Most good pictures are not the result of a fortunate accident! The photographs you admire in exhibits may look like chance shots. But most often they have been created by the photographer. How do you create a picture? First you learn the rules of good composition given here. After you learn these rules, you'll realize that most pictures with good composition are the result of careful planning, patient waiting, or a quick sensing of the best moment to take the picture. But it's easier than it sounds. You'll find that the rules of composition will become part of your thinking when you are looking for pictures, and soon they will become second nature to you.
Photographic composition is simply the selection and arrangement of subjects within the picture area. Some arrangements are made by placing figures or objects in certain positions. Others are made by choosing a point of view. Just moving your camera to a different position can drastically alter the composition. For moving subjects you select the best camera position and wait for the opportune moment to snap the picture when the subject is in the best location for composition.
While the rules for good pictures are not fixed and unalterable, certain principles of composition will help you prevent making serious mistakes in subject arrangement and presentation.
After you've followed the rules of composition for a while, you'll no longer need to spend much time trying to determine the best arrangement of the picture you're taking. As we all have some artistic ability, soon the recognition of pleasing composition will become almost automatic. You'll be aware that it is important to place figures or objects in certain positions. Figures should look into not out of the picture. Fast-moving objects should have plenty of space in front of them to give the appearance of having somewhere to go. And remember that since bright tones or colors attract attention of the eye, the most important elements of the picture should be the lightest or brightest or most colorful.
To remind you again: composition is simply the effective selection and arrangement of your subject matter within the picture area. If you follow the suggestions given here, experience will teach you a great deal about this subject. When you look through the viewfinder, concentrate on how you want the final picture to appear.
It is usually best to have one main point of interest because a picture can tell only one story successfully. The principal subject may be one object or several. For instance, you may want to include a secondary subject, but make sure that it doesn't detract from your main subject. Whatever the main subject is, always give it sufficient prominence in the photo to make all other elements subordinate to it.
Avoid putting your center of interest in the center of your picture. Usually, if the main subject is in the middle of the picture, it looks static and uninteresting. You can often make excellent picture arrangements that have pleasing composition by placing your center of interest in certain positions according to the rule of thirds. When you divide a scene into thirds both vertically and horizontally, the dividing lines intersect in four places. Any of these four intersections provides a pleasing position for your center of interest.
Good pictures usually depend on selecting the proper point of view. You may need to move your camera only a few inches or a few feet to change the composition decidedly. When you want to photograph a subject, don't just walk up to it and snap the shutter. Walk around and look at it from all angles; then select the best camera angle for the picture.
Outdoors, shooting from a low camera angle provides an uncluttered sky background. However, when the sky is overcast with cloud cover you'll want to shoot from a high angle and keep most or all of the sky out of the picture. Overcast skies look bleak and unappealing in pictures.
Always consider the horizon line. Avoid cutting your picture in half by having the horizon in the middle of the picture. When you want to accent spaciousness, keep the horizon low in the picture. This is especially appropriate when you have some white, fluffy clouds against a blue sky. When you want to suggest closeness, position the horizon high in your picture. Another important point, easily overlooked, is to see that the horizon is level in the viewfinder before you press the shutter release.
One rule of composition you should always keep in mind is whether the picture you're about to take would be better if you move in closer to your subject. Close-ups convey a feeling of intimacy to the viewer while long shots provide a sense of distance and depth. A close-up picture focuses your attention on the main subject and shows details that you could otherwise overlook or defines details that are too small in more distant views.
Some amateur photographers look through the viewfinder when they're taking pictures and start backing away from the subject. This is not only bad from a safety standpoint, but it can also be bad for composition. This can have the effect of making the subject too small in the photograph and encompassing too many elements that are not part of the picture. Including too much in the picture can be confusing and distracting to the viewer.
When you look through your viewfinder, move toward your subject until you have eliminated everything that does not add to the picture. (Be sure to read your camera manual to understand how close you can get to your subject. Moving in too close may cause your pictures to be out of focus.) Even though you can crop your picture later if you plan to enlarge it, it's usually better to crop carefully when you take the picture. Carefully composing the picture in the viewfinder is essential for taking color slides because cropping techniques are not generally used with slides. In addition, because the frame size of a 35mm camera is not large, you'll obtain the highest quality when you utilize all of the picture area. The larger the image size on the film and the less enlarging that's necessary, the higher the image quality. A good rule to remember is to fill the frame.
Use leading lines to direct attention into your pictures. Select a camera angle where the natural or predominant lines of the scene will lead your eyes into the picture and toward your main center of interest. You can find a line such as a road or a shadow in almost anything. The road will always be there, so it's just a matter of choosing the right camera angle to make it run into the picture. A shadow, however, is an ever-changing element in the scene. There may be only one time in the day when it's just right. So you should patiently wait for the best composition.
