Storytelling is subjective; everyone has a unique story to tell and a different way of expressing it through their lens. There’s internal work that happens within storytelling, and there aren’t a lot of right and wrong ways to do it. It’s a matter of artfully capturing something that evokes emotion in a visual narrative. Composition isn’t about any of that, really. In fact, all of the storytelling is, in essence, off the table. What’s more, when teaching photography, there are tried-and-true rules that can be taught and followed, and these rules are pretty much universal among all kinds of other creative outlets. Whether you’re painting on a canvas, designing a website or decorating a living room, the art of creating compelling composition is very much the same.
I think what I enjoy most about teaching composition is how quickly things can click—pun intended—and how much photographic improvement can be made with just small shifts in compositional coaching.
I often refer to the camera’s viewfinder as a blank canvas. It may seem tiny, but everything you include on—or, better said, in—your canvas matters. Every single thing either adds to or takes away from the end result. By definition, composition means the arrangement of elements. It’s not just what you include in your image, it’s how you include it and where you place it in context to the other elements. It’s how all of the elements are arranged and work together that’s essential in using effective composition for the greater good of the end result.
There are a number of topics within teaching composition to explore: line, shape, color, light, shadow, texture and space. My favorite way to start is, simply, with space. I have a creative composition exercise I call “Dividing up the Frame” and it’s merely a matter of experimenting with different ways of using the subject you’re working with to compartmentalize your photo frame.
An easy subject to start with is nearly no subject at all: barren landscapes. Living and vacationing near the beach means lots and lots of pictures taken from the shore toward the horizon. But dividing up the frame in different ways with each shot means that each image has a different look and feel. The Rule of Thirds always comes to mind, and although it has its merits, there are plenty of other places to put the horizon line to create the balance of a great shot! Be mindful and deliberate with how and where you’re splitting up your frame. Don’t let it be happenstance. Keep the lines straight, unless, of course, you purposefully want the artful surprise of a tilted horizon line. Utilize other natural elements that might come into play and work them into the composition. If the sky is of special interest, leave a lot of it. The use of space (like the sky) in a frame is considered negative space, and it’s equally as important as the positive space (which is usually the term for your subject, like a silhouette of a tree in the sky, for instance). The more you experiment with something as simple as a landscape, you’ll start to get a feel for the different ways to divide your frame with the elements you’re including in your image and you’ll start getting a feel for what feels good to your photographer’s eye. The funny thing about good composition, you know it when you see it by how the image makes you feel—balanced and visually pleasing.
Try finding other things with lines to shoot and study. Beyond horizons, lines are everywhere and in everything, and can be used as a valuable tool when you’re practicing dividing up your frame to better your composition. Keep in mind that lines will lead your eye in, out or around your photo frame, so be mindful that where you put them and how you use them can drastically impact your images. Sometimes lines can work effectively when you create symmetry in your image, but other times, it’s the asymmetrical approach that works best. Testing and trying approaches is a great way to find the best solution for what look and feel you’re trying to create. When working with diagonals, try guiding lines through the corner of your frame. Just try to be deliberate.
In working with other subject matter to divide up your frame, I recommend not limiting yourself to keeping your main subject centered in the middle of the frame. Like with the exercises above, try shooting the same subject a number of times, framing it in as many different ways as you can in order to compare the outcomes. Again, it comes down to more than just the “where” your subject is in the frame, it’s also the “how” that matters.
Try cropping the subject in unique ways. This works well for still-life shots, as well as portraits. When you fill your frame and crop off part of your subject, you’re using that subject to divide the frame. Cropping off the top of your subject’s head, for example (one of my signature portrait techniques), can improve the portrait compositionally. Try the technique and then study the whole frame. Notice the interesting shapes that your division has created within the frame.
If you’re struggling to really notice composition (and you’re distracted by your subject), it can be quite helpful to squint your eyes when you look at your image. Once you squint and lose sharp focus, you can better pay attention to how balanced your frame looks. Notice the shapes, lights, darks, and balance and adjust your next shot accordingly. Sometimes it’s only a matter of adjusting a little bit—a simple shift, a little tilt—that makes all the difference. Once you start to take notice of how dividing up your frame works to your greatest compositional advantage, you’ll become more and more mindful and deliberate in your photographic process, which can only mean better results.
TRACEY CLARK is the founder of Shutter Sisters, a collaborative photo blog and thriving community of female photo enthusiasts, shuttersisters.com. Learn more about Tracey and her work at traceyclark.com.