The perfect photographic composition – part 2

In the first part of this article about creating the perfect photographic composition I described how you should keep your compositions simple in order to maximise impact. In this article I’ll describe further techniques that help support and enhance that fundamental aim. These techniques will help to achieve such goals as:

  • direct the viewer’s attention towards the main subject;
  • help to establish mood/atmosphere;
  • give the illusion of three-dimensional depth;
  • add a feeling of drama, dynamism and energy to your images;
  • give a feeling of movement.
Icelandic iceberg in stormy light
The use of diagonal lines in the clouds and the sea to direct the viewer’s attention to the iceberg.

Directing the viewer’s attention to the main subject

In many good photographs the main subject dominates the frame and grabs the viewer’s attention without any help from the rest of the image – the ‘negative space’ as it is sometimes called.

In others, however, and particularly in slightly more complex compositions, that negative space can provide some pointers, literally leading the eye to that subject. Those pointers can take any number of forms, such as diagonal lines in cloud or water patterns (as in the image above), or perhaps the line of a rural wall or hedge, a meandering stream, or even the line of a sweeping and zig-zagging road. All these can reinforce the importance of the main subject, helping it to stand out even further than it already does from the background.

Of course, you can have too much of a good thing. You really don’t want too many such pointers, each one increasing the risk of criss-crossing conflicts that just add to the image’s complexity and confusion. So keep them under control!

Trees silhouetted at sunset, in Turkey
A limited colour palette and simple silhouettes to generate mood.

Establishing mood

Establishing mood is one of the most important steps towards creating a great photo that anyone viewing it can empathise with. The first requirement is usually a simple composition (as outlined in the first article), but this then needs to be accompanied by an appropriate type of light and colour palette.

Strong, angular, low sunlight is of course good for generating some kind of a stormy atmosphere, particularly if accompanied by scudding clouds, but rather useless if a calming, peaceful mood is required. For that you need a scene that at least appears in the photo to be motionless, usually bathed in a soft light that generates a very simple and limited colour range. A simple silhouette in a calm sunset or dusk is a typical example, as in the photo above.

Some of the most effective moody images are created with a very limited, simple colour palette, making them almost monochromatic, not necessarily in the black-and-white sense, but rather in consisting of just one or two colours. An image that consists of multiple, wide-ranging colours is almost inevitably a lot more complex in appearance, and may be enough to defeat any kind of simple composition, ruining any possible mood that you might otherwise want to establish.

Tracks in snow in a country lane on Exmoor
Using a strong diagonal to give the illusion of three-dimensional depth.

The illusion of three dimensions

One of the biggest drawbacks of photography is that the resulting images are simply two-dimensional representations. If only we could create genuinely three dimensional images!

We can of course partially overcome this limitation by creating the illusion of three-dimensional depth in our photographs. This can usually be achieved using diagonal lines that literally lead the viewer’s eye from the ‘front’ of the image into the scene, giving a sense of depth and structure.

In the image above the three-dimensional illusion has been created simply by using tyre tracks in snow. By crouching down low and using a wide-angle lens I’ve been able to create some very strong diagonal lines that head straight into the depths of the scene, giving a strong sense of three dimensions.

Georgian houses in the Royal Crescent, Bath.
Use of a strong angle to create a sense of drama or dynamism.

Drama, dynamism and energy

A simple straight-on record shot of a stationary scene will generally result in a very dull, static image with limited appeal. Such a scene needs some livening up; the introduction of a bit of dynamism, or energy.

There are a number of ways to do this, but among the most effective are the use of a low-angle view (for a high-up subject at least), coupled with a wide-angle lens, and perhaps a dash of tilting camera. Suddenly a potentially dull image can become quite lively.

The reason for this? All these little techniques help to generate, or exaggerate, diagonal lines in the scene, lines that naturally tend to generate a sense of energy. This is provided they are coordinated diagonals, of course: a mass of criss-crossing lines just results in chaos and a very jumbled photo!

A waterfall near Hartland Quay
Providing a feeling of movement by blurring moving water.

The feeling of movement

Coupled with the addition of a sense of dynamism and energy is the feeling of movement. Photography of even dynamic scenes filled with movement and excitement can result in dull, static images if shot in the wrong way. It is important to be able to really capture and put across the sense of movement in those shots for them to live up to their dynamic potential.

