My photography training took place back in the early 90s, at an intense technical photo school in California. I love tech in all forms, and I love reading my camera manual. I love the precision and procedure of processing my own colour film, and I love learning the ever-advancing skills on photo software – I am a total tech nerd. But technical knowledge will only get you so far; it’s really the second part of the story in photography. Photography composition is the first part.
The first part is your vision of what you want your photography to be, and learning the ability to compose compelling images. Your technical knowledge will only give you the ability to execute your vision, and make the most of the composition that you have created. It can’t replace the ability to see and to compose stunning compositions.
So all things should flow from a good composition. And when we are learning about composition I like to keep in mind that quote that may or may not have been spoken by Picasso (it’s under dispute on the internet): “Learn the rules like a pro and break them like an artist.” Rules, guidelines, ideas about composition will give you a place to start, help develop your skills and propel you out of a rut. But they should not be followed slavishly or forever.
Here are my ideas on what you can do to make your compositions more captivating. But, bear in mind that creating totally unique compositions comes down to creating your own style . So don’t be swayed too much by other photographers’ advice on this subject. Photography is an examination of the world through your eyes, it’s totally subjective, totally about connecting with what inspires and excites you. Just pick up ideas that make sense and motivate you.
To practice, pick one concept from below that jumps out. Don’t take all these ideas and try to incorporate them into your photography all at once. Pick one and really embrace it – then the results will come.
So here are my 10 favourite tips on how you can instantly improve your composition.
“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.”George Eastman
For me more than anything, photography is about light, and learning to identify interesting light is one of the best skills to learn. Light that is doing something interesting, or is beautiful or colourful; will take a good subject and turn it into something completely amazing.
Light is my starting point when I am taking photos. It is the thing I consider first, and what affects me the most when deciding what to photograph. Look for light doing strange and wonderful things – creating long shadows, diffused light falling over a broken wall, reflecting, creating bursts of colour. Look for the colour of light, too: the cool blue light before dawn, the cold, almost transparent light of a winter’s afternoon, the rich orange light of near twilight – and how that affects your subject. Think always: how can I get the best out of the light that I am photographing?
In the photograph above, the beautiful light is obvious. I have used the silhouette of the column, to contrast the dappled light which is illuminating the clouds beautifully. This contrast makes the light look spectacular because it’s showing off its range of colours and depth against the heavy dark column.
Learning to notice light in all its forms and colours is an excellent way to improve your compositions.
When you see a subject you wish to photograph, look at the light around it. If it’s not interesting light – if it’s flat, boring, or draining the sense of colour – have a look at what else is happening with the weather. Maybe you can wait for clouds to pass, come back later or earlier in the day, see if you can organize the composition to incorporate light from other sources. It doesn’t have to be natural light. Artificial light, and particularly the play of natural and artificial light, can make an inspirational combination.
Here’s another photo where the main subject is the light, but this one is more subtle. The absence of light is most pronounced in this shot, and then all of sudden the glow of dawn light is reflected in the windows. Again, there is a contrast of darkness against light.
There is lots of negative space in this photo, an overload of industrial blandness, wastelands. And then these two buildings and the sudden glow of the charming light.