Photography Composition Articles


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Photo composition: Points of view

All of a sudden, it catches the photographer's eye: the object he wants for his main motif. But most of the time, just taking a quick glance through the viewfinder isn't enough!


The framing, perspective, background and, above all, the lighting all have to be right. Only then can an average snapshot become a professional photo.Instead of getting into the complicated theory, let's let practical experience do the talking. Series of motifs help understand the system. Landscape, vacation and people pictures simply turn out better.

Classical or modern

It was really supposed to be a tour through the Fire Mountains on Lanzarote in the Spanish Canary Islands. The almost artificial look of the blue sky and its contrast to the various earth tones were just begging to be photographed. Soon, and more by accident, our attention was drawn to an old junky car. Abandoned at a hidden spot off the beaten path, the rotting old-timer was a real thrill to see. Luckily, we had a slow color negative film in our backpacks to guarantee high color saturation coupled with super-fine grain. This combination really spoils photographers with its incomparable detail resolution. It's definitely a good choice for 35 mm photographers. A polarization filter was also attached in front of the lens. It serves to increase the color values and reduce reflection. The shadows turn out less blue and the photographer is rewarded with more highly saturated color values. Any desaturation of the color tones is largely eliminated.


Take a closer look

Taking a long break gave us enough time to carefully study this run-down old-timer. As if it were just decorating the countryside, the vehicle was standing carelessly at the edge of the road. The different rust colors reflect the range of colors in the surrounding landscape. It seems as if Nature and technology have come a bit closer over the years. The faded blue paint also couldn't be a better match for the nearly cloudless and seemingly endless sky. Unlike a video recording, a photographer works with a static medium. The individual image is important and has to capture the entire effect. That's why the look through the viewfinder is so essential, especially for still motifs. It limits the photo and simply trims off what's unimportant. A concentrated look tells you how the individual elements of the motif are arranged relative to one another in the given frame. The distance from the object, together with the selected focal length, affects the picture just as much as the height of the camera. The intersections and bleeds differ with the size of the object and the perspective.


Take your time

A walk around the object gives you an idea of the best possible views. Determine where the light is coming from and try to find different variations by choosing very high or low standpoints. The distance and the focal length should be adapted to the perspective you're looking for:

  • The landscape format gives a feeling of peacefulness and harmony.
  • The portrait format can add an exciting dimension.

If you want to reproduce other views of the motif later on, you should already consider this aspect when taking the picture:

  • Can you see any diagonals in the image space which could act as guide lines?
  • How are the areas distributed?
  • How will the ultimate observer perceive the given color composition?

The photographer should consider these and other questions when selecting the final position.

Tip: It's better to check out the field of the frame. Almost like a scanner, the eye quickly runs over the image space and focuses on both the object and the surroundings.

  • How does the main motif change relative to the background if you move slightly to the left or right?
  • Maybe you should squat down and focus in on the image from there?
  • Or maybe you should climb up on a low wall in order to take a look at the scene from above?


Making the most of what the motif offers

Just like when writing a text, you cannot expect confusing combinations to lead to a clear and distinct result when producing an image. In contrast, a well-ordered composition leads to success:

  • The relationship between near and far must be optimized by slowly shifting your position.
  • This also applies to the position of the horizon.
  • Area distributions must be coordinated with the overall picture.
  • Picturesque frames around the main motif should be taken into account.
  • The arrangement of the different fields of the picture should enhance its character, meaning that it should be somewhere between the extremes of unity and disharmony.
  • Intersections should be exactly adapted to the statement the picture is intended to make.
  • This applies equally to the bleeds.
  • You can add highlights of form.
  • The image space can be particularly well graduated using light effects.

The following photos demonstrate how an almost spontaneous series of shots can look.

Do-it-yourself panorama effect

The first photo looks like it came right out of a motion picture. The vastness is further enhanced by the narrow format. According to the way we are accustomed to looking at things, from left to right in most cases, the motif positioned in the bleed has a particularly intense impact on the overall picture. This pseudo-panorama effect is achieved by cropping the standard 35 mm negative. The APS photographer can already select this format when taking the shot.


