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[A reminder that this series is for those interested in more discussion around what contributes to better images. You could be newer to photography, trying to increase your success rate, or a veteran wanting a refresher. I will continue the series until I run out of topics. If you wish to offer any suggestions or just add to the discussion, feel free leave a comment.]
The first in this series dealt with the topic of “light” and its immense importance to your photographs. Without good or appropriate light our images fall flat and uninteresting, in the end having little commercial value.
Very high the list of important ingredients that make up a good image is “composition.” No matter how expensive your camera and lenses, as the pilot of the process you make choices about what goes in the frame and what stays out. A good composition has a focal point or something of interest that becomes the ultimate feature in your frame. Subjects are diverse and may be a pattern, a leading line, textures, a group or series of items, and more. Having multiple subjects (flowers, trees, people,…) in your frame can and does work, but in these situations I believe your results will be better if one or a few of those subjects stand out in some way. Without a clear subject the viewer’s eye will wonder, trying to find a place to land.
I recently had the opportunity to return to the rim of the Grand Canyon, an amazing place no matter how many times you visit. Each visit brings different light and ways to capture its incredible beauty. As I stood at the rim I was again challenged to think about what my subject or focal point would be. The urge to pull out a wide-angle lens and randomly aim across the canyon, as grand as it is, had to be resisted. For the most part wide-angle shots would capture too much and wouldn’t draw the viewer to a subject or a focal point. So, with great light as a starting point I began to focus on what, for me, I saw as the feature of the canyon – layers. Most of my images were moderate zooms that filled the frame with layer upon layer of the canyon’s amazing rock formations and patterns, which gave the image amazing depth. On other trips to the canyon nature provided passing storms or interesting clouds that allowed me to shoot a little wider because the sky added interest to the shot.
When you have identified your subject you need to determine what else, if anything goes into your frame. What adds or detracts from your subject? Too many or simply distracting elements will detract from your subject and the success of the image. Control these unwanted elements and be rewarded. For me, shooting in urban environments is challenging given the multitude of things happening in any given frame. Ask yourself: Do I really want that branch crossing in front of or sticking out from behind the subject? Do I want those random people wondering through the frame? What is going on in the background or in the corners? Do those power lines or random objects enhance that sunset? To manage these distractions I’ll move in or use zooms, try at another time if that will help, actively crop, or take the labor-intensive path of cloning out the distractions in post processing. Effective use of selective focus or working with depth of field can also reduce the impact of unwanted distractions.
We all should be aware of the “rule of thirds.” This rule supports the notion that your subject should be placed in one of the four corners of your frame to introduce visual tension or negative space. There are a few situations where centering your subject is visually interesting, but not that many. A good example where it does work is with reflections where the subject can be mirrored in some form of water or other reflective surface. Otherwise, centering your horizon or subject is not that visually interesting. Many cameras actually have a grid built in to the viewfinder that helps you offset your subject into one of four different corners of the frame.
Cropping is a useful tool. For years I was reluctant to crop to any degree as it decreased my native file sizes. That meant that I needed to get things right in the camera the first time, which was a good habit to build. With newer cameras and larger native files affords the opportunity to fine-tune your framing in post processing. While I still work to get things the way I want them in camera, I am gradually using my crop tool more often to better focus and flatter my subject. Don’t be afraid to crop when you couldn’t or didn’t get the framing right in camera.