perfectly. Compare the photo composition in the gallery images with the larger one below. Do you prefer one over another? There is no correct answer. It is subjective and depends on the feeling your want your photo to convey. 

Photo Composition Basics - Trial Island Lighthous, Victoria BC
Photo Composition Basics - Sunset on Trial Island Lighthouse Victoria BC

Which do you prefer and why? Which one draws you forward on a journey? Which one lets your eye rest? Do you think it matters whether the viewer is left or right-handed?

Tip:  If you are not shooting with manual settings, you may not have your camera set to focus on objects that are off-centre. When in doubt, focus on your subject in the middle of the viewfinder. Hold the shutter halfway down. Recompose your shot so your subject is to the left or right and then press the shutter all the way to take the shot. This avoids your subject turning out blurry after you went to all the trouble of composing an interesting shot.

Photo composition in the field:

Fill the frame and watch for distractions that you may not notice at first, like a telephone pole or anything else that takes away from your subject. Moving a little in one direction or another can make all the difference. Don’t be discouraged if it isn’t quite what you had hoped. Even the pros come back with a lot of garbage. Back in the days of film, if you got one or two really good shots in a roll of 36, it was a good day! Now you can see instantly what you need to fix and you can reshoot immediately. Digital technology has truly revolutionized the way we take pictures and made it possible for all of us to explore our inner artist.

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