In the darkroom


Just give the masking frame a narrower setting. The enlargement is burned in longer in the area of the sky. The bleed on the left has also been increased to dramatize the effect. The low-speed film even leaves room for extreme bleeds.

If you don't have your own darkroom, you can crop a poster-size enlargement at the top and bottom. And there you have it! A perfect panorama effect at next to no cost!

Tip: Non-standard paper sizes usually permanently enhance the effect of a picture. In this context, a particularly elegant method is to make a print with a white border, so that the motif is already perfectly positioned on the photographic paper and the white paper acts as a framing mat.


Start with a full shot

Bing determined by the direction of the light and the background, the standpoint of the camera for the full shot was decided very quickly. Any lower and the sky would be too dominant. In contrast, a view slightly from above reveals the earth tones which match the car. The somewhat slanted view results in a slightly diagonal perspective, which adds an interesting dimension to the image. Special attention was also given to the effect of the background. Although blurry, the mountain tops were still to have a uniform line and even the palm tree, far away next to the houses, is integrated in the overall picture. Supported by the polarization filter, the still adequately modulating morning sunlight accentuates the bright and dark areas more strongly. The full shot provides a point of orientation and, if you want to create a tableau, it shows the relationship between the various details.


Getting close up

From the front, the old delivery truck almost looks like a giant toy. This effect is enhanced by the low camera angle, on the one hand, and the short focal length, on the other. In the viewfinder, you can see exactly how gradually lowering the camera position makes the grill look increasingly dominant as it stretches up to the sky.

The 28 mm lens proved to be the best focal length in this case. The power lines and pylons serve as a nearly unnoticeable, natural border. As with all other outdoor photos, a center-oriented integrated meter reading meets the demands of a sufficiently dense color negative. However, in order to further increase the color saturation somewhat, and also to marginally enhance the definition, the shot was slightly overexposed. With color negative films, this step even results in a slightly finer grain and, if you proceed with caution, you won't lose any edge definition due to glare. The relatively early sunlight, and also the restriction of the depth of field to the front end of the car, contribute to graduating the image space.


Detail is the spice of life

The composition of the photo makes the few simple shapes which make up the front end appear more abstract. The headlights look like huge insect eyes. The definition is located in the front third of the image space, so that the rest of the car fades into blurriness. The diagonal line slanting up from the bottom left gives the otherwise static motif a touch of dynamism. The short focal length once again enhances the effect of the picture. The closeness of the motif creates the impression that the observer could almost touch the surface of the object. The extremely low angle gives the motif a very dominant appearance. The cloudless blue sky acts as a background. The motif almost looks as if it were superimposed on top of it. The reserved colors, which also mainly lie in the same range of colors, enhance the dramatic reduction of the image to just a few surfaces, shapes and colors.


One motif - Two atmospheres

If possible, you should go and visit your motif several times. Analyze how the lighting conditions change in relation to the effect of the image. In our example, we were in the mood to experiment:

  • What does the motif look like if there's a completely different film in the camera?
  • What happens if you use a higher speed film rather than favoring a fine grain?
The first outing on a cloudless day was followed by a second one with a bit of cloud cover. The entire scene looked like it had been swapped.
However, the gloomy colors are an optimum match for this motif. The hard shadows have disappeared.There's no more shine to the tarnished chrome. Despite the different color mix, the colors of the old-timer still complement its direct surroundings. The close bleed eliminates the disturbing surroundings, as does the relatively high camera angle. During subsequent development of the positive, the scale of the two motifs was matched in such a way that the observer can make a direct comparison.


A workplace from days long gone

The inside of the small delivery truck is a total mess. In order to be able to capture enough of the chaos, we again used a very wide-angle lens. In addition, the flash was used to illuminate the interior and minimize the extreme contrast range. The fill-in flash program on many cameras provides for automatic extra light from the flash.

