Newbie, need help with composition

Discussion in 'Digital Photography' started by chaoticbear, Aug 26, 2007.

  1. chaoticbear macrumors 6502

    Jul 25, 2007
    Hey everyone, I've got some questions about photography in general. Right now, I'm using the BF's Canon Rebel G while I wait for my D40 to come in. I'm taking a photography class (needed to fill 3 hours for my scholarship, and I've always liked it anyway). Anyway, I get the basics of ISO, aperture, shutter speed, depth of field, white balance/color temperature, focusing, etc etc. What I don't get is composition. How do you make a visually interesting picture? I've got some pictures that I've taken since the class starts, and I'll type my own comments/criticisms on them, and see if they agree with what you guys think. These are all unedited, ripped straight from the film. Also, some of these were just taken with class assignments in mind, so keep that... in mind. Also, let me know if some of them link to the wrong image. I previewed, but you never know how things are going to work on others' end.

    Picture one

    This one I'm planning on cropping out the right side, with the car wash bay. Other than that, I like the foreground/background play with the fence in the front, and the line of fence going down the right. I also like the contrast of the dying grass in front and the lush green trees in the background.

    Picture two

    This one looks really neat. I think that the perspective of the lamp post is neat, and I like how it captured a big swirly mass in a single shot.

    Picture 3

    This one is for a class assignment where we were to capture the essence of a space. I don't care for the light in the background, because I feel that it distracts the eyes. You can't tell unless you happen to know, but it's out back of a Waffle House, and so the chair is where they come to smoke, so I think that the mop bucket and chair are effective.

    Picture 4

    Another "space" shot. The dog messed up her crate, but the lighting is poor inside, so I got some lens flare, so I might crop her out. I just liked the guilty-dog and messed up crate shot. I also like the lines of perspective going toward the back.

    Picture 5

    Generic little kid picture, but this might be my favorite picture I've taken since starting this class. She has this wonderful look of intrigue and innocence, and the focus was done well. I worry that she looks a little washed out (she's pale, but not that pale!), but I figure I could fix that with a color temperature adjustment.

    Picture 6

    (Here's the bf!) The dog is such a little ball of energy, so I turned down the shutter speed and got a little bit blurry of picture of her. I like it because I know the subject, but I don't know that it comes across well to an outsider.

    Picture 7

    I really like this one, but can't explain why. It's simple, and contrasts a bit of city living with trees. It was taken through a windshield, so it's hazy, and I don't know how to fix that.

    Picture 8

    This one is an exercise in perspective, and I really like it. I need to tilt it a bit, but the picture is nice. It's a little touristy-snapshotty, but I'm fine with that.

    Picture 9

    Another motion blur one, but this one is a little shaky and blurry, and I don't know if that's fixable. I'm not sure why I'm including it, but if you have any ideas on whether or not I can do anything with it...

    Anyway, I know it's long, but I didn't want to imbed 9 big images, so thanks for being patient!
  2. ChrisBrightwell macrumors 68020


    Apr 5, 2004
    Huntsville, AL
    My $0.02, in a few words or less. :) I tend to shoot a more photojournalistic style than anything, so that may account for some of our difference in taste.

    1: This one doesn't do much for me. The fence is really distracting.

    2: Again, this one doesn't do anything for me. I can't really critique it, as a result.

    3: Again, as a photojournalistic kind of guy, this doesn't do it for me. All I see is a mop, a chair, and a light in my eyes. If there were someone sitting in the chair, sort of slouched over with their elbow on their knee, their chin propped on their hand, and a cig hanging from their mouth, that would better catch the "essence" of the space. As it's presented, though, I don't see it.

    Alternatively, you could back up a bit, frame the distracting light within the chair, and make the chair (and its solitude) the focal point of the shot. As it is, however, there's no one place to which the eye is drawn. It's just sort of random.

    4: This one is close to getting it, I think. I wish you could've found a way for the dog to be the focal point of the shot, rather than appearing to be "accidentally" in the corner of the frame.

