Crafting a strong composition in your photos is an essential and challenging skill.
See, a great composition is one that takes into account every detail within the frame. However, in the moment of shooting, you have approximately 87 different things on your mind. It can be tough to notice all the elements in the photo before snapping the shutter. Here’s an easy way to start working your way towards better compositions, without feeling overwhelmed!
Basically, you just make small adjustments, and, bit by bit, arrive at your great composition! I’ll give you a quick run down of the steps, and then walk you through an example of this technique in action.
(Note: My example involves posing people, since that’s the majority of my photography right now. But this technique would work even if people aren’t your subject!)
Bit By Bit
Assess the location, and place your subject in the spot that looks like it will work best for light and general composition.
Take a look at the setup through your camera. This will help you really understand how it’s going to translate into a photo. Make any large adjustments necessary.
Get them posed all nice (like this, or this!). Then either tell them where you’d like them to look (at the camera, at each other, etc.) or suggest a way for them to interact (snuggle, tickle fight, etc.).
Take another look at the setup through your camera. Take a couple seconds to look at the image from edge to edge of the frame. Now that you’re not worrying too much about light, posing, or interaction, you’ll be able to notice those little details that you were too distracted to see earlier.
Make any fine tuned adjustments to deal with the details. This usually will be in the form of you moving yourself a wee bit to the right, a tiny bit closer, crouch down just a tad—that kind of stuff. It’s easier if you can move, instead of making your subject move.
But, if the subject *has* to move to make the shot work, then don’t be shy about asking. Those are the kinds of details that you might feel sound too nit-picky at the time, but then you’ll kick yourself for not taking care of it, because you’re left with a less than stellar photo.
Now that you’ve taken care of your composition, all your attention goes back to the subjects, and you can just shoot away, looking for great expressions. The whole process probably takes no longer than a minute!
The big idea behind these steps is that a great composition doesn’t usually come to you in a blinding flash of genius. It’s a gradual process, making adjustments along the way until you find that magical arrangement of elements. Instead of just settling for whatever you came up with at the beginning, keep looking at the details, and, bit by bit, improving your shot.
Let’s look at a quick example.
For this shot, I wanted to get the bride and groom up on the stairs of the church. Before worrying too much about exactly how they’d pose, I just sent them up.
Then, once they are standing up there, I had a better idea of how things were looking. I asked them to come forward to the railing, so I could see more of them. The closer they are to the railing, the less of their body it will cover. It can also become a handy “posing aid”. :)
At this point, I had a decent start with my composition. Now it’s time to focus on the people, and see how they’ll interact, which sometimes can change how you frame your shot!
With just a simple suggestion (snuggle in close, and give her a bunch of kisses on the cheek), they naturally fit together, and interact. Smiles come easily with kisses on the cheek, so I’m pretty much done with my posing and interacting.
So, now that my peeps are ready to be photographed, I can start taking photos. Here’s where the bit by bit comes in.
From my first position, I saw that the line of the door was interupting their heads (see the photo above), and they weren’t really standing out. I needed to get closer, to bring their heads above door level, and give some “head room”.
Once I moved closer, I suddenly noticed the light on the wall. Even though it’s quite obvious when you see it, in the earlier shots it wasn’t as big of an element. Now that I moved closer, it was interrupting the shape of her head.
I simply moved to my left, and a bit closer, to move the light from behind their heads. Once the light isn’t “touching” them, it’s not as distracting. It also would be easier to remove it using Photoshop when it’s seperate.
Moving closer also made them a larger part of the frame, and more noticeable even with the busy brick background.
The final shot didn’t just jump out of my camera. It took some adjusting, walking, and thinking, until I found what I wanted!
So, if you’re looking to improve your composition, try this bit by bit technique. Keep studying the scene, and work to manage all the details, one by one, until you find yourself with a strong photo! Don’t worry if you don’t see it immediately. Keep at it, and you’ll get there!
Walk Around: Take the time to walk around your subjects, and consider the scene from a few angles. You’ll come up with some really interesting compositions like that!
Go Slow: Don’t rush. The more you can go slow, and really pay attention to the details, the stronger your images will be! Enjoy the process of fine tuning your composition, and seeing how solid you can make it!
Practice!: This technique works the best when you are in full control, and have the time to really set things up. So whenever you have that chance, practice! Then, when you’re in situations where you don’t have as much control (eg. candid, photojournalistic), you’ll have had so much practice checking the details, and moving yourself quickly, you’ll be golden!
Things To Watch For:
Here are a few things you’ll want to be looking out for when you’re gradually creating your composition.
Distracting Elements: Pieces of garbage, bags and coats, signs, and other little distractions can really ruin a photo. When you’re managing your details, watch out for anything that is distracting you from your subject. Then either recompose to remove it, or physically remove it!
Interrupting Elements: These are things that interrupt the shape of your subject (like the light that was behind their heads). Trees a
re a big nuisance for this, so try to keep the shape of your subject as clear as possible. It brings more focus to them! Often this will require you changing your angle.
The Edges: Make sure to look to all edges of your frame. Often you’ll notice little things that are poking in, and detracting from your composition.
Straight Lines: When possible, try to get horizons and other straight lines straight in camera. It saves a LOT of time in editing!
Do you have any tips for getting great compositions? What’s your thought process when setting up your shot? Share with us in the comments below!