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Compose Yourself

March 29, 2013

When we first begin taking pictures, our subjects are usually always in the centre of the frame. This is because we want to ensure that we got the shot. In an earlier post, I suggested moving closer to improve your pictures. This adds drama to your pictures and concentrates on the subject. This technique immediately improves your photography.

As you become more experienced, your composition should progress as well. We may find out, either by experimentation or education, about the Rule of Thirds. This is where the image area is divided into thirds, both horizontally and vertically to help make composition more dynamic. The Rule of Thirds is so essential to good composition, that some cameras and iPhone Apps offer this division electronically via lines on the viewfinder. Also, there are screens available for high-end DSLRs that are engraved into thirds with fine lines. This shows just how important this concept is. In practice, for example shooting a landscape, if you allow either the sky or the foreground to occupy the top or bottom two thirds of the frame, your pictures will have far more impact. Including a person, or element in the left or right third of the frame, adds even more interest.

Flower photographed to illustrate combined Rule of Thirds and diagonal composition.

Flower photographed to illustrate combined Rule of Thirds and diagonal composition.

In portraiture, close-ups where the head occupies the full frame and the eyes are in the top third of the frame are very dynamic. Cropping into the top of the hair can make your portraits even stronger.

Once you become comfortable with keeping subjects off centre and utilising the top, bottom, left and right of your frame rather than just the middle, you will see an immediate improvement in your pictures.

A word of caution about some of the technical issues you will encounter when you start moving your subject off centre.

1. Exposure. Most cameras bias the centre of the screen to give correct exposure. Once you shift the subject off centre you risk under or over exposure, due to the background or sky, unduly influencing the exposure reading. There are several cures. You can take a test shot, check whether it is too light or dark and modify your exposure accordingly. You can centre the subject, half press the shutter to get a reading, lock it with AE/AF lock, recompose and shoot. Another option is to change to spot metering and move the spot to the subject. Generally auto-focus is tied to this and you get both correct exposure and focus in one easy movement.

2. Focus. We’ve all done it, you have a lovely subject, artistically placed in the left or right of your screen and it is just outside the focus area. Press the shutter and you have a beautifully focused background with an out of focus subject. This is easily fixed by first placing the subject within the focusing area, half press the shutter and keeping the pressure, recompose before shooting. As I recommended with exposure, you can focus and use the AF/AE lock to maintain the focus point while you recompose. With the iPhone camera you can touch the point on the screen that you want to be correctly focused and exposed and a focus icon appears. This is handy for off centre and back-lit subjects. It is also available on a number of touch screen point and shoot cameras.
Lastly, try manual focus. You can use one touch auto-focus then change to manual. Otherwise simply disengage auto focus, compose, focus and shoot. This works well with close-ups, portraits and macro shots, where low contrast causes auto-focus systems to hunt backwards and forwards. This is annoying and slows shooting.

Moving Outside the Square.
Once you have mastered Rule of Thirds composition, and can do it without hesitation, it is time for further experimentation. Diagonal and spiral compositions can be exciting and dynamic. Try changing formats to long and narrow such as 16:9, or square i.e. 1:1. If it is intentional you can even go back to experimenting with centralised subjects, using colour or light to add dynamics.

Porsche photographed in wide format to emphasise sporty lines.

Porsche photographed in wide format to emphasise sporty lines.

It is worth finding pictures that you like in magazines or online, and analysing why you find them appealing. Divide the image into thirds and see whether the photographer has used this composition technique to command your attention. Try and reproduce compositions you like until you develop your personal style. It is only when you understand the rules that you are able to break them and compose yourself using your own aesthetic.

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