In our modern world of automatic cameras, which focus for us and adjust the exposure in an ever more perfect way (most of the time), the biggest difference between a good photograph and a mediocre one is the composition. In every photograph we take, we can decide where the boundaries of that photo will be, called the cropping. We can also choose the viewpoint. If we are taking pictures of people or movable objects then, often, we also have the opportunity to arrange them into the shapes we want.
If you are shooting landscapes or other immovable objects then you must compose the picture by moving yourself and deciding where to place the point(s) of interest in your picture. There are various compositional rules to help you. These rules will help you to compose pleasing pictures, however, you will often find that a really striking picture will show a blatant disregard for the rules. Once you are aware of the rules then break them as often as you want but, at least, know you are breaking them and why.
Rule Of Thirds
Landscape photographers are particularly fond of this one, but it works well for many types of subjects. The rule of thirds simply says that, instead of placing the main focus of interest in the center of the frame, which gets a little boring, that you look to position it on an intersection of the thirds. That is to say one third up and one third in or two thirds up and one third in etc. Here's a 'thirdsy' sort of picture, hold your mouse over the picture to see the grid. Placing the boat near the top of the picture tells the viewer that what they are supposed to be looking at is the reflection. We could take the boat out altogether, of course, this would focus our attention even more on the reflection but the picture might then be a little too minimalist. Also the mast is almost exactly on the 'third' line. There is a little space to the right of the bow of the boat which helps to give the impression that, although the boat is not moving, it has somewhere to go.
Although a nice illustration of composing 'on the thirds' this picture falls foul of another 'rule' in that it has very light corners, especially at the top right and, coupled with the yellow stripe, the effect is to lead the viewer's eye out of the picture. We'll talk about this more later.
Setting your subject matter on a diagonal will almost always make for a more dynamic picture. Even if this is an invisible diagonal that draws your eye between two points. Move around the subject (not too close in the case of my crocodiles) and look for a diagonal.
Tip - One of the easiest ways to improve your photography is with careful attention to framing. Look into the corners of the viewfinder to see what is there. Do you need all that background? Can you get closer to your subject or zoom in? Would the picture look better as an upright or landscape?
The most common mistake people make when taking pictures is not filling the frame with the subject. If it's a photo of granny waving from the doorstep, let's just see granny and the door, not half the houses in the street with a small granny shaped blob in the middle. Maybe the culprit for this phenomenon is the focusing aid in the center of the viewfinder. Most cameras have some sort of circle or rectangle etched onto the glass and we are inclined to think, in our less thoughtful moments, that this is the whole picture area.
Take a moment to glance around the viewfinder to see what you have got at the edges and especially in the corners. Watch out for clutter in the background, that lamppost growing out of granny's head. Make sure that everything in the viewfinder is there because you want it to be.
Landscape or Portrait?
A lot of people never, ever turn their camera on its side and shoot an upright picture. Yes, it can be a little awkward to hold until you get used to it but, what a difference it can make to the picture. If you are taking a picture of one person then it is essential to shoot upright, you waste so much of the picture area at the sides if you don't.
The picture on the left is a typical snapshot, two miles of coastline with a pink blob in the middle. Turning the camera on its side and moving in a little closer, as in the picture on the right, gives us a much better picture of the girl and we can still see enough background to get the message that we are on the beach. For the sake of a good layout on the page, the pictures were made at the same height. In fact they are the same size, if you can imagine them in their original dimensions the girl is ten times bigger in the photo on the right.
Even when you are shooting landscapes, you will find that, sometimes, the picture will look more dynamic with an upright frame. Always think, with every picture you take, should this be an upright or a horizontal view? Usually the answer is obvious and dictated by the shape of the composition but sometimes, for instance when the composition is square, the best choice is not obvious. In this case take two pictures, one of each.
Here are three photos of a rusty old boat winch on Brighton beach. The top photo is filled the frame with winch edge to edge, but does it really show the decay? We cannot really see the rust in sufficient detail.
In the second photo we can see much more decay and really see the texture, which is the thing that attracted the photographer to the object in the first place. When we look with our eyes we tend to see details like this and our brain filters out what is on the edge of our vision. When composing we must be aware of the edges so we can tidy them up.
Too close? Well that's up to you though it does have a certain impact. There are no hard and fast rules, only suggestions. A walk around the subject to look at it from different angles will always pay dividends. Use the zoom to compose the tightest possible crop that still shows everything you want. If you don't have a zoom lens then just get a little closer.
Selecting your viewpoint, the position from which you photograph the subject, is a very important part of composition and one that some people pay very little attention to. When taking a photo of a group of friends, how often do you move around the group looking for the best angle? The first, most obvious difference between one viewpoint and another is the background. If you are photographing a subject that cannot easily be moved, the only way to change what is in the background is to choose a different viewpoint.
The subject itself can look quite different from different angles. Photos can be made to take on a whole new dynamic by selecting an extreme angle of view. Also the perspective can change quite drastically, especially with wide angle lenses. If you photograph a person full length with a wide angle lens from a standing position, their head will be too big in proportion to the rest of their body. If, on the other hand, you kneel down and shoot the same picture from waist height, you will see that the whole picture is better proportioned.
When shooting outdoors, the viewpoint you choose also affects how the light from the sun falls on your subject. This is a whole new can of worms which is fully discussed under lighting.
Here are a couple of examples exploring the effects of high and low angle viewpoints:
Two full length shots from fairly extreme angles. A moderately wide angle lens gives a certain amount of perspective distortion, the first shot in particular makes her feet look very big in proportion to her head. This distortion enhances the effect of the flared jeans and the big shoes, whereas in the second shot the distortion of the shooting angle is working against the effect of the big shoes and flares balancing the picture. If we use a wider angle lens and shoot from even closer, the distorted effect would be even more pronounced. In both cases you can see that the choice of angle has given us a nice plain background as a bonus.
These two shots were taken from more or less the same position as the first shot but, as we zoom in, the effect of the low angle is lessened. Less distortion but a pleasing angle giving us a slightly 'larger than life' feel to the picture. When shooting against a bright sky like this you need to pay careful attention to the exposure, the automatic metering system will render the face too dark so you need to compensate for this. Take a few shots with the exposure compensation at different settings or, better still, meter manually taking a reading from close in to the face. The shot on the right metered correctly because the face fills the frame more and is lit by the sun.
These two shots were taken from the same position as the top right and show the same lessening of distortion as we zoom in. You will probably agree, that the picture on the left appears to have been taken from a greater height than the one on the right! Weird!