    5: She's washed out from the flash. Get a bounce card of diffuser and you'll be happy with the results. Also, read up on the "Rule of Thirds". Your center focal point is not a crosshair.

    6: Technical flaws aside (I don't care for the blur), this one nails it for me. It tells a great story of a man and his dog (who, culturally, should be his best friend). It's framed a bit tight for my tastes, but it gets the job done.

    7: Again, read up on the Rule of Thirds. There's a haze or something on this one, but I like it. It could use some work (better exposure, better contrast, etc.), but I like it.

    8: Reshoot this one with the camera in portrait oreintation and try to focus on the staircase. A vertical crop would do the job just as well, at this point, but all of the whitespace on the sides is distracting to my eye.

    9: It's typically impossible to fix camera shake or motion blur after the fact. This one, to me, is little more than a snapshot. There's no focal point, there's no story, and there's no life.

    I tried to be honest without being harsh. I hope this helps.
  3. furious macrumors 65816


    Aug 7, 2006
    Can Composition Be Taught?

    This quote to me sums up what it is you need. That is practice. It looks like you took one picture and said that was it. Experiment and try things even if they seam 'out of sorts' so to speak. Don't worry you will soon get used to the funny looks you get. And remember most of all have fun.

    An example.

    With picture 8 did you try to get a picture from the top of the stairs with a person on the ground for 'perspective'. Or even from the centre point of were the stairs circle.
  4. chaoticbear thread starter macrumors 6502

    Jul 25, 2007
    Thanks for the feedback, guys; keep it coming! On picture 8, I took a couple and picked the best one. I couldn't climb it or get in the middle, unfortunately, because the staircase was behind a desk at the Memphis visitor's center.

    I've read about the Rule of Thirds, but I don't really understand how that makes things more attractive. Is it just a standard convention, or is my artless brain missing something?
  5. dllavaneras macrumors 68000


    Feb 12, 2005
    Caracas, Venezuela
    That really depends on the subject. For example, see this pic:


    I f I had framed the bug smack in the middle of the pic, it wouldn't have captured the fact that it was looking at a big, empty space (an abyss, from the bug's point of view). But by placing it in the top right corner, it gives the pic a little more depth.
  6. MacUserSince87 macrumors member

    Aug 18, 2007
    Northern Virginia, USA
    The biggest difference between looking at things in real life vs looking at things in a photograph is that in real life lots of things are moving around and attracting our attention one focused sippet at time, while in a photo everything is static and the same sensation of movement is created by how our eyes move in the photo.

    A photo may have one or several focal points or centers of interest. Where they are placed in the frame in large part will dictate the path the eye of the viewer follows to find them and where the eye goes after it finds them.

    In a photo containing the image of a person our eyes will gravitate towards the face and eyes first which is the same reaction we have when meeting people in real life. There's a structure in the brain dedicated to matching the patterns the eye sees to faces and other familar objects. It also connects the visual and emotional centers of the brain. It explains why we can instantly spot a familiar face in a crowd.

    The second biggest factor for attracting interest is contrast. There are many forms of contrast: tone, color, sharpness, relative size... In general whatever contrasts with the overall background the most will attract the most attention. Contrast is a valuable composition tool because he relative tonal values in a photograph can be used to guide the eye along a predictable path from darker to lighter on a dark background or from lightest to darkest and most colorful on a light neutral one. See for a simple demonstration in contrast I created. This one shows how it applies to portraiture.

    Compostion is effective when: 1) the viewer can clearly indentify what is most important in a photo, 2) has an interesting visual path from the edges of the frame to it, 3) isn't distracted away from it by trivial clutter which isn't part of the message the photo is trying to deliver.

    Contrast is most effective for #1. On a dark background the eye will gravitate towards the brightest spot in the photo. If that is were the intended center of interest is located then the viewer will have no problem connecting with it and getting the message of the photo. But if the COI isn't in the brightest area that other bright spot becomes a distraction which will sooner or later tug the eye of the viewer away from the intended COI containing the message. On a light background the tonal balance is reversed, pulling the eye from lighter to darker / colorful areas.

