Basics of Good Composition

January 09, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

I went on a photo shoot with a friend the other day and we started talking about composition. She asked me how I decide which composition is best when I have a series of photos of the same scene.

It was a difficult question to answer. I don’t claim to be a professional artist or photographer, but I’m always happy to share whatever little knowledge I have. When it comes to composition, I think I have spent a lifetime looking at great images – both paintings and photographs – and have acquired some sort of instinct about what I like. That doesn’t mean I always hit the nail on the head, it just means that I will gravitate toward compositions with certain basic elements. If I have multiple versions of a photo that are similar in composition, I will trust my initial instincts to pick the top few, then look closely at the details to decide what I like best.

As I was looking for some examples I found one scene I shot a number of years ago that has remained a perennial favorite of mine. Here is the scene I shot, starting with the first image I took. It was nice, but didn't quite match what I thought I saw.

Two rows of trees converging in snow.Trees in SnowI spotted these trees on a snowy day and knew there was something about them I really liked, so I stopped to take some pictures. This is the first one I took, unedited. Two rows of bare trees converging in snow. Trees converging in snow.This is the second image I shot, unedited. Notice the converging line in the composition? By simply moving left a few steps, I created a much more pleasing image.

In the second image (above), I moved a few steps and captured the composition I liked, but the final image still wasn't there.

High contrast black and white image of two rows of trees converging in snow. Black and white trees in snow.The composition was there, but the image still wasn't what I was seeing in my mind's eye. I edited it into a black and white image and increased the highlights to help the white blow out a bit. This is what I saw in my mind's eye that the camera did not capture.

The final image (above) is the result of converting to black and white and editing. When I post that final image I get lots of "likes" on my fan page, so I know that it resonates with others as well. This image was shot well before I really had any idea what I was doing in digital photography. In fact, I believe the original image is a jpeg, not shot in RAW. I barely understood Lightroom and I certainly hadn't given a lot of thought to composition. It was just obvious to me which was the most pleasing image.

I believe it is the leading line + the asymmetrical rows + the high contrast. What do you think?

When it comes to abstracts, which are a new area of interest for me, I am still learning what I like. Here’s an image I composited and liked, but then I flipped it to portrait orientation and liked it much better. 

 

A multi-colored abstract with texture composite.A Notion of Movement _ LandscapeI first tried this abstract in landscape orientation and liked the general look.

A portrait orientation multi-colored abstract with texture. A Notion of Movement - PortraitAnd then I rotated it to portrait orientation and I liked it more. In portrait orientation it looks to me like some sort of road with a moody sky.

There are plenty of books and basic courses on composition. This article has some good basics on composition with great examples. I suggest you do a search on YouTube for "composition basics" or "golden ratio in composition".  There are dozens of tutorial videos available.

If you use Lightroom, there is a cropping tool overlay guide that will enable you to actually look at your images with these compositions in mind.

Be sure you are in Develop mode and have the Crop Guide on:

A close-up image showing Develop mode and Crop mode turned on in Lightroom. Develop mode in Lightroom.To access the crop guide tool overlay you must be in crop mode.

An image in Lightroom with the crop guides overlay tool showing. How to add the crop guide overlay in Lightroom.You can use the crop guide overlays in Lightroom to check your composition.

I don't pretend to be a great photographer or teacher, but since I have friends who ask me these types of questions, I'm happy to share the little bits of knowledge I have picked up. To learn more about Lightroom, I highly recommend these terrific resources:

Julianne Kost Lightroom Videos

LauraShoe.com

The Lightroom Queen


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