Every Picture Has a Story: Composing Beautiful Photographs

BlogHer Original Post

A successful photo is one that evokes interest and compels the eye to linger awhile. It tells a story.

However, what we see with our eyes and what we capture with our camera are often two separate things. The problem is, while our eyes see the world around us in 3-D, photographs are two-dimensional - just one reason why they often fall short of the image we hoped to capture and share.

Photographer Edward Weston once said, "Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk." But with all due respect to Mr. Weston, if you take a few seconds to compose your shot before clicking, you'll have a better chance that others will see what caught your eye in the first place. You'll save the time and effort in post-processing.

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Composition is simply how your subject and other elements within the image frame are arranged and relate to each other. Learning how to compose a photo will not only help your image tell a story, but will make it a special reflection of what you see.

In any good story, you need focus, tension, interest, depth, and contrast. Elements that distract should be removed. Here are just a few ways to achieve those elements in the story of you photograph, whether you shoot in automatic mode or manual. (But remember, there are always exceptions to any rule!)

Focus

What is drawing your eye to the scene? What is it you want to capture? That's what you focus on (your focal point) and if it's a person, specifically focus on the eyes. If it's a group of people, focus on the one nearest to you.

babies on the beach

The Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is probably the most common composition tool used. Imagine a tic-tac-toe board placed on top of your image, dividing it into nine equal sections. Now align the main elements of your photo along those lines, especially where they intersect, and poof! Your photo is already more interesting, because, according to scientists, the human eye is naturally drawn to a point two-thirds up a page.

This technique is very useful when composing landscapes or seascapes. Adjust the horizon line accordingly, depending on whether the sky or the land/sea is more important to your image.

maternity shoot on the beach

Fill the Frame

Try not to leave a lot of empty space. Your goal is to emphasize the subject, and empty space is usually not empty, but full of distractions. (But if the setting is important, include enough to give a sense of place, proportion, or perspective.)

Horse portrait

Subject Moves into the Frame

Make sure your subject is moving into or looking across the photo, not on the edge moving or looking out. You want to draw the viewer's eye into the photo, not away from it.

Perspective

Try different angles. Walk around. Get down low or up high for interest and surprises. For pets or babies on the floor, try getting down on their level. Remember that your camera can take photos even if you're not looking through the viewfinder, so drop it down way low and snap a few.

Sky and branches
Check the Background

Make sure there aren't branches or poles coming out of someone's head. Keep the scene simple, removing what doesn't add to or support the main subject. You can usually eliminate extraneous scenery or other things that can get in the way of your shot by changing angles.

Framing and Lines

Windows, doors, even leaves or tree branches will lead a viewer's eye to the subject, as will lines you find in roads and fences, or lifeguard shacks.

Couple on the beach
Depth

Because photographs are two-dimensional, it's up to us to convey the depth in a photo. You can do this by including objects in the foreground and background.

No matter what composition processes you follow, be ready to toss the rules. They aren't really rules, anyway, just suggestions. Every photo tells its own story, and every photographer, too. Art is about creativity, and with digital cameras, it's so easy to try something new. If it doesn't work, you can hit "delete" and try again.

horses in a corral
To learn more about composition, look at examples of photography you like. Examine them, figure out what appeals to you, and practice them as you shoot your own pictures. Because the best way of all to learn your own style and process of composing is to grab your camera and start clicking!

This post is part of BlogHer's Pro Photo Tips editorial series, made possible by Panasonic.

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