Ask 2 Guys Photo: Composition Rules!

Pedicure Perfect

Pedicure Perfect

Here at 2 Guys Photo “World Headquarters”, we frequently receive letters from our readers seeking advice on all things photographic.  I selected this letter from “Just Shoot Me” to share their questions and some answers.

Dear 2 Guys Photo:

Congratulations on your site! The pictures are magnificent and the commentaries are humorous and insightful; a delightful mix.

I humbly seek your guidance and advice. I am a novice…as in green…as in not sprouted yet…as in preemie.  I point and shoot at what I enjoy looking at. I pay no attention to lighting, the hypotenuse of a right triangle, or any other terminology you use that is truly Greek to me.

Post photo shoot I have played around with the auto-edit feature adjusting the colors and contrast and I’ve cropped here and there. When you view my pics, are there any striking similarities in what I’m doing wrong, not doing enough of, too much of, or…..?

Feel free to be brutally honest. A simple “you stink” will suffice, and anything above that I will regard as a welcome compliment.

Many thanks in advance!

Just Shoot Me

P.S. My camera is an Olympus Stylus 840, 8.0 Megapixel, and on the lens it reads “AF 5X Optical Zoom 6.4-32mm 1:3.3-5″….whatever that means!

Dear Just Shoot Me,

Thanks for your kind words for our site – I’m happy you’ve discovered us.  I’ve taken a look at the photos you submitted and will give you my thoughts, and ask our readers to add their own.  First some perspective:

At a high level, making photos is all about two things, 1) controlling the amount and quality of light that enters your camera, which is known as exposure, (that’s the science), and 2) choosing how you frame the image through the viewfinder, which is known as composition, (that’s the art).  Your camera, like many point and shoot compacts, decides what settings to use to determine the exposure,  so you only have limited control over that aspect.  But the composition is something that is totally up to the photographer, so I’ll focus on that.

There are all kinds of guidelines, or rules that define good composition, and while rules are meant to be broken, there are some basic tenets that every photographer, especially the beginner, can rely on to produce pleasing results.  In fact Just Shoot Me, whether you realize it or not, you’re following some of these guidelines in some of your pics already.  We’ll discuss some composition guidelines as we look at your images.

Perspective or point of view (POV) refers to the decision the photographer makes when choosing where and how to capture a scene or subject.  Many people see something of interest and simply raise their camera to their eye and press the shutter release button – that’s why they call them “point and shoots”.  That eye-level perspective might yield a great image, or it might result in a a so-so picture that looks just like what everyone else took that day at that spot, and may lack depth, interest and drama.

By changing your perspective (get down low, aiming up at the scene, or shoot from a higher point, or include lines that lead the viewers eye right into the picture, etc.) can make a huge difference.  In these picture you submitted, you’ve done that effectively.

Gods RaysAll three of these use leading lines to draw us right into the scene.  On the ship’s mast, above, you looked and shot upward, allowing the mast and the cables to bring us up to see the beautiful clouds and rays.

My Plum Island Path

Beware of SnakesYour two boardwalk images above use the same principle of leading lines to draw us into your visions of a pleasant scene.  It appears on the first shot that you got down low which emphasized the boards and rails.  Well done!  There’s more information in an earlier post about perspective here.

Perhaps the most quoted composition guideline is the Rule of Thirds.  This is best described as imagining that a tic tac toe grid were laid over the scene you are trying to capture.  That is, picture two vertical lines and two horizontal lines dissecting the scene, each line being 1/3 of the way in from the edge, like this:

It’s not uncommon for many cameras to include these lines right in the viewfinder to aid in composing the scene, so check your Olympus.

The purpose of these lines is to assist you in placing horizontal or vertical lines in the frame.  An image is static and not very interesting when the lines (think horizons or a tall building, for example) are dead center in the frame.  When you move those lines to align with one of the rule of thirds lines, the image becomes more dynamic and attractive to view.

Your first boardwalk image above is a good example of this.  Look at the horizon, it’s just about 1/3 of the way down from the top and looks great.  The second boardwalk image isn’t quite a third but it’s a pleasing composition nonetheless.

On the other hand, these next three images place the horizon pretty much dead center in the frame and are not quite as appealing:

Plum Island PerfectionPlum Island Wildlife RefugeWhen framing a scene such as these, the photographer needs to choose which part of the view they want to make up the 1/3 and which the 2/3rds.  In other words, for these kinds of shots, ask yourself, which is more interesting – the sky or the land?  In the first image of the beach, that sky is glorious, so I might have tilted the camera Plum Island Horizonup so that the sky makes up 2/3rds of the image.

In the second and third, the sky is basically blue so I might have tilted the camera down just enough to move the horizon up and make the foreground 2/3rds  of the picture.

And whenever you include horizontal lines, such as a horizon, you want to keep things on the level.  That is, make sure your horizon is level and avoid the slow slide to the left or right.