But you can also set the flash manually. To do so, measure the available light as usual and find the exposure time required to match the aperture setting on the flash. To prevent the result from being overexposed, you should then stop down the lens aperture by roughly another 1/2 stop. With the help of the bracketing function, you can take a number of different exposures for safety's sake, in order to be able to select the optimum conditions on the negative later on. Because this is really the most critical step: not enough light from the flash makes the shadows look too jet-black. Too much, and the natural effect goes out the window.


Variations are important

Variation often means success, particularly when it comes to portrait shots. Let's take the celebration of Carnival in Venice as an example. Go ahead and use black-and-white material for once instead of color film. In this way, the photos will stand out from the typical Carnival shots everyone has seen before.
Play the part of the director and politely ask the people to get into the pose you want. Things often get very cramped in the tiny alleys. In this case, the right background plays a very important role:
  • Should the observer be able to tell whether the festive action was taken at St. Mark's Square or on the Rialto Bridge?
  • Does the darkness of the narrow alleys provide good contrast?
  • Or are you concentrating on the person, meaning that the background should appear as neutral as possible?
You can very quickly test out these different views of the shot by changing the standpoint of the camera. Go to the appropriate spot with your "model" and vary the height of the camera. Taking the shot at eye level results in familiar spatial conditions, while a view from a very low camera angle captures the sky. The picture of the masks is taken against a very plain background.
The examples show that people pictures can succeed in both landscape and portrait format. The only important thing is to correctly position the motif in the frame and to achieve skillful bleeding. A lot of times, it's better to get closer. This is particularly true for this Venice-style action. Including building corners, courtyards and spooky entryways enhances the ultimate effect. Be careful that the lens is set to moderate f-stops. This makes the background blur and emphasizes the clarity and definition of the model in front of it.


Wait to strike

In contrast to planned photographs, you can also capture very interesting motifs by simply sitting back and observing the action. The preliminary step is to determine the direction of the light. Light coming from the side usually provides for the most realistic and lively effect.

Tip: The standpoint of the photographer is especially important. He should not cast his own shadow on the photos.

With your camera ready in hand, you can now keep your eye on the scene. It's a good thing if you can find out ahead of time where the action is. In our example in Thailand, it didn't take long for the boatsman to land on the beach of the small island in his little long-tail boat.

The entire boat was captured using a slightly wide-angle focal length (30 mm). The diagonal perspective was achieved by taking several steps to the left. This made a small section of the fine coral sand beach visible in the bottom right-hand corner of the picture.


The horizon is straight and divides the photo in proportions of 1/3 to 2/3, thus preventing the foreground from becoming too dominant. A short time later, the young man decided to anchor the boat a short distance from the shoreline. The second boat in the background could now be included in such a way that lines parallel to the horizon were created. The front boat looks more "dynamic" in the bleed.

The direction of the man's movement adds a bit of life to the picture. The reflection on the surface of the water can be largely eliminated with the help of a polarization filter. The man is standing in the clear water of the Andaman Sea. The slightly telephoto focal length condenses the image space a bit, thus making the neighboring islands on the horizon more visible.


Thinking in series

What we used here as a didactic example can also become part of everyday photography. If you can, go ahead and try different photographic settings on the same scene.

Quickly change the position of the camera and the focal length. This is how you can obtain a series of pictures that tell a story, a sequence which mesmerizes the observer. The fisherman in our series came to the beach and was happy to act as the subject. He had fun striking a pose. The landscape format with the standard focal length (50 mm) makes it possible to capture the boat as well as the vast expanse of the brilliant blue ocean. The strict, classical position of the person in the center of the photo enables you to photograph at quite a distance. In this way, the man's shadow could also be captured, which forms a diagonal line stretching to the bow of the boat. The rapid release function on many cameras enables you to take a rapid series of exposures. Give a few directions. Ask the person to turn slightly to the left or right.




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