    # 2 is where the rule of thirds comes into play. A well composed photo will have a feeling of balance and/or have an interesting path to the COI. Placing the COI on or near one of the four places where the third lines intersect creates balancing negative space which forces the eye to move across it to the COI. That eye movement can, in a well composed photo, create a sense of movement in the image which can evoke an emotional response. The alternate, placing the COI dead center will not create a sense of movement and will instead create the impression that the object is static. It's not a matter of following the rule or breaking it, but two different sides to the same coin. It's just a matter of learning how composition affects eye movement in a photo and in turn how that eye movement evokes an emotional response in the mind of the viewer.

    #3 is the area where most beginners run into trouble. The eye sees a panoramic view in person but the brain only tunes into a very small part of it at any point in time, literally tuning out everything else. But a camera will capture everything the same and there will be distraction in a photo which were not noticed when taking them. That's one of the reasons aperture and depth of field is such an important creative control, because is mimics in a photo the way our brains tune out the things not in the center of our vision. I big part of learning to "see photographically" is remembering to take your attention off the center of interest occasionally to identify potential distractions from it. The more distractions which are eliminated the more impact the intended message will have.

    I use a method I call "Inside-Out" cropping. When evaluating a scene I will first identify what I want the COI to be and what message I want it to convey to the viewer. I then crop in tightly on just the COI then slowly expand the frame trying different positions for the COI in it and watching for any distractions. Distractions are much easier to spot that way. I illustrate the idea in this tutorial: It also explains why the ROT works and how best to use it.

    Again remember there aren't any rules, just cause and effect. You can learn a great deal by simply paying attention to how you react to scenes and photos you are attracted to and think are effective. Make a mental inventory of what attracted your eye in what order and what if anything distracted you away from the intended message of the photo. Do that with your own photos to self critique them. What was the intended message? Did the area of the photo containing it contrast well with everything else? Were there any unnecessary distractions not vital to the message which distracted your eye?

    Chuck Gardner
  7. chaoticbear thread starter macrumors 6502

    Jul 25, 2007
    My focus is broken! I basically ignored the dog and my eyes went to the faces. There is so much useful sounding information in there. Are these things that you naturally tend to do as you gain experience, as in you look at something and just know that it'll make a nice picture, or do you analyze each of those factors as you're trying to compose the shot?
  8. ChrisBrightwell macrumors 68020


    Apr 5, 2004
    Huntsville, AL
    As with anything, you get a lot of it from basic practice. You start to think about it more, I think, but the process becomes more natural. Your instinctual framing of one shot or another begins to follow these "rules" as they become more second-nature to you.
  9. MacUserSince87 macrumors member

    Aug 18, 2007
    Northern Virginia, USA
    What you need to do is to look critically at the photos you take and view and try to understand why they worked, or not, for you. The more you do that, the more instinctive compostion becomes when shooting.

    That's why you need to look beyond rote application of things like the "rule" of thirds to understand why compositional techniques work or not in different situations. Once you understand why it works using it or not becomes instinctive. You don't look at a scene and ponder whether ROT will work or not, you think in terms of how you want the eye of the viewer to move in the photo when looking at it. What you will find that more often than not when you want the viewer to sense movement your COI will have the best "dynamic" balance when it is near one of the four ROT nodes. But if you want to convey a sense of stability and calm, stasis you'll want to center your subject in the frame.

    It's a bit like golf. Golfers spend hours on the driving range working on specific things in their swing until it becomes so instinctive they don't need to think about them when on the course. In Photography the best practice is understanding what made your last shot effective at evoking the emotional response you intended (or not) and how to do it more effectively next time.

    Having a well defined center of interest and then eliminating all the unnecessary distractions from it will get you 80% of the way towards a well composed photograph. The other 20% is finding the most eye pleasing balance of subject and negative space surrounding it.

    Chuck Gardner

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