One of the most common solutions is to introduce some deliberate motion blur, in which either the moving subject or the background is partially or even totally blurred. This is achieved not through differential focussing of course, but by the use of a slow shutter speed, something that does not completely freeze the movement.

This is most commonly seen in landscape photography with the blurring of moving water, such as with photography of waterfalls (as above), rivers or shoreline waves. However, it is also frequently used in sport and wildlife photography; indeed just about any kind of photography that involves action.

Beach picnic at sunset
Use of diagonal lines, exaggerated by a wide-angle lens, to lead the eye to the main subject, to give the illusion of three dimensions and to add dynamism to an otherwise static scene.

Wide-angle versus telephoto lenses

In this article I’ve mentioned the use of diagonal lines quite a number of times: in generating an illusion of three-dimensional depth, creating lines that lead the viewer’s eye to the main subject; and to introduce a sense of energy and dynamism in an otherwise static scene.

So clearly, diagonals are pretty useful in greating great photos, and one of the best ways to create diagonals – or at least exaggerate those already present in a scene – is to use a wide-angle lens. And sometimes the wider the better, if you really want to create a lot of drama.

Of course the downside of a wide-angle lens is that it opens up the possibility of allowing move distracting clutter into the image frame, as well as making the subject much smaller. The solution is to step closer to the main subject, something that a lot of photographers fail to do. And sometimes you need to step a lot closer than you might imagine. There are many times, of course, when you simply cannot get as close as would be desirable, in which case you may need to consider shooting in a rather different way, or even change the subject altogether.

For certain kinds of images where you want to introduce drama, telephoto lenses work quite well. Their ability to fore-shorten distances, crowding elements closer together than they actually are can have a powerful effect, enhancing a sense of strength and power, say in vertical walls or cliffs.

The telephoto lens can also be very effective in photography of water, capturing droplets of water in mid-air, and enhancing the apparent size and power of waves. However, for this to work the lens in question has to be quite powerful to allow you to home in on details, and it needs to be used with a very fast shutter speed.

Waves and spray on rocks
Use of a telephoto lens to capture a sense of drama, power, energy and movement.

A final word

I hope this article, along with the previously published first part, helps to give some pointers towards how to create impactful images. Needless to say, in this short space it is impossible to cover everything; the ideas given here are generalisations, but they should give you some thoughts on the way forward to improve your photography.

Get out there shooting and enjoy your photography!

Courses, tours and books

If you’d like to come along on any of my photography courses (which teach the principle points outlined in these articles) find out more by clicking on the link below:

Courses/workshops

To get more deeply into the photography with me, and to visit some fantastic locations in the UK and overseas, find out about my tours by clicking below:

Photography tours

To find out more about my books click on the link below:

Nigel’s books

The perfect photographic composition

For any photographer, finding the perfect photographic composition can be just about the hardest part of any form of photography. Admittedly, a few people have a natural gift for creating great compositions, and hence images, but for most it is a question of practise and hard work.

It is a crucial skill to acquire, of course, because being able to find perfect photographic compositions lies at the very heart of great photography, far more so than any technical knowledge surrounding whatever camera you may be using. For sure, most people who regularly use a camera will stumble upon a great composition by accident from time to time, but what is needed is an ability to keep extracting those great compositions time and again, deliberately and to order. As I’ve already said, it is a skill that lies at the very heart of great photography.

So why is it so darned difficult? This two-part article aims to provide some answers and pointers towards the skill that is so important in finding the perfect photographic composition.

An image with a single subject as its photographic composition

So what’s the problem?

The essential, basic problem is that the photographic image simply doesn’t represent the real world in the way that we see and experience it. When we visit a place we have the real world all around us in 360 degrees and three dimensions, and what we see with our eyes is only a part of the ‘picture’ – our minds are also fed an enormous amount of non-visual stimuli, such as noises, sounds, smells and temperature, that combine with sight to complete our experience of any given scene.

Point a camera at that scene, press the shutter and Hey Presto! We’ve captured a representation that is two-dimensional, covers only a small part of what we could see (and even then restricted within a tight frame), and has thrown away all those non-visual stimuli that were so important in our interpretation of the place. Small wonder, then, that such a photograph frequently fails to convey anything close to what we thought we saw. In fact, it is amazing that anyone ever comes even close to success here!

