How to Take Better Photos; No Money Required – Part II

Intro

In my previous article, How to Take Better Photos; No Money Required – we looked at defining your subject, thinking about your vision, and taking time to walk around the scene to get a unique composition. This week, we’ll add some tools to help you refine your photographic compositions. Again, if you are a beginning photographer or have been practicing for years, these composition theories are quite useful as a starting point.

Theories

Alright, let’s talk about photographic composition. Think of composition as how you show your viewers the subject. There are several theories, and they can be used alone or in combination to create memorable photographs.

Rule of Thirds

Long exposure of Bonsai Rock, Lake Tahoe, at sunset. The water has a milky white texture and the rocks are bathed in warm yellow glow.
PHOTOGRAPHY BASICS COMPOSITION | BONSAI ROCK, LAKE TAHOE

The first of concept is the rule of thirds. If you are a beginning photographer you’ve probably heard others talk about this concept. This idea breaks the scene into a three-by-three grid. Think of looking at your scene while holding a tic-tac-toe board in front of you. This is the first composition technique most beginning photographers hear.

This is perhaps the easiest composition theory to implement because our cameras have it built into their viewfinders. Digital viewfinders, like your phone or live view might require you to turn on the feature, but it is there.

Tips to get you started:

  • Position your subject at or near intersecting lines of the grid
  • The horizon on one of the grid lines (whether shooting portrait or landscape mode)
  • If the sky is more interesting than your foreground, compose your photo to include 2/3 of the frame above the horizon and 1/3 below. Vice versa for more interesting foreground.
  • Rule of thirds applies to both portrait and landscape compositions.
  • RULES WERE MEANT TO BE BROKEN. GET COMFORTABLE WITH THE TECHNIQUE THEN BREAK THE RULE TO SEE WHAT YOU CAN CREATE.
Silhouettes of a photographer capturing a portrait of a woman on horseback at the Oceano Sand Dunes.
PHOTOGRAPHY BASICS COMPOSITION | OCEANO SAND DUNES PHOTOSHOOT

Symmetry

View inside the famous Reed Flute Cave in Guilin, China. Stalactites and stalagmites reflected in a a pool of water.
PHOTOGRAPHY BASICS COMPOSITION | REED FLUTE CAVE, GUILIN CHINA

Another compositional technique that can be used to create interesting photographs is symmetry. Think of this as taking a photograph of a scene with a mirror dividing the composition top-down, or left-right. Simply place your subject directly in the center of your composition.

This is a fun technique to use with reflective surfaces as well as architecture.

Some artists use this technique to actually create a sense of conflict within a photograph. Think of cartoons when a character would have an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. The subject is usually in the middle of the conversation and conflict.

Leading Lines

Photograph of the shadow of Mt. Lassen reaching across the distant landscape. The shadow creates a long triangular form.
PHOTOGRAPHY BASICS COMPOSITION | LASSEN VOLCANIC NATIONAL PARK

The idea of leading lines is that you capture a pair of lines within your frame that eventually converge somewhere in your frame. Usually, they converge in a direction that leads you to your subject. Think of the long, lonely highway photos that stretch to the horizon. They appear to converge in the distance, drawing your eyes into the image. This gives a sense of motion from near to far.

However, leading lines don’t have to be straight. Nature creates some pretty amazing leading lines that meander throughout the landscape.

Morning light on the Eastern Sierra Range. Sunrise highlighting the stream leading from the foreground to the mountains in the background.
PHOTOGRAPHY BASICS COMPOSITION | HOT CREEK CALIFORNIA

Repeating Patterns

Photograph of a beautiful plant from a trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro.
PHOTOGRAPHY BASICS COMPOSITION | KILIMANJARO VEGETATION

Repeating patterns are composed of similar sizes, shapes, and geometry. The neat thing is they are all around us. Sometimes, you have to search a bit, but they are there. Any easy way to visualize this concept is a beehive. The beehive is constructed using a series of interlocking hexagons.

Usually, repeating patterns make up the entire composition. Whether it is series of building features or the close up view of a sunflower, repeating patterns create stunning photos.

Unexpected View Points

Reflection of Half Dome from the water of Tenaya Creek.
PHOTOGRAPHY BASICS COMPOSITION | HALF DOME, YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK

This is when you let your hair down, so to speak. You’ve practiced the photo composition theories above and feel pretty comfortable with them. Now, it’s time to break the “rules”. Creativity, is not bound by a few rules of how to do things. That’s the beauty of the arts.

Equipped with some of the theories on composition, experiment. Take a picture of a flower from the ground up so you can expose the underside that we rarely stop to appreciate. Or, if your lens isn’t wide enough to capture a landscape you want to capture, look around for a reflection, like this photograph from Yosemite.

Get Closer

Chickadee feeding from a woman's hand in Lake Tahoe.
PHOTOGRAPHY BASICS COMPOSITION | CHICKADEE AT LAKE TAHOE

“If the photo isn’t interesting, you’re not close enough.” An old photography adage.

With this composition, what do you think I wanted the subject to be?

Now, imagine if I had taken this photo from 20 to 30 feet away. You would have seen four other people, three large fir trees, a gleaming white mountain side, and a woman with an outstretched arm. Do you think you would have known that the bird eating from her hand was the important part of the scene?

Use a Fixed Focal Length

One of the tools used in most beginning photography courses is to practice your photography with a prime lens. A prime lens refers to any lens that has only one focal length. For most teachers, the 50mm lens is the go to lens because it is the approximate focal length of average human eyesight.

Why use a fixed focal length? Without the ability to zoom, you are forced to move yourself closer to or farther from the subject of your photo. This is a great way to think about what you are photographing and how to draw your viewer’s eyes to what is most important.

Phone

Today, you don’t need to go buy a 50mm lens and camera. You have a great fixed focal length lens in your pocket right now. Your phone is a valuable tool for practicing moving closer to or farther from your subject. See below for a couple examples.

Rose bathed in sunset light.
PHOTOGRAPHY BASICS COMPOSITION | SANTA CLARA UNIVERSITY MISSION

This picture of the a rose combines a couple compositional techniques. First, I got closer. Second, leading lines in the form of the light rays.

The picture of the birds below was taken while on a boat in Belize. The birds, sitting atop our boat, looked so cool. I held the phone well above my head and snapped away to create their “hero shot”.

Three sea birds standing atop a boat, captured in hero pose.
PHOTOGRAPHY BASICS COMPOSITION | SEABIRD HEROES

The great thing about photography is that the possibilities are unlimited. Use the tools you have with you to study and improve your craft.

Suggestions

Take your time – be patient with yourself

Photography is an art. It is not mastered in a day, or even in a lifetime. I’ve met professional photographers who have been in the business for decades who still set aside time every week to work on something new. That’s the beauty of this

For beginning photographers it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the buttons, dials, settings, and features of their cameras (this includes cell phones). When it comes to improving your photography, it is a good idea is to work on one thing at a time. One photograph, one technique or one setting. Repeat until you feel comfortable, then move to the next.

With time and practice, the individual pieces will add up. Then, you’ll find yourself combining camera settings, composition, lighting, etc. to create unique photos that make your friends and family go “WOW”.

Until next time

I hope you enjoyed these photography tips and stories. Please let me know in the comments whether you found this information helpful. Also, I’d love to see some examples of work that you created as a result of this article.

Take care and see you on the trail.

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