How do you know when your composition is right?
Q. How do you know when your composition is right, and when to press the shutter? I am never sure if I’m getting the best shot? – Katie Johnson, Brisbane Australia and many others!
A. Hi Katie, I am constantly asked these questions, which leads me to the conclusion that many people are worried that they are not doing things “right”. Well the good news is, that there is no wrong and right! It’s up to you to decide what you include in your picture, how to compose it, and when to press the shutter – and the best way to do this is to believe in yourself and start with some confidence!
The more technical stuff you learn, the harder it gets to be spontaneous. Why? Because suddenly you question everything – you go from thinking, “wow, that’s a great pebble on the beach,” and just shooting it – to worrying HOW you should shoot it, because you’ve read somewhere that you need to position things in a certain way, or use a different setting on your camera – oh dear, which lens should I use to get the best picture – which aperture? Which speed? Would it look better on a different day in a different light?
WHOA! Stop – just shoot it!
Often the best shot is the one you grab first! Have the confidence to know that you saw something beautiful with YOUR eyes, and YOU like it – all you have to do is record what you are seeing. And if you’ve got your camera set up easily, then it shouldn’t be a problem.
Once you’ve taken the shot, then start looking at the subject in different ways, and see what other kinds of picture you can make with it. Change the angle of your camera – compose the shot so the subject is in the middle, then at the left side, then at the right, maybe the top or the bottom – closer or further away – just experiment.
Same subject – four different compositions; you may prefer a certain shot, but to me, none of them are wrong – they are all just different.
When I am photographing people, I do a lot of work before I press the shutter, to ensure I find the best light, clothes, location, etc. – however when I take the actual shots, I am recording what is happening naturally within that environment. I set things up, and then let them happen. I make sure the background does not have things which will grow out of people’s heads, or detract from the face – so that whatever composition I choose, the background will still work.
Things change and evolve too. Years ago people didn’t like pictures of themselves unless their whole face was in the shot – now I take lots of pictures where part of their head is chopped off – and they love them! Again, we used to be told that the person had to be in the middle of the photo – and now shots with lots of space to the side of the person look great! Tastes change, and people like different things – there is definitely a sense of anything goes now! It’s much easier to get a good shot technically, now that our cameras sort it all out for us – and composition is really just a matter of choice and personal taste. It’s getting the expression and the rapport with people that is the trickiest – and there are lots of tips and ideas on this site on how to do this.
When I am photographing objects around me, I don’t prepare the shot like I do with a person – often I just see something and think, “wow, that’s gorgeous” – and take a shot. It’s a static object so you don’t need to worry about whether it likes itself on the picture or not!
I then stand back and look at it, and try to shoot it in different ways – from above or below, from the side, closer to, or further away for example – to see if I can improve on my first shot. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Often I end up with a collection of images which I like for different reasons. Sometimes I look back at those pictures a year later, and I suddenly prefer one that wasn’t my favourite at the time – things move on, and you change your mind!
Tip: Try moving your feet! Sometimes a picture can look even better from a completely different angle.
I don’t shoot Landscapes technically or traditionally – it’s a whole different way of working for me. I used to think that anything that didn’t have people in it was boring – but I soon changed my mind when I got the opportunity to spend time with a renowned landscape photographer many years ago – he showed me that there are other things out there, that are worth photographing! But I also learnt that it was not my thing – spending hours waiting for the right light, and using all sorts of filters on my camera – way too technical for me. But I was so inspired by what was in front of me that I experimented until I worked out an easy way of doing it! Now – I am not saying for a second there is an easy way to photograph landscapes like the top landscape photographers do – not at all! I just wanted to capture aspects of what I saw in front of me, and do it in a way that I felt comfortable with. And that’s at a wide aperture, shooting detailed pieces of the landscape, rather than making it look true to life – kind of an arty slant.
So don’t be afraid to keep your camera set up easily, just as you would when photographing people – just point it at the most interesting part of the picture, and let everything else go soft and slightly out of focus.
Look for interesting shapes, colours and lines – and compose your pictures to make the most of them. All images above shot at F5.6 and focussed/exposed on the main part of the picture (trees/boat/chair etc).
WHAT IF IT’S RAINING?
Don’t wait for a sunny day to take your pictures – all sorts of shots can be taken in any weather.
On a bright day there will be shadows which can make great pictures; on an overcast day, the light will be soft and give you a different perspective. On a wet day the pebbles on a beach, for example, will really glow with texture and colour – which would be quite muted on a different day.
Don’t worry about the weather – different days create different effects. Left: Sunny days create great contrast and shadows. Centre right: Rainy days enhance the colours in pebbles on the beach. Far right: Overcast days create soft tones which blend together
DO I NEED A BIG CAMERA?
No! Your iPhone will do a fantastic job of detail pictures – try using Camera+. This is an incredible app that is so easy to use, and can turn the most mundane object into a fantastic photo. And you always have your phone camera with you – so when you see something you want to photograph – you can!
Tip: Shoot the picture with the regular camera on your phone – and then open it in Camera+ later – this way you keep the original shot, so you can experiment and produce all sorts of different results.
– will give you lots of ideas for composition and confidence with your camera.
I’ve recently bought the last remaining copies of my “99 Digital Photo Art Ideas” from the publisher, as it’s now out of print.
Signed copies of “99 Digital Photo Art Ideas” are available as long as stocks last – £15 + postage (worldwide). CLICK HERE to purchase.
Once you learn to set up your camera easily, so you don’t need to think about it, you can then concentrate on what is in front of you – which will lead you to take better pictures of both people and objects.