The composition of a photo means choosing what goes in, and what goes out. You cannot take a photo without composing it. Composition is as old as mankind. Renaissance painters did it. The creators of medieval church windows did it. Even the artists of Stone Age cave paintings composed their works, when they decided to paint horses and mammoths but not plants or landscapes in the background.
Let’s keep in mind that the beauty of a picture is subjective. There is no way one can claim that one photo is “better” than another without considering audience and criteria. Young and old often like different things. Men and women sometimes like different things. Colourblind people will not always like the same kinds of pictures as people who see all colours perfectly. One person may be able to associate a picture with current local events, while another is stunned by the similarity to the style of some renaissance painter. The same person may appreciate the same picture in different ways in the morning and the evening, when they are hungry, or when they just have eaten.
These are ways the same picture can be appreciated in different ways.
Then there is the case of perceiving reality or a photo. When you stand outside, there are plenty of things you know and feel, which you do not see on pictures taken of the same scene.
When you look down a slope or up a mountainside, your brain tells you from the position of your head, in which direction you look. But take a photo of the same thing, and the only thing that will tell you if you look up or down are visual clues, like a leaning tree, and they may not be very convincing.
This is a photo that does not evoke the feeling of standing there. Look carefully, and you will see that the camera points down. It is not at all obvious from a casual glance at the photo. However, standing there, the photographer likely had an immense sense of depth. It is also very difficult to estimate the sizes of the plants from the photo. In real life, that must have been much easier.
When you look at reality, you perceive depth. You will see that a particular tree is huge, because you know it is far away. However, people who look at the photo may not be able to tell the distance, and they can therefore not estimate the height.
The speed of an open sports car approaching is obvious to you when you see it on the road, but the camera may have used so fast exposure that it looks like the car is parked in the middle of the road with the driver’s scarf frozen horizontally in mid-air.
Our brain discards details. You can see some beautiful clouds. The brain concentrates on the clouds, making the eyes follow the edges, identifying patterns and marvelling at the different shades of grey. You take a photo of the same clouds and go home. When you look at the photo at home, you immediately spot an ugly power line that goes straight across the clouds. Your brain had chosen to ignore it, when you were outside, but the way you look at the photo at home is completely different, so you see different details.
Experience: take three pictures outside. Don’t look at them straight away but stay for a while at the spot where you took them. Look at the scenes and try to imagine which details you did not see at first, when you took the photos, but which you will see when you look at them at home. Afterwards, compare what you thought with what you actually see. If there was a big difference, you may want to repeat this experience and see if you can improve your prediction of what the flat photo will look like.
Learn from others. Look at photos of other photographers and look at old paintings, romantic landscapes, renaissance portraits, Flemish cities. Look at new pictures. Ads, comic books, contemporary art exhibitions. See how other people do and learn from them. “Learn” does not mean “copy” by the way. It means “get inspiration from.” What worked for a romantic painter from the beginning of the 19th century may not express what you want to express today.
When you look at fine arts, there are two main approaches. One is to ask the question “why do other people like this?” The other is “what do I like in this?” Both are valid when you study art to improve your photography. The first one helps you find what people in general like, or what art critics and experts like. The other helps you identify your own character. When you ask the question “what do I like in this?” don’t limit yourself. If the only thing you really like in the Mona Lisa is the pretty little bridge in the background, admit that to yourself. Some other people may think the same. Probably not all. Probably not the majority. Probably not the elite. But perhaps enough to constitute a group that like your particular work.
You cannot please everyone.
That is another reason to look at contemporary photography. There is
Another rich inspiration for still photography is moving photos. Many filmmakers, like for example Stanley Kubrick, are excellent picture artists. Watch movies. Freeze frames and study the composition. Do they have anything you could reuse?
Just one word of warning before you run away and use the inspiration you got from films: moving pictures and still pictures do not always work the same way. For example, a small moving car or bird, can work fine on a huge movie screen, as your eyes are attracted to things that move. The same car or bird may not be at all as easy to spot on a still picture.
That said, just be aware that there are differences. Use your judgment and any inspiration you get.
It is difficult to find a famous photography with unnecessary elements. A portrait will hardly contain a truck or a group of people in the background. There will be no horse, no street fight and probably not even a parked car.
The trick is to avoid distractions, to avoid things that do not add to the photo. A portrait of a sailor can have a boat or the sea in the background, but it shouldn’t have a train or a shopping mall.
