Good photographs needn’t be complicated.
You can often make better pictures by thinking “simple.”
Instead of trying to get as much as possible into the shot, try to include as little as possible. Ideally, you should include everything that adds to the picture, and nothing else. But that’s a tall order for those new to photography (and for a few “old hands.”). Thinking “simple” will help you learn to do it.
If you include too much in the picture, the result is confusing. It gives the viewer too much to think about. He or she probably won’t even be able to figure out where to start.
A simple composition, on the other hand, allows the viewer to take it in quickly and effortlessly. Then his or her mind can find a starting point for his or her own “tour” of the picture, for their own questions: In the case of the bench photo on the next page, Why is this bench empty? Who is the bench for? What country is this? The viewer’s adventure begins.
The photographer came across a weathered bench in front of a building with some shuttered windows. And that’s just what he shows the viewer. He didn’t try to include the whole building, or its surroundings. He simplified the photo by including only the bench and two shuttered windows. (He made this photo with an Advanced Photo System point-and-shoot camera, by the way–you don’t need fancy gear to get good shots.)
The photographer also composed with the bench to one side. Why? Because the shot “felt” right composed that way. He could have done a symmetrical composition, with the bench centered in the frame, and that might have worked, too, depending on what was to the left of the bench. Perhaps there were distracting elements just out of frame to the left. The shot works wonderfully well composed just as it is.
Maybe there was a color just out of frame that didn’t “fit.” The colors in the photo work very well together. The colors and the composition give the shot a painterly effect.
Motion pictures are based on the fact that the moviegoer sees only what was included by the director and cinematographer. Everything outside the frame is irrelevant. In fact, if you saw what was just outside the frame in most movie scenes, it would take the magic away. You’d see reflectors and scrims and cue cards and lights and equipment….
One way to keep a composition simple is to use negative space. Negative space is the portion of the composition not occupied by the subject, and as a photographer, you ought to think about it when you shoot.
Most photographers tend to over-concentrate on their subject, to the detriment of the rest of the image. When composing your images, consider first the subject’s location in the frame. Then, examine the rest of the image area. Do the other elements in the picture add to it or detract from it? Are there distracting elements in the background? Perhaps moving the camera right or left (or up or down) will give you a better background. (You can throw distracting background elements out of focus by shooting with the lens set to its largest aperture, but it’s better to eliminate the distracting elements from the background if possible.) When shooting action subjects, check the background area before the subjects arrives, and move to a better camera position if necessary to avoid background clutter.
The photo of the white bird has lots of negative space to the right of the subject. This photo could be run large over a spread in a magazine, since it provides lots of room for a head, subhead and body copy (text). When you shoot photos for publication, sometimes it’s a good idea to provide some negative space for the art director to use.
|When the subject is composed to one side of the image, it’s generally best if it faces into the photo, to draw the viewer’s eye into the picture rather than out of it. Of course, if this Great Egret were facing the other way (or if the camera had been aimed slightly to the left, so the bird occupied the right half of the image area), besides drawing the viewer’s eye out of the picture, it could be construed as an editorial statement that the subject is not interested in (or feels contempt for) the text information inserted into the negative area.|
Another consideration with off-center subjects is autofocusing. If the subject is located out of the camera’s AF target area, the camera will focus on the background rather than on the subject. Some AF SLRs have wide AF areas that can handle off-center subjects (the viewfinder’s AF target will show you the camera’s AF area). If yours has only a small central AF area, aim it at the subject, lock the focus (generally, by holding the shutter button halfway down), then recompose the image as desired and shoot.
It’s a good idea to try composing the subject somewhere besides dead-center in the frame–sometimes dead-center is most effective, sometimes off-center is better.
Yet another way to simplify your compositions is to use just a touch of color. Although lighting and composition are perhaps the most important aspects of photography, color can play a very important role in some images. Learning to emphasize color is largely a matter of training your eye to recognize situations in which color stands out–whether it’s selecting one color to predominate a scene, or by choosing particular colors and minimizing others.
When choosing a color, consider its psychological impact in your image. Perhaps more than any other design element, color can determine the mood of your photo. Generally, red, orange, and yellow are considered warm and exciting. Passion, heat and love are some of the moods that warm colors evoke. Warm colors stand out in a photo. On the other hand, colors on the other end of the spectrum–such as green, blue and lavender–are thought to be cool, peaceful and serene. These colors tend to recede.
Some pictures have impact because of the contrast between a colorful detail and a muted background; all you need is a splash of a very bright color or two. You can challenge yourself with a creative self-assignment by looking for scenes where you can isolate dramatic color against a neutral background. In the case of the photo on this page, the photographer used her red car as a touch of color in this monochromatic, wintry road scene in Washington’s Olympic National Park. The eye is drawn to the bright car even though the leading lines that the road creates would normally lead your eye through the picture.
When working with color, don’t be indiscriminate and assume that pretty color alone will carry the photograph. Wonderful colors are no substitute for good composition. So don’t get so carried away with an interesting scene before you that you forget to pay attention to composing that great shot. Our eye tends to weed out distracting elements–the camera lens, on the other hand, is not as selective on its own.
Often, the key to a successful color photo is how you frame the image. Use a moderate wide-angle lens (in the 28–35mm range) to reveal the contrast between the background and the color you want to spotlight. Use a telephoto lens (perhaps 100mm) to isolate this color, or to minimize the background.
Zoom in on some bright patterns on a piece of clothing, or shoot a yellow umbrella on a gray, rainy day. Creative options are everywhere–you’re limited only by your imagination.
In a nutshell, you are the director and the cinematographer of your photos. You decide what the viewer will see. Don’t include too much, and thus take away the magic.
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