Photo Composition – sub-title “I wish I could take better vacation photos”
Ok, we’ve all done it, so let’s be honest about it. You know, the snap-shot of your grandmother with the tree branch sticking out of the sides of her head making her look like she had antlers. You could borrow my defense and say, “hey, at least I didn’t cut her head off.” Just imagine a show on Still-Photo Bloopers and all the contributions we could make such a show. I’ve got one shot that immediately comes to mind; it’s of one of my cousins at a New Year’s party over 20 years ago. Now I know that he was reaching up to straighten out his eyeglasses, but the photo looks like he’s just about to pick his nose. I have to laugh every time I see it because I could not have caught him at a more awkward moment. I’m still waiting for him to have children so I can send them a copy of it.
By now, you may have caught on to the theme of this column, that being “composing your photos”, so you’ll be happy with them when you see the images. I’m going to touch on some basic points that many people have never heard of and if you have, then maybe we’ll just remind you of them so you’ll be prepared for your next vacation.
The first point that I’d like to touch on is simplicity. If you are trying to get a good picture of your spouse in front of the ski lodge where you spent your winter vacation, there is a lot to consider before snapping the shutter. The building might be a beautiful structure, but if you’re standing right in front of it your spouse is going to be lost in the photo. So instead, thing about backing off (with your spouse) so that the subject of your photo can become more about your spouse while still including the lodge in the background. Avoid signs and cars and wires and such and try to keep your main subjects in perspective. As you look through the view-finder be aware of everything that is going to be in the finished photo and try not to focus just on those things that you want in the photo. If they are out there and you can see them in the viewfinder, they are going to be in the image too. To this end, it is sometimes a good idea to turn your camera on end, and take a portrait style shot so that you can eliminate unwanted clutter from the photo. If all else fails, do your best to make sure your subjects are focused and as clear as possible in the image and plan on having it printed with your main subjects cropped to get rid of clutter.
The next point that is a perfect follow-up to simplicity is mergers. Watch out! There you are, minding your own business when you decide to get that shot of grandma walking across the yard. You point the camera and focus it, and then you call out to grandma to get her to look up at you, and snap, you’ve got it, the perfect photo of grandma the reindeer. Sure we many times will want to catch our subject unaware, but watch out for branches, poles, buildings, etc. that can look like they’re growing out of your subject’s head. Sometimes these candid shots take a little forethought, so take a look around before raising the camera to your eye and you’ll still be able to get that shot, but hopefully with pretty clouds behind grandma instead of antlers. You might also be surprised to hear that sometimes mergers can be good for your photo. There are times when you will find that merging subjects in the background and the foreground will create a more artistic effect. In any event; you should make an effort to try both methods to see what you can do with them.
The next case/rule in composition is the rule of thirds. If you imagine your image is split into thirds, both horizontally and vertically you can learn to make better photos. If you are shooting the landscape at your favorite vacation spot, try not to let the horizon run right across the middle of your photo. This makes for boring photos in most cases and keeps you from properly expressing in the photo what it is you love about this place. So instead, keep the horizon in the top or bottom third of your photo. If the sky is beautiful and blue, you may want to keep the horizon low and let the sky dominate the photo. On the other hand, if the landscape is full of colorful flowers in flowing fields of tall grass then put the horizon in the top third and allow that landscape to dominate the photo. I think you can see where that makes sense, but how about people or buildings? Well, if you look around at photos that you like of people (or buildings) you may discover that many of them do not have the subject in the middle of the shot. By having your subject offset into the left or right third of the frame you can create more interesting photos that cause the viewer to look more carefully at the photo and enjoy more of what you were trying to capture. A straight-on dead-center shot of a mountain doesn’t say nearly as much as a shot that shows how tall this mountain is compared to the surrounding landscape. If your main subject is a person and they are standing sideways to the camera, make sure they are facing into the photo composition and not outwards to where the edge of your image will be. This will lead the viewer into the scene, so they see what the person in the photo was seeing.
There are a lot of discussions we could have on lines and depth-of-field, but I’ll save some of these discussion for future columns. It is pretty easy to follow the simple rules I’ve presented here and you will see a significant improvement in your vacation pictures if you will follow them.