This is what makes it so difficult to take photos of famous monuments. They will be swamped by tourists everywhere. It is a fair bet that you want your photo to be about the Lincoln memorial, not about guided groups of tourists. It is also a fair bet that you want your photo to be about the Forbidden City, not about the tourists who stroll around in it.
One of the more difficult things to describe is how to be stunning. Most of us like pictures that are stunning. Photos that contain something we did not expect, something that strikes us as completely unexpected.
The thing to keep in mind here is again the audience. You can be fascinated
by a half timber house in a small Central European town. You didn’t believe such places existed. However, your great photo of that charming house does not get any attention at all from people who live in that area, or indeed any of thousands of similar places all over Central Europe. If your intended audience is Germans, you may be better off trying to find another subject.
This photo may look exotic and amazing to people from for example America or Africa. However, to the people who live in this part of Germany, there is nothing spectacular about it. It is not a town full of tourists. It is simply one town of many that preserved some old architecture.
If you live in North Point in Hong Kong, you share the same views and surroundings with thousands of other people. It may not look interesting to you, but something as simple as the view from your balcony may look astonishing and exotic to millions of people in America or Europe.
Most of us live in areas that look interesting to foreigners if we only know what particularities to stress.
Rule of Thirds
Many cameras can display a 3×3 grid in the display. There are two purposes of this. One is that the middle square can be used to identify the middle of the photo, so you can put the subject smack in the middle. The second purpose is the opposite. The lines are there to divide the frame in parts of ⅓ and ⅔, so you can put the subject ⅓ from the side of the frame.
A subject that is at ⅓ often makes a more pleasing picture than a subject that is in the middle. The psychological reason for this is unclear. It could be that a subject in the middle makes the viewer uneasy, as they won’t know which side is more important. It could also be that the “empty” space creates an interesting tension, which the mind plays with and fills with an imaginary mirror of the main subject. Or perhaps it just gives the mind some rest.
Regardless of why the Rule of Thirds works, it does. If you have a beautiful scenery and you do not know what frame is best, looking for a subject to apply the rule is often a good start.
There are more situations where geometry can be used to make a photo more interesting. Look at a scene and try to identify any geometric shape and see how obvious it can be made for the user.
Triangle. What sets this picture apart is the right-angled triangle – a shape one more often finds in school books about Pythagoras’ theorem than in a forest.
Curve. In this picture, the curvature of the coast is stressed by the railway line.
Curve. The spines on this plant from Madagascar serve to discourage lemurs from climbing it and eating the leaves. The elongated curve shows the challenge the lemurs face to climb it. (Agile lemurs can climb it, in spite of the spines, but they do so more reluctantly than if the branch had lacked spines.)
One can find a zigzag pattern in unexpected places, like the shadow of the handrailing of this flight of steps.
Shapes like rectangles, squares and circles are often less efficient. They provide less tension and inspiration for the viewer. However, sometimes such shapes can also be useful to bring order to a photo that otherwise could be perceived as too chaotic.
Perfect circles are rare in nature. That is why this cut off tree trunk breaks the pattern of wood anemone leaves so efficiently.
To get a perfectly round smash on
Note that geometry sometimes is something to look out for as a disturbing element. If you take a portrait, and three houses on a mountain slope in the background form an obvious triangle, that shape will cause a distraction that is unlikely to improve the photo. If you can move so you avoid unintentional obvious geometric shapes, do so.
Patterns need not be continuous. They can be repetition of objects, like a series of lampposts, of windows, of trees.
None of these trees is particularly interesting in itself. However, lined up along the road they help creating a tunnel effect.
To make a drawing with objects near and far, one uses perspective lines that go to a point at the horizon. When the lines are explicit in a picture, that can create a nice effect, either on their own, or as part of a bigger picture. Typical examples are railway lines and walls or elongated buildings. We may take this for granted, as we see it a lot in photos and in films. However, a lot of ancient art did not have it. Early medieval paintings hardly ever have perspective lines. Look at the Bayeux tapestry, for example.
Chinese and Japanese art painted in classic style often lacks perspective lines. This means that if you try to take a photo mimicking these styles, you need to be conscious on whether you want to do it according to classic rules (no perspective) or breaking the rule to achieve an effect that is unusual in the context. Avoiding perspective lines can be a challenge, as the world is full of them. If you don’t want them, you just have to choose scenes where they aren’t prominent.
In this painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Francesco di Giorgio Martini, one clearly sees perspective lines on the ground and the buildings leading towards a single point at the horizon.
The pillars on each side of this pergola get smaller the further away they are, creating a sense of depth in the picture.