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Getting into Photo Composition

By Khara Plicanic

What makes a photo great? When you trim away the razzle-dazzle of fancy equipment or extreme levels of technical prowess, what is it that truly makes one photo better than another? In one word: composition.

Ultimately, it comes down to making choices: where to stand, what to include in the picture (and equally important, what to exclude), how to arrange the objects within the frame, and even when to pull the trigger. And as it turns out, making good choices is a skill you can learn. In the following excerpt from The Enthusiast’s Guide to Composition (Rocky Nook), I share two guiding principles that, with practice, will help you make solid compositional choices automatically.

CHANGE YOUR POINT OF VIEW

Changing your viewpoint can open up entirely new possibilities for compelling photographic compositions. Captured in a park in downtown Miami, Figure 1 owes its entire existence to an altered point of view.

Figure 1. By changing my viewpoint from standing to lying on the ground, I was able to get a clear shot despite a busy and crowded location.

On the day we were shooting, there happened to be some sort of safety fair taking place in the vast parking lot surrounding us in the park; it was complete with fire trucks and crowds of people milling about. Looking around, I saw some grass, a few decently sized rocks, and a whole lot of background interference. While standing (a common default position) and surveying the scene, it was quite clear to me that getting a clean shot without a background filled with strangers would take some doing.

Or would it?

I looked around to find the highest ground, which conveniently was flanked by a pair of good-sized rocks. By putting my subject on top of the rocks and lying with my back on the ground (changing my viewpoint), I was able to shoot upward (rather than straight across) at my subject. This got rid of the fire trucks and crowds in the background, and instead left us with a nice clean sky. As an added bonus, I was able to shoot at such an angle that the ground was not included in the frame, creating the illusion that the subject is a young daredevil, bravely leaping from rock to rock at unknown heights. The reality, of course, is that he was only about three feet off the ground.

In addition to simplifying an otherwise busy scene, changing your viewpoint can also reveal exciting new elements that weren’t visible before, as seen in Figure 2. Part restaurant, part nightclub, and part museum, this unique eatery, tucked into a quiet corner of a Moroccan casbah, boasts an international celebrity guest list, stunning décor and light design, and a collection of international historical artifacts that would make the Smithsonian drool.

Figure 2. Captured from above, this scene reveals texture and pattern that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Naturally, it was a photographer’s paradise, but it wasn’t until I climbed up to the second level and looked down at what had otherwise been just another extravagant dining room that the repetitive pattern of the tables came together with the red light and the dynamic movement of one of the servers. Surprisingly, it became my favorite shot from the whole restaurant.

When photographing kids, neighborhood playgrounds make it easy to capture natural expressions and colorful compositions—as long as you don’t try to shoot from the bench! Some people think a zoom lens will give them a pass on having to be actively involved, but if you stay on the bench, all a zoom lens does is give you a more close-up photo taken from the same bad angle.

So bring your favorite fitness tracker and make a serious dent in your daily calorie goal by moving around the space alongside your subject. Follow them up the slide (or go down in front of them first), jump on the merry-go-round, and climb up the climb-y thing to see what interesting scenes you might find. Figure 3 was accomplished by racing to the top of the playground so I could photograph the subject from above as she climbed the ring ladder. Not only did this angle allow the rings to morph into a repeating pattern, but they also became a natural framing device (explained next). Can you imagine getting something this interesting while shooting from the bench?

Figure 3. Climbing up this ladder on the playground enabled me to capture the subject from above, using the ring ladder as both a repeating pattern and a natural framing device (see the next section).

FIND A FRAME WITHIN THE FRAME

Another way to draw attention to your subject is to frame it—not with the kind of frame that you hang on a wall, but with one that exists within the photo itself. In other words, use something in the scene to “frame” your subject, and then include both your subject and the frame in your photo.

Pretty much anything can be used as a frame: trees, plants, walls, architectural elements, even other people who happen to be on the scene. Once you know what to look for, you’ll find framing options everywhere. Figure 4 was captured with my phone while wandering the grounds around Seattle’s Space Needle. The branches of several nearby trees came together in such a way that, if I stood in just the right spot, I could position the Needle in the opening between them, creating the perfect natural frame.

Figure 4. The branches of several trees come together to form a natural frame, showcasing the Seattle Space Needle.

Frames aren’t limited to those made only by Mother Nature. Architectural elements make great framing devices, too. Figure 5 shows the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., captured through a porthole cutout on a nearby bridge. This frame-within-the-frame technique provides a refreshing perspective of a very recognizable and highly photographed subject.

Figure 5. The Thomas Jefferson Memorial, framed by a circular cutout on a nearby bridge.

Sometimes, the “frame” can be quite literal, as in Figure 6, where the subjects are standing in a doorframe. Other times, the frame can be much more subtle, as in Figure 7, where the bride’s veil is loosely framing the couple’s faces.

Figures 6 and 7. Some frames, such as this doorway, are quite literal. Other frames, like the bride’s veil, are more figurative.

Excerpted from The Enthusiast’s Guide to Composition by Khara Plicanic and used with the permission of Rocky Nook.