A single strong subject dominating the frame, with no distractions.

Working towards the perfect photographic composition

Given that when we press the camera’s shutter button the resulting image contains visual information that is just a fraction of what we experienced, we need to make the best use of what remains in the picture to compensate for everything that has been thrown away. In other words, we need to use a host of photographic techniques that take the surviving visual information and change it from being simply a mundane representation into a fantastic composition with impact, style and some kind of message that elicits a reaction in anyone who looks at your photos.

In the remainder of this first article on photographic composition, I’m going to talk about what I consider to be the most important of these photographic techniques: keeping the compositions simple.

A photographic composition containing one single strong subject and a simple backdrop.

Keep it simple!

One of the biggest mistakes people make when using a camera is to try to fit too much in the frame. Everything looks great to the eye, so they want to try to record it all at once, cramming everything into a single frame. The result, more often than not, is an image with no visual impact, filled with clutter and everything quite small. The eye skips around the image, unsettled, dissatisfied and unable to find anything to home in on.

The solution is always to keep the compositions simple: just have one single subject dominating the frame (though not necessarily filling it). This gives the viewer’s eye something to really latch onto, so instead of skipping aimlessly around the frame it comes to rest on that subject, generally ignoring anything else in the frame. The result then is an image that communicates a message to and has an impact on the viewer. An image that stimulates an emotional reaction in a viewer is a successful image.

Everything else in the frame (the ‘negative space’) should either disappear from conscious view, through being either out of focus or a very simple backdrop, or should in some way support the main subject, helping to guide the viewer’s eye towards it. More on this supporting role in the second article.

What you absolutely don’t want in the negative space is anything that distracts the eye – random clutter or any elements that draw the viewer away from the main subject. As soon as this happens, the image’s impact is weakened.

To get some ideas of what I mean in my photography feel free to take a tour of the image galleries on my website. Click on the link below:

See photo galleries:

A strong subject in this photographic composition dominates the image frame.

Seeking out those simple compositions

Of course it’s one thing to say that you should aim to produce such simple compositions, but quite another to spot them within the chaos of our world, and yet another to successfully extract them from that chaos and distil them into great photographs.

The search for those simple compositions within our environment has several major implications, which are:

  • Generally speaking, really wide views of a scene risk both introducing too much clutter into the image frame and making the intended subject too small, and if not handled very carefully will result in weak, chaotic images;
  • As a result, most of the time the search for the perfect photographic compositions involves picking out little cameos, vignettes from within the wider scene, those elements that we recognize can be arranged through careful choice of lens and perspective into a great, simple compositon;
  • The previous point leads us to recognize that even when we’re in a scene that all looks beautiful to the eye, most of it just will not work photographically. We need to find those few cameos that happen to do so. Just because something looks fantastic doesn’t mean that it will translate directly into a great photo;
  • Famous views and sites may or may not translate into great photos. Just because a place is famous doesn’t automatically mean that it is highly photogenic. However, it is also true that a place may become famous simply because it is widely photographed, generating some great images because it does happen to be photogenic;
  • Many of the greatest photographs can be generated from very mundane scenes, places that most people – including a lot with cameras – would normally just walk past without a second glance;
  • We all see the world rather differently. As a result, two photographers shooting the same place at the same time will spot and extract great compositions that are surprisingly different. In the courses I run I am constantly surprised by the great compositions that my students come up with, compositions that I myself had not spotted;
  • The very first point in this list might imply that we don’t, or shouldn’t use wide-angle lenses much for good quality photography. Nothing could be further from the truth – I use wide-angle lenses most of the time – but they have to be used with care and in a certain way. This will be covered in more detail in the second article.
A tropical coral forms a superb single subject in this photographic composition.

Final thoughts

As this article has described, one of the first and biggest steps towards creating great photos is to keep the compositions simple, with a single strong subject, and nothing in the frame to distract the viewer’s eye away from it. It is something easier said than done, of course, but hopefully the few points given in the list will help start you along the road.

The next article

In the next article, to be published in two weeks’ time, I’ll go into rather more detail, explaining – among other things – situations where you might have more than one subject in a frame, how the negative space can be used to support the main subject, the importance of diagonals, and the use of wide-angle lenses.

Please enjoy.

To see more go to www.nigelhicks.com.

Or to see Nigel’s books click here….>