Before releasing the shutter, ensuring the correct exposure and optimum white balance helps, but arguably most important of all is the composition. After all, when shooting RAW files, the white balance is easily changed and the exposure can be adjusted; whereas often the only way the composition can be adjusted after the shutter is released, is either by cropping in on the original format (which reduces the file size) or by extending a plain coloured background area.
While there are certain rules of composition, I am a firm believer no rule is so sacrosanct that it cannot be broken. For my money, I feel composition works best when it is instinctive. Rarely do I agonise over how to compose and often I visualise the final shot before I even pick up a camera. For instance, the penguins in the image above were some way off, but I instinctively picked up my 500mm lens to frame them as I visualised.
Some people – especially landscape photographers – prefer to use a composition card, which is simply a piece of black card with the centre cut out so the frame is in the same proportions as the camera format. By holding the card in one hand and moving it back and forth from one eye, the ideal crop for the best composition can be appreciated.
Here are some examples of images with explanations of why their composition works.
Curves and sinuous lines
A straight line, such as the horizon or the sea, will cut an image into two equal halves when it runs through the centre of the frame; whereas sinuous lines help to lead the eye from one part of the frame to another.
Before the sun rose on Ewe Moor in Yorkshire, I peered into the grykes in limestone pavement for a shot illustrating how the deep cracks provide a safe haven for hart’s tongue ferns to thrive beyond the reach of grazing sheep. The curvaceous line from lower left to top right was the icing on the cake.
Having worked with both square medium format and 35mm full frame cameras, I prefer taking any radially symmetrical subject using a square format. Quite simply, a circle in a rectangle does not work well. However, with a plain backdrop, adding an equal amount of background on all four sides can easily change a rectangular 35mm frame into a square.
For a front cover of a magazine or book, greater depth above the subject provides more negative space for the title, as below.
Rule of thirds
Where do you place a single object that occupies a small part of the frame within a rectangle? If you imagine the frame is divided into nine equal parts by two equally positioned vertical lines and two horizontal lines, any one of the four intersections are worth considering the position of a single object. Also, a tall object can be positioned along two intersections on one side of the frame – preferably on the left for people who read from left to right. The grid is known as the Rule of Thirds but, like any rule, it does not have to be slavishly followed.
The four intersections are shown on the graphic below, so you can appreciate how I decided to frame a pair of cockle shells stranded on a Welsh beach.
The Rule of Thirds first appeared in print in 1797 when John Thomas Smith described a landscape painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds in his book Remarks on Rural Scenery.
Find a frame
Look for a frame such as a window in a rock, cave or tree to lead the eye towards the scene or object beyond it. A window in a house can also be used to frame a garden view.
Repetitive patterns and abstracts
Any subject with an overall repetitive pattern, such as veins in a leaf, seeds in a strawberry fruit, arrangements of cacti spines or ripples in water are easy to compose in any format. Random abstract patterns in nature that include lichen mosaics, bark patterns and colour patterns of scales on butterfly wings also work with any crop.
So, before releasing the shutter, it pays to consider composition by scanning the frame to check no improvements are possible. Sometimes small adjustments to the camera angle or zooming in or out can make the world of difference.
Thanks for reading!