Having discovered photography relatively late on in my twenties I had never given it much leverage as an art form before I picked up my first DSLR (after my wife was made redundant and we bought our first Nikon D3000). Since then I’ve strived to learn as much as possible through a range of different outlets and how even a simple camera can be used as a tool to control light to capture memories for eternity. As my knowledge and experience has grown over the years I’ve realised it is not the gear that makes the photograph it is the photographer’s ability to apply basic rules and in some cases know when to break them. Having even a basic knowledge of how to arrange your subject matter within your frame (otherwise known as “composition”) and with a little practice, you will see a huge different in the quality of your images which will allow you to capture the character or ambiance of the scene that stands in front of you.
The following rules of composition apply to anyone with a camera, whether it’s a smart phone through to a medium format camera or a complete novice to a seasoned professional. Once you have a good understand of these basic rules you will be able to deconstruct other photos and understand why some are more pleasing than others or what you need to do to take your snaps shots to the next level. These rules can be applied to anyone, you don’t need to spend more money on gear to capture better memories just a simple understanding of how to capture the world around you.
First things first
First of all before you even frame up an image you need to identify what made you stop your day and choose this of all place to capture. It could be the colour of the buildings, the unique architecture or a timeless human interaction; whatever it is you need to know what you’re trying capture so you can apply the following rules to emphasise the subject matter and remove other distractions from your image. This leads us nicely onto our first rule....
Do your research!
Before you have even picked up your camera or get on the plane to your next holiday, take advantage of the wealth of tools you have at your disposal to scout out the best photo locations. This can be as simple as Google images through to more dedicated websites like Trover which are full of people passionate about sharing their travel images.
If you can do your research before you get to a location it will allow you to get a basic shoot list in your mind so when you arrive you know exactly what neighbourhood or landmark you’re aiming for. This shoot list can obviously evolve over time but, if like most us, you do your travel photography whilst on holiday or vacation you don’t want to be wasting your time or your families by trying to find the best locations when it could be better spent in a bar or restaurant relaxing because you didn’t find that landmark before you even left.
Before our last trip to Bruges I knew this was one of the images I wanted to capture for my portfolio.
So I searched on line where it was, what would be the best time of day to capture it in its best light and where I would need to stand to get the setting sun behind the clock tower. I did have to check the weather as well to choose the only evening with clear skies to give me the contrast in colour between the blue sky and yellow buildings. Without my research into the location, time of day and weather I would not have captured this images the way I had pre-visualised it or maybe not even at all.
Composition is the term used to describe how a photographer arranges the visual elements within the frame either to draw a viewer’s attention into a specific area or portray a specific emotion. There are many different techniques that can be applied but there are some basics ones that anyone looking to improve their photography must learn.
Leading lines are path ways that are used to easily guide a viewer eye into, though or out of an image. Physical features that naturally occur in your scene are a great example of what can be used for leading lines, this includes roads, fences or rivers which typically start from the bottom of the frame leading to the background creating a point where the two lines merge into something called the “theoretical infinity”.
During our road trip through Death Valley the deserted roads and Martian style terrain gives a perfect example of how leading lines can be used to draw the viewer into an image and reflect the vastness of the landscape.
Leading lines can be made from anything like branches, bricks or a line of books. Whilst walking round a book market in London I noticed the line of books leading down to the potential customer. Just this simple addition of the leading line adds an additional level of interest to the image and takes it from a snap shot to a more a more compelling image.
Rule of thirds
This is one of the first rules I learnt and definitely one of the things I think about using almost every time I frame an image. The rule breaks an image into a 3x3 grid system with the goal to place the main subject of your image either along one of the lines or at the intersection of the horizontal and vertical lines. Most cameras will have a “grid” setting that will bring up the 3x3 grid in the view finder or LCD display, this will allow you to visualise the intersection points within your scene and place your subject in the best position.
This can take many forms, one of the most simple is to lower or raise your horizons when taking a landscape photograph. A beginner might think to keep the horizon in the centre of an image but just by simply lowering the horizon to the lower thirds line gives a much greater scene of scale especially if you have a dramatic sky.
Take this image of the sunrise at Lowerstoft pier were I lowered the horizon to the lower third line as I wanted to capture as much of the sky as possible, whilst also placing the rising sun on the intersection between the lower and left line. The pier is also another example of leading lines as it leads your eye into the image from left to right.
Foreground, mid-ground and background
This rule is primarily used within landscape photography as it allows a photographer to create depth and draws in the viewer by adding different layers to an image by including something of interest in the foreground, mid-ground and background. When you’re looking at a landscape it will be easy to choose your background subject as it will either be a mountain range or cityscape but if you are able to find something to add into the foreground and mid-ground it will allow your viewers eye to travel more pleasingly through the image.
In this photo over the San Francisco Bay I saw the lighthouse (mid-ground) and mist (background) over the other side of the bay but I needed to add a subject into the foreground. I took a couple of sample images with just the rocks in the foreground but it just didn’t capture the San Francisco weather we were experiencing at the time, so with a little patience I knew it was only a matter of time before a wave would hit the rocks in front of us to give a real sense of energy to the image. This is a great rule to practice as it teaches you to look at the whole scene and hunt out new angles rather than just the obvious area in front of you.
You can add an additional dimension to your images by not only framing your subject within your view finder but also by creating a second frame using something within the image. This helps to guide your viewer’s eye towards your subject matter whilst keeping the context of the scene. The frame can be something as simple as a door way or window or more of an abstract frame such as a tree branch. It can be a great challenge to push your photography skills once you have your main subject to look for different angles to find ways to frame it in a way you have not seen before and draw in the viewer by creating a unique interpretation of a scene.
Whilst walking around Land’s End in San Francisco I noticed a bird of prey in a tree which would have been an ok snap shot but I noticed that I could frame the Golden Gate Bridge in the background with the branch of the tree which gives immediate context into where the images was taken.
These are just a few of the countless different rules you can use to create more interest in your landscape and travel photography, all you have to do is go out there and use them to see just how much of a difference it can make to your images. So now you have an idea on some of the basic rules used within photography go back and look at your own images to see if they have been used without you knowing which might help explain why certain images are more appealing than others, chances are they have one or a combination of what we have discussed above.
However like every rule they are made to be broken, for example if you don’t use the rule of thirds it doesn’t mean you will have an unpleasing or less professional image, it is up to you as the photographer to know when to use either one or a combination of these rules. With the joys of digital cameras you can take a series of images with different compositions and choose in the comfort of your own home which you prefer and captured the scene the best.
The most important thing is to go out and keep shooting. Photography is like every other skill, the more you use it and apply these rules the more skilled you will become. So don’t wait for your next holiday get out there and take great photos in your local neighbourhood or country side, so when you are on holiday you already know how to apply these simple skills.