The background can make or break a picture. It can add to the composition and help set the mood of a picture, or it can detract from the subject if it is cluttered. Watch out for backgrounds that are more compelling than the subject. Cluttered, distracting backgrounds often spoil otherwise good pictures. Before you snap the shutter, stop for a minute and look at the background. Is there some obtrusive object or action in the background that does not relate directly to your subject which would divert the viewer's attention? For example, is there a telephone pole growing out of your subject's head? Beware of an uncovered trellis or the side of a shingled house when you take informal portraits or group shots, because prominent horizontal or vertical lines detract from your subject. Foliage makes a better background. A blue sky is an excellent background, particularly in color pictures. Remember to look beyond your subject because your camera will!
For an added creative dimension, compose your pictures with an interesting foreground frame, such as a tree, a leafy branch, or a window. Try to choose a frame that links thematically with the subject such as a sailboat's rigging framing a harbor scene. Foreground frames create a sensation of depth and direct the viewer's attention to the center of interest. Watch the depth of field of your lens so that both the foreground and the other details in the scene will be in focus. In scenic photos, avoid a very out-of-focus foreground that can distract from the subject. But in other kinds of shots, such as informal portraits, an unsharp foreground frame emphasizes the main subject.
If you're using an auto-exposure camera, and you want both the foreground frame and the main subject sharp, remember to use the aperture-priority mode or depth program so that you can use a small aperture. Or you can use this mode to set a large aperture to put the frame out of focus. If you are using an auto-focus camera and you want only the main subject in focus, be sure to lock in the focus for the most important subject area first, and then include the out-of-focus foreground-otherwise the lens will focus on the foreground.
Pictures of subjects in action usually convey a feeling of excitement, so the technique you use to photograph the action will have a great deal to do with the quality and mood of your pictures.
The most common technique for stopping action in a photograph is to use a high shutter speed. For most action pictures, you'll probably want to use as high a shutter speed as lighting conditions and depth-of-field requirements allow. Auto-exposure cameras that have an "action" program mode are especially good for stopping action; they automatically choose a fast shutter speed for the prevailing lighting conditions. Some auto-exposure cameras automatically switch to an action mode when you mount a telephoto lens (or telephoto zoom) on the camera. But even if you can use action modes, it's useful to know when you must use the highest shutter speed and when you can stop the action with slower speeds.
Action moving at right angles to the camera is more difficult to stop than action moving diagonally, and action moving directly toward or away from the camera is the easiest to stop. Also, distant action is easier to stop than action close to the camera.
For example, suppose you were photographing the Grand Prix. You would have to use your highest shutter speed to stop the action if you were photographing the cars from the side as they raced across the finish line. If you were near a bend in the track and could photograph the cars coming toward you, you could get away with a slower shutter speed. Also, you could stop the action with a slower speed if you were in the last row of the bleachers rather than in the pits.
Certain types of action have a peak a split second when the action almost stops. If you anticipate the peak of the action and begin pressing the shutter release so that the shutter clicks right at the peak, the action is easier to stop. A pole-vaulter at the top of his jump, a golfer at the end of his follow-through and a tennis player at the peak of her backswing are all examples of peaks of action.
Another good way to arrest action is to pan with a moving subject. If you move the camera to keep the subject centered in the viewfinder as you squeeze the shutter release, the subject will be sharp and the background blurred. The slower the shutter speed, the more blurred the background will be. This technique is useful for creating a feeling of speed in a photograph. A picture of a trotter made at 1/500 second may show the action frozen in a rather static-looking photograph. But if you reduce the shutter speed to 1/125 second and pan the camera with the action, the result will be an exciting photograph filled with the feeling of motion.
It's not difficult to track a moving subject with a manual-focus lens, but an auto-focus camera that has a servo or continuous-focus mode makes panning easier because the camera will do the focusing while you follow the action in the viewfinder. The camera will continue to adjust focus almost until the instant of exposure. The disadvantage of this mode is that, unlike the single-shot focusing mode, the continuous-focus mode will allow you to take a picture whether sharp focus has been achieved or not.
Why wouldn't the focus always be sharp? One reason is that a moving subject may escape the focus target at the moment you press the shutter release. Another reason is that although autofocus lenses respond in fractions of a second, the subject may be moving faster than the focusing motor can adjust focus. Finally, there is a lag between the time you press the shutter and the time it takes for the camera to move the mirror out of the way and expose the film. At least one camera is programmed to take this time lag into consideration along with the speed and direction of the subject-and adjust focus so that it is correct at the very instant of exposure.
Sometimes you'll want to photograph action that you can't get as close to as you'd like, so you may use a telephoto lens to bring the action closer to you. Remember that a telephoto lens not only increases image size but also increases the effect of subject movement. When the subject distance remains the same, the effect of subject movement increases in direct proportion to the focal length of the lens. For example, if you need a shutter speed of 1/250 second to stop the action with a 50mm lens, you'll have to use a shutter speed that's twice as fast or 1/500 second with a 100mm lens. The longer the focal length, the faster the shutter speed needs to be.
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