To add interest to a scene, there needs to be something for the eye to be drawn to, a subject that stands out just enough.  In the beach scene above with the “glorious sky”, there’s a person walking the beach on the left, which adds to the scene just a bit.  In fact, as I was looking at that picture, I thought of cropping out about 1/3 of the beach foreground, which would have the effect of making the sky the dominant 2/3rds of the scene and moving the walking subject closer to the lower left intersection point of the rule of thirds grid.  So I went ahead and made those edits and came up with this:

Plum Island Perfection with Crop

I think this helps by moving the horizon line down which emphasizes both the sky and the walker.  What do you think?

A scene without a subject, without something for the eye to discover, can be flat.  And for best impact, position your subject at one of the intersection points in the rule of thirds grid (see the small circles).  Avoid placing your subject in the dead center of the frame, in other words, anywhere but in the middle box of that rule of thirds grid I showed earlier.  That’s known as the “dead zone” for the static appearance it presents.

Another point about composition… framing.  In this scene, you placed the trees on each side, which along with the near shore, frame the water and the far shore.  The framing elements help draw the viewer into the scene.

Summer Walk

In the following image you’ve  also helped to draw us into the scene by following another composition guideline by including “near, middle and far” elements.  The rocks along the shore (near and middle) bring us through the scene and out to the well-lit shore (the far).

Singing Beach

There are many additional rules of composition, such as “filling the frame” and “keeping it simple”, and we’ll cover these in future posts.

I want to touch briefly on photo editing.  I don’t know if you use any photo editing software, but if not, you might consider dabbling with one.  Here’s why: try as we might, sometimes we just can’t get the perfect picture “in camera”.  For example, lighting conditions might be beyond what our cameras can handle on its own, which is often the case with point and shoot cameras.  But that’s where a photo editor can come in handy.  Not in all cases, but in many, you can correct some simple problems after the fact on your computer.

For example, in the last two images we discussed above, there’s very high contrast between the light areas and the dark areas of the scene – not uncommon when taking landscape shots on bright sunny days.  I took just a few minutes and added some fill light and increased the highlights in both of them and came up with these:

Summer Walk edited

Singing Beach editedIf you compare these to the two originals, you’ll see that the dark areas have been lightened enough to show some color and detail where there was little evident before.  Note that these edits were made with low res versions of your images, so they’re not as sharp as we’d like, but they serve the point of showing what can be done with a photo editor after the fact.

If you do not use any photo editing software, I recommend you download a free program named Picasa.  It’s quite capable for the price, I use it frequently for quick touch-ups, and that’s what I used on these two images.  It’s available here.  I hope to share more information on Picasa and other photo-editors in the future.

In summary, I think your images are colorful and show a creative perspective.  Experiment with the rule of thirds and look for interesting subjects to place in your scenes.  Don’t forget to “keep it on the level”.  And try Picasa for a little post-production fun.

Thanks for writing and submitting your pics, Just Shoot Me, I hope you found these comments helpful.  I also hope you’ll write 2 Guys again, and I invite our readers to add their comments and suggestions.             Posted by Ed

About Ed Spadoni "Thoughts and opinions, resources and experiences… for emerging photographers everywhere."
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6 Responses to Ask 2 Guys Photo: Composition Rules!

  1. I do really like the crop on the ‘glorious sky’ picture. That sky is fantastic, and the crop really did focus on the sky and the walker.

  2. arthill says:

    It’s a great article hitting the important high points and explaining them very well. I would recommend Windows Live Photogallery (also free) over Picasa for cropping. It shows the rule-of-thirds lines as you drag around to crop and this is very helpful in getting things positioned on the lines and on the intersections. Even if you prefer Picasa for other things, use WLPG for cropping.
    And for Just Shoot Me I recommend my post on cropping

  3. Just Shoot Me says:

    Thank you very much for the valuable feedback and detailed instruction! Your personalized guidance and advice are much easier to follow than the generic directions provided in the camera box. There is hope for me yet!

    I am anxious to journey forth and use what I have learned. I may struggle a bit with the horizon shots as I am currently teetering on crutches, thanks to a broken leg. That may actually provide a “unique” perspective though, all things considered. Has anyone ever played Tic Tac Toe on the diagonal?

    Many thanks again 2 Guys Photo for your time and consideration! I look forward to learning even more from Ask 2 Guys as well….a terrific feature. Bravo!

    Stay Tuned,
    Just Shoot Me

    • Ed Spadoni says:

      Just Shoot Me, I’m glad you found our response helpful. Sorry to hear about the broken leg – but now might be a good time for you to experiment with abstract photography… taking pictures of every day scenes at odd angles! I wish you a speedy recovery and hope you’ll visit 2 Guys again soon. Feel free to contact us if we can help in any way – my Brother Rey would be more than happy to help you carry your groceries! Be well, Ed

  4. Pingback: More on composition « Art's Photoblog

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