Photo tip - Finding photos

30th December 2009
Although compact cameras getting smarter all the time, one crucial ingredient they will never be able to automate is the composition of a photograph. There are two key stages to creating a good composition:

1. You have to teach your brain to see the potential in any given scene.
2. You have to learn the rules of composition so that the emotion, story or vision you had in the first place is communicated through the layout of the photo.

1. Teaching your brain to see beautiful photos.
All photographers dutifully learn the mechanics of apertures, shutter speeds, ISO levels and all the other functions on their cameras. Since there is a finite amount you can learn about your camera’s settings why aren’t most professional photographers of a similar standard? One main reason is that some photographers are better than others at seeing the potential in a scene and then using their skills to tease out the desired result.

How does this work in practice? Well, as you wander through life you feel emotions when you see things. You may feel invigorated by the energy of a rocky coast during a storm or you might feel calmed by the symmetry, order and tidiness of a well furnished hotel room. Stay in touch with these emotions and they will help you see the potential in a scene. If you feel something when you look at the scene then you can be sure that there’s a decent picture to be had. All you need to do now is figure out how to start composing the image which leads you on to the next stage…

2. Communicate through composition
Before you press the shutter, survey the scene in front of you. What attracted you to the landscape, model, animal etc? If it’s the trees in the landscape that attracted you then think about why they caught your eye. Was it the shape of the branches or the colour of the leaves? Keep asking yourself these questions until you have discovered the real focus of your image and that will dictate how you compose your photo. In this zebra photo I wanted to zoom in close because if I had taken in all the scenery you wouldn't have appreciated the reflections coming off the water, which helps give this image its impact.

The importance of shapes
When you start to look at good photos you will see patterns and shapes with amazing regularity. The zebra picture has 3 evenly sized rectangles comprising of the waterhole, the red mud and the yellowy savannah. The two sets of two zebras and the reflection also make evenly sized blocks that lead into one another.

Using shapes and patterns is a great way to instil order into your photos. And when a photo has an underlying order it just feels right, even if it’s not obvious at first glance.

So look out for:

- Lines – horizontal, vertical, irregular and diagonal
- Curves
- Lines that lead the eye into the photo and towards the main subject
- Shapes

Be strict with yourself because less is usually more. It was tempting to show the rest of the savannah in the zebra photo but the closer composition is far more impactful.

You can use a shallow depth of field, a telephoto lens, or simply walk nearer to the subject to isolate important features and remove unnecessary clutter.

Examples of shapes and lines in composition
Sometimes the shapes are rough and sometimes they are obvious, but they are there and they are part of the reason behind the impact of these photos.

Don’t forget your emotions
Consider the emotion that made you pause to take a shot in the first place, because then you can bring out the right composition to fit the emotion. Earlier I mentioned a rocky coast in a storm. You have a number of options with your composition:

- You could crop in on the crashing waves if that’s what set your pulse running
- You could silhouette a lonely lighthouse against the dark brooding sky
- Or you could face in the other direction and perhaps get the colours of the sunset reflected in the sea.

If you tried to capture everything in one photo it’s likely that the shot would not really capture the spirit of any of these ideas; but bringing out each idea in turn provides you with 3 well thought out images that each demonstrate a clear message.

A final word
Study the photos of the very best professionals and try to understand what makes the photo work and what the photographer was trying to convey. The more time you spend looking at quality photos the more often you will start to see these images ‘appear’ in front of you as you go about your daily life. They won’t appear fully formed, but you’ll start to see the signs. You’ll notice a weathered fence leads into the distance towards a gothic church, or maybe you’ll notice the sunlight stream through the window and form a halo round the fruit bowl.

The more photos you look at and assess the more you’ll tune in and start forming your own creative ideas.

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