First published on: May 27, 2001
There are three important
guidelines to keep in mind when composing a photograph.
Theme, Emphasis, Simplicity. All three things
help to focus the attention on the subject. The subject
is what the photographer intended to take a picture of,
right? So now that the photographer knows what his
subject is, how does he go about expressing his vision
of the subject? The photographer accomplishes this by
determining the theme, placing emphasis on the subject,
and simplifying the background.
Theme: What is the universal message of this
photograph? What does it imply? What does it say? What
kind of statement is the photographer making? Is it
about love, or childhood, or parents, or growing old? Is
it about the beauty in nature, or the ugliness of
poverty? Is about the tremendous power of the weather or
the gentleness of a lamb? What makes this photo worth
taking? Why do you want to take this image? We covered
theme in a previous article but it is important to
mention it again. Theme is what makes a photograph
different from a snapshot. Theme is what makes a
timeless image. It is what moves and inspires the viewer
to look at the photograph again and again. Theme is what
makes a person want to hang a photograph on the wall,
not bury it in a shoe-box.
Emphasis: What is the subject? Where is the
subject? Where should the viewer look? What is
important? There are many techniques used to show
emphasis. The photographer can show emphasis through
framing choice, whether he uses a vertical or horizontal
format. Or he might show emphasis by the placement of
the subject, governed by the rule of thirds. Or he might
use selective focus to simplify the background. Or by
drawing the viewers attention to a certain spot within
the frame using perspective.
Simplify: The photographer works to simplify
the composition by assuring that nothing in the
viewfinder competes or distracts from the subject. He
looks to see that nothing in the photograph weakens the
theme. Everything visible in the photograph helps to
support the theme and the background does not distract
from the subject but adds to the composition. He
simplifies the composition.
The use of selective focus and depth of field are two
great ways of simplifying the image. If the background
is not important, using a large aperture will render it
out of focus. This technique is great for getting rid of
busy or cluttered backgrounds. How much out of focus?
That depends on the theme and what the background does
to support it. If the background is totally irrelevant,
then it should be out of focus as much as possible. If
the background helps to reinforce the theme, then it
should be out of focus to a degree that it does not
distract from the subject but adds to the scene.
For example, in a landscape of the Grand Canyon,
nothing should be out of focus. The subject is the
landscape and the theme is the grandeur. However, if the
subject is three friends on a trip to the Grand Canyon,
then the landscape is the background and the subject is
the three friends. The background should add to, but not
compete with, the subject. Here the background should be
just out of focus enough to diminish it slightly, but it
should still be recognizable as the Grand Canyon. The
message or theme is look at my three friends on their
vacation to the Grand Canyon, not look at the three
tourists blocking my view of the Grand Canyon. Two very
different photos, two very different themes.
World through the viewfinder
Rule of Thirds: Think of the viewfinder as
being divided into three equal parts, either
horizontally or vertically depending on the composition.
Each section of the photograph should contain some
information relating to the theme or subject. Does this
mean that the subject must be placed dead center? No. A
subject can be placed in one-third and the other
two-thirds used to balance the image. For example, if
you were shooting a picture of an orchestra leader in
action, the conductor could be placed in one third of
the image with the other two-thirds left blank. The
viewer would rightly assume the blank space was occupied
by the orchestra even if they cannot be seen. The space
then becomes just as important as the subject.
Where the photographer chooses to place the subject
in the viewfinder depends on what the subject and theme
of the photograph will be. What is the photographer
placing emphasis on? Is it size? Is it detail? Is it
beauty? Shape? Form? Action? Is the subject moving into
or out of the frame? Is it motionless? All of these
questions are answered for the viewer by where the
photographer chose to place the subject. Look at the
next series of images.
In the above images, how does placement affect the
theme? The subject is the same, the background is the
same. What does placement add to the theme? Which
placement is correct? That depends on the theme and the
message that the photographer is trying to convey. Which
one portrays downward motion? Which skier lools like its
caught in a mid-air jump? Which one best displays speed?
Which one exhibits the hazards of skiing?
In this series of examples, what can be said about
the placement of the subject? All four images are in a
horizontal format. In the first image, the photographer
considers the vertical division of the rule of thirds.
In the three other images the placement is located along
horizontal divisions. Which works better? That depends
on the photographer's intended theme. Obvisously, there
seems to be no good reason for the composition in frame
2. Frame one might work if there are other strong
elements in the landscape that occupy the other
two-thirds of the frame.
Frames 3 and 4 draw direct attention to the barn as
the subject, whereas frames 1 and 2 represent the
landscape as the subject. In frames 3 and 4 the
photographer has a choice of where to place the subject
in relation to the horizon line. Which is the stronger
composition? Frame three places the horizon line dead
center of the frame. This could work except for one
small detail, the fence. Is there a valid reason for the
fence floating around in mid-air? If the foreground
contained cows or horses, maybe so. Or if the barn sat
on the top of a hill and the photographer wished to
emphasis this fact, then this composition would also
work. However, frame four clearly shows the stronger
composition and the fence helps to frame the subject,
Look at frame 4 again. There is another point to
consider in this composition that becomes important to
well balanced compositions. Consider the placement of
the sky. The sky occupies two-thirds of the frame. Now
consider the barn. It also occupies two-thirds of the
frame. This composition is said to be in perfect
balance. Balance is an important element in composition.
Both positive and negative spaces are said to have
weight. When an image appears to be tipping over or
falling out of the frame there is an unequal
distribution of weight caused by a lack of balance in
the composition. We will discuss more on balance in a
future article devoted to just this concept.