How to improve your composition

I ran a new workshop for the first time on Saturday – a Focus On Composition – and it was obviously a topic people wanted help with. Both dates booked up within days of me releasing them. Composition scares people a bit with all its rules and terminology. How do you improve your composition and how do you know if you’ve got a well composed image? Dare you put it out there and then risk being judged? Photographers have a tendency to lack confidence or be our own worst critics.

I ran through many different compositional tools and principles during the workshop, using images torn out of photography magazines to demonstrate each one. It was a nice change to handle pictures and pass them around, rather than look at a screen. It was also great to watch and listen to the animated debates about the images.

People’s first reaction is usually an emotional one and that is hopefully exactly what the photographer intended, even if the emotional reaction differs to the one he or she expected or experienced at the time of capture.

As I introduced concepts such as how to create depth in your images, or suggest tension, or guide the eye through the photograph, I kept coming back to the importance of provoking a response in the viewer. A good shot engages and stops you in your tracks and the great ones stay with you. How do you make the viewer feel what you felt in that moment?

This also led to me to talk about the importance of two other factors that will really help us to capture engaging and well composed images. Neither of these involves rules or techniques, but without them we risk taking bland, emotionless shots:

1. Trust your instincts and gut reaction.

improve your compositionI didn’t go out to take this shot. I was on my way home from seeing a client one chilly February evening and mist was forming just above the ground. The sun had just set and the sky was still pink. I spotted this scene as I drove by and turned the car around to go back and capture it. I was captivated by the light and the mist and that was what I was most aware of. Including the sheep in the frame gave me a focal point. I have to admit that the last thing in my mind when I shoot are compositional rules or techniques! I see a shot and quickly adjust camera settings, frame it and click the shutter.

How do you know when you’ve taken a good shot? Trust your judgement and instinct.

Some people call it ‘having a creative eye’ as if it’s something you’re born with and that must be an important factor, but go back fifteen years and the majority of my images were very average snapshots. So something has changed and I haven’t actively sat down until recently to study composition in depth.

I believe my creative eye has developed over time by immersing myself in images. I love flipping through photography books, browsing on Instagram and Pinterest, watching natural world documentaries or films where the director has composed stunning cinematography. It’s gone into my brain via some kind of osmosis and I don’t have to actively think about how to frame the shot, place the elements, draw the eye to the subject.

Let’s go back to the sheep… I spotted the light and the mist and I noticed the sheep – I was aware of thinking about them. I wasn’t consciously aware of a few other elements, the critical ones that make the composition strong: the diagonal line of sheep; the two faces looking at me; the diagonal lines in the grass. They are the compositional elements that draw the eye to the sheep and I believe that I was subconsciously aware of them and that influenced how I framed the shot. Otherwise I might have decided on a classic rule of thirds composition with the sheep off to one side.

2. Shoot from the heart

Photograph what you are passionate about and what you love and you will do it much better. If a subject doesn’t interest you, you won’t be able to express any real emotions in your images. You won’t wish to immerse yourself in photographs and absorb them. Since I realised I love still life, particularly food and flowers,  and story telling with images, my photography has improved greatly and I get very excited talking about it, reading about it.

Study the compositional rules, teach yourself to analyse images but also trust your instincts and your heart. Break the rules and colour outside the lines sometimes.



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