Here are some composition lessons learned from my recent photo challenge for getting great images for blog article.

First the basics

1 Read the manual — know your camera, learn what each button does, which the flash is, which the backlight, which is the timer is and how to control the zoom.

2 Set the cameras resolution to take the highest quality photographs at the highest possible resolution. This will make any digital altering/editing you may wish to do later much easier. It also makes cropping for web use easier.

3 Start with your camera in one of the automatic modes. There is plenty of time to explore the manual side later once you have the feel of the camera. I always use automatic mode — I am lazy and not that technical.

4 Take your camera everywhere — you will see the world with another pair of eyes. It is also great practice. One of the joys of digital photography is that you do not have to develop any mistakes you make — just delete them. When I started if I was lucky if one in ten of the photographs were something I considered good — four would be OK and the rest would be rubbish. 5 years on with this camera I am now down to one in five good, three acceptable and one that is rubbish.

5 Get outside into natural light — keep the sun on your back to start with. Start taking point and shoot photographs to get used to the light at different times of day. Look where the shadows fall, look at what buildings and structures softly reflect the light or blind you with their reflections. Watch where your shadow falls!

Composition

1 Frame the photograph in your mind’s eye before taking it. Ask yourself what you want to achieve — do you want to focus on one thing amongst many — or do you want a broader picture to convey general atmosphere? The next two pictures are taken from the same place — the portrait shot adds a greater sense of depth and a much greater sense of the height of the cliffs and adds to the dramatic sense of the scene.

2 Take your time if you can. Stop, look around get the feel of where you are. Look for interesting details — move the telephone wires or stop signs out of shot. This is the first shot I took of the modern windmill yesterday I moved over the road to get the shot I eventually used to get the wires out-of-the-way.

3 There is something called the rule of thirds, which says you should never have your horizon in the middle of your shot. You should work to have two-thirds land one-third sky/sea or the other way around depending on what is more interesting. A sunset for instance will usually work better with one-third sea or land and two-thirds sky. Try to give depth to a photograph by including details that will frame and give context — a silhouette against a sunset gives depth and contrast.

4 Once you have mastered rule 2 and it has become second nature — throw the rulebook away. You have learned to compose and frame your shots — now you can play with the ideas in your head. If you are using portrait mode to photograph landscapes you need to alter your horizon — your horizon is now top to bottom — or bottom to top — i.e. down the centre of the photograph. You need to take your picture so it unfolds from the bottom upwards — not left to right. You need to have a feature in your photograph that draws you in and up, rather than sweep around. This can be a gap between buildings, such as narrow streets or a road in landscapes or the seashore that your eye can follow.

5 Try positioning your shot slightly off centre — try one way first then the other — see how that changes the balance and overall composition. Use the diagonals of your shot to help you with this, having an element of your shot somewhere along the diagonal will add more dimension and balance.

6 Play with angles, balance and perspectives — move in closer — or move out — try the zoom — when working with landscapes in portrait format this really helps. Looking up or down so the photograph follows the lines of a street or a valley adds more perspective and focus than a straight shot. Looking down makes them look deeper and longer, crouching down and looking up can make buildings or trees seem taller.

Last but not least, never, never forget to have fun — photography is about capturing a moment — a memory, never forget to savour that moment whilst saving it for posterity.

18 Comments

  1. Superb tutorial, Nicola, thank you for taking the time to write this — and your special images examples are terrific! You are spot on in all points. What I appreciate most about Portrait photography is that, when outside, the sky is often the star — just as your examples present. Landscape mode favors the land and its horizon. Portrait offers the sun and moon!

    On a practical level, publishing images in this blog in portrait mode gives us much more opportunity to share a magnitude of more information. We are limited by how wide we can go with an image, but up-and-down, portrait — we have zero limits!

    That is likely why Infographic images you see online are always super long and tall and never horizontal. There just isn’t the physical continuity space to tell a sideways story, so you have to tell it “down the page” instead. We read left to right in the USA, but the best online images are universally viewed top to bottom.

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  2. I am going to have to remember your point about the sky – I missed that – and we have amazing skies here. Going to go and have a look at some of my syy images again and see how they would work in portrait now.

    words can go across the page – picures have to go down – noted !

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    1. You definitely have beautiful skies. I have enjoyed seeing them in your images. The temptation, and an editor, is to crop the sky to bring the foreground to the center of the image, but when you’re in portrait mode, you don’t have to worry about the sky being an informational distraction — let it live! SMILE!

      I actually love the image in this article showing the windmill. The composition is perfect, the sky is deep and beautiful and the land is winding — but, you’re right, the wires ruin it all!

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  3. It eas a real shame about those wires – at least I do not have people with trees coming out of their heads ! I do sometimes get photo bombed by the cat though.

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  4. Not sure if it attention – think it is the curse of cats ………… curiosity – will mail you a couple of pics and you will see the same reaction from different litters.

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  5. Good tips and great photos… Most of my photography is done indoors as I usually shoot the DIY projects I’ve done inside the house. The lighting is a real challenge for me shooting indoors, even in auto mode which I always seem to shoot in. I do think your rule of thirds would still apply though. I will keep all this in mind as it gets warmer out and we are planning to do some landscape projects outside.

    Thanks!

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    1. Lighting indoors is still hit and miss for me – that one I am still trying to learn – a lot depends on what kind of lightbuls you use as they all give different kinds of “white” light. I am looking foreward to seeing what you do outside.

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  6. I am definitely going to remember these for the future. I’m especially a fan of the rule of thirds– it’s something I haven’t really considered before, but it makes all the difference!

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