Guidelines on Photographic compositions
How many times it has happened with you, that when you saw the scene with your naked eye, it felt awesome. But, when you see the photo of that scene on your computer, you feel that a lot is lacking in it. You see a lot of distractions in the background, some unwanted element which seems to be taking away the viewer's attention from the main subject, or the subject was too small and wasn't given its due prominence. Most of the time, we get overwhelmed by the scene. We tend to rush into 'shooting mode', without giving a second thought to the composition! Composition is the art of placing elements in your frame to create a balance (sometimes an imbalance as well) to get the viewer's attention to the subject and make him 'see' and 'feel' the scene. It helps the viewer to properly connect with the subject/situation.
Here are a few simple guidelines which are usually to be borne in mind while shooting on field.
THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE
Consider a diagonal of the frame. Draw a perpendicular from the corners on to the diagonal. The intersection points are called as the 'points of interest'. Keep your subject at any of these intersection points. It is noticed that by nature a viewer's attention tends to gravitate towards these points of interest. (The subject need not be exactly at the points of interest).
As you can see, in bird photography (as well as mammal photography), this rule will ensure that there is enough 'breathing space' around your subject.
THE RULE OF THIRDS
This is one of the most preliminary composition rules used by photographers and artists alike. In this technique, the frame is divided into 3 vertical sections and 3 horizontal sections as shown. The resulting four intersections form the points of interest. The rule of thirds is extremely useful for a landscape photographer in particular. Observing the scene, you can place the horizon at H1, if the sky is dramatic with good cloud formation and colours (so that the sky occupies greater area in the frame). On the other hand, if the sky is dull and boring, keep the horizon along H2 and fill the foreground with some interesting elements.
When your main subject is placed right in the middle of the frame, the composition becomes very static. By following the above two rules, you can keep the subject off-centre, and try to balance it with other elements. Allow some space in the direction in which the subject is looking or moving. That adds dynamism to the frame, and has the viewer in anticipation of what would happen next.
For a solitary subject in the frame, use the light creatively to strike a visual balance.
I have mentioned about 'breathing space' around your subject. The frame should not be too tight creating the feeling that your subject is in a cramped up space. When we keep enough space in the direction in which the subject is looking, we first get the viewer's attention on the subject and then guide it slowly in that direction. Having an obstacle in front of the subject or keeping the subject very close to the edge, breaks this rhythm abruptly.
A photograph by itself tends represent a frozen moment. In case of a moving subject, leaving space in the direction of motion guides the viewer through the frame and makes him feel the action. It is better to have the subject 'entering' into the frame, rather than moving out of the frame.
FILL THE FRAME
Sometime the subject occupies a very small space in the frame. Furthermore, if there are other elements in the frame, they also compete for the viewer's attention thereby making the subject lose its importance. Use a correct focal length to zoom in, or move as close as possible to the subject to ensure that it occupies enough space to be prominent in the frame. This will also ensure that you eliminate the unwanted clutter and distractions from the scene.
While taking a habitat shot, there is every possibility that your subject may occupy a small area in the frame. This would be all the more a problem if the subject is a small bird or an animal and the shot is taken from a great distance. In such a case, it is better to have a simple, monotonous surroundings with the least number of colours.
LEADING LINES AND CURVES
Lines are one of the most powerful elements of compositions in photography. Make intelligent use of lines and curves to guide the viewer through the frame. A poorly framed image will let the viewer's attention to drift through the frame with no clear point of interest. Lines can be straight or curved. Furthermore, straight lines can be horizontal, vertical or diagonal (inclined). As a photographer you can choose a certain orientation of lines (horizontal, vertical, diagonal, converging or diverging) to create a certain mood. Straight lines tend be rigid, with a clear directional orientation for the viewer. Curved lines tend to create a wandering and carefree movement for the viewer. In a way they allow you to move through the frame in a leisurely manner. In the alongside image, your eyes first set in on the road that snakes through the scene. You notice the small vehicle and after that your attention casually drifts all over the mountainous terrain. The use of diagonal lines in your compositions can add depth and give a 3-dimensional effect to the scene. They tend to move up or down, away or towards the viewer. Adding energy to the scene, they can be more dramatic than horizontal and vertical lines.
A clumsy background in your image can degrade even the best lit and correctly framed scene into a very ordinary photograph. On the other hand, a clean uncluttered background which very well complements the main subject can transform a simple mundane scene into a visual delight. Even while on field, one needs to keep a watch on the background. A small out of focus twig right behind the bird, which appears to be protruding out from its body can spoil the entire charm. Similarly, out of focus objects in the foreground also act like an obstacle, taking away our attention from the main subject. What is needed is just a momentary pause to have a re look at the scene. Most of the times, just moving ourselves sideward by a small distance can make a big difference to the background.
CHANGE YOUR FRAME ORIENTATION/ASPECT RATIO
Why always shoot in the landscape orientation? Sometimes a portrait orientation can dramatically impact the image. Also remember, if you intend to share your image for a cover page of a publication, it would need to be in the portrait orientation, since all magazines are printed in that format ! Just to give you an idea, refer to the first image here. It shows the entire scene with the Emerald dove perched on the pot. The second and third images are cropped versions of it. Let it be known that the dimensions for the two cropped images are exactly in the inverse ratio. However, in my personal opinion (and many others, who were shown both the versions) the vertical format does more justice to the pose and bodylines of the subject. What do you have to say?
Also we might have shot a scene, let's say a landscape, in the native image size and aspect ratio of your camera settings(for example 3:2). You can easily change the ratio of the sides to 16:9. This would create an effect of having taken the shot with a very wide angle lens. The only precaution required is that, there is no man made structure or an a person/animal in the frame. Such an element would get distorted and make the entire scene look artificial.
Observe the following two images carefully. The silhouette has been shot at a focal length of 126mm in the 3:2 ratio of sides. The first image shows the original scene, while the second image is the 16:9 version. You can very clearly see the slight distortion in circular solar disc. The difference is very much obvious, since you are seeing the two images side by side. However, no one would be wise enough to notice that distortion, if he was to directly see the second image.
It is very essential to strike a balance between the various colours in the scene. As a thumb rule, try to isolate the subject and keep the number of colours as less as possible. The simpler the shot, the bigger the impact. Too many bright colours in the frame would compete with each other reducing the overall impact of the scene. Combining complementary colours, such as blue and yellow gives you a dramatic frame.
Follow the principle of 'Selective Exclusion' to eliminate unwanted elements and colours thereof. After having reached a location, scout for a good position and angle to get the right combination of light, background and colours to complement your subject.
Composition can be very subjective, depending on an individual's taste and preference. Although, it is essential to keep these guidelines in mind, so as to get it as right as possible on the field, but we need not become slaves of these guidelines. Over a period of time, as you develop your own creativity, you would know how to deviate from these norms to get the necessary impact. For example, there are instances when you need not follow the Golden triangle rule or the rule of thirds. While clicking a frontal view of a sunflower, you may place the flower right at the centre of the frame, with the petals radiating out, towards the edges of the frame. Another example could be of a bird and its reflection in water(reflection should be clear and well defined and not blurry) can be placed at the centre of the frame to have a symmetry.
Having said all these, remember that for every guideline we discussed, there will be one image somewhere which defies that guideline and is yet a beautiful picture!
Text and editing - Vinod Udhwani
Image courtesy - Amit Rane, Abhishek Bawkar, Vinod Udhwani, Kane Lew