Image composition - Four basic points to keep in mind

Uploaded 24. Nov. 2010
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Composition is the general arrangement of the objects in your picture. Since photographic occasions and subjects are as diverse as photographers, there is no ultimate approach to generate a perfectly composed image. But there are a few basics thoughts regarding composition we'd like to share here:

Framing your subject

You can position the scene within your viewfinder as desired and adjust the framing by just moving towards or away from your subject or - if you're not using a fixed focal lens - simply zooming in and out. Although framing can be easily adjusted in post-processing by simple cropping, we'd recommend considering these things before you take pictures. An already pleasing composition reduces the effort of post-processing and - more importantly - you cannot add more space around your subject or attach a clipped-off leg if it's not on your original image.

Three differet ways to frame the same dunlin.

The picture on the left is not framed very well - there is too much space behind the bird and no room at all in front of it; giving the expression that the animal is just about to leave the image. The picture in the centre is not optimally framed either. Since there's almost no space around it, the dunlin looks awkwardly trapped within the canvas and parts of the tail feathers are truncated as well. The picture on the right however is what's often considered well structured. There is plenty of space in front and some space around the object. At the same time, the bird is neither displayed too big within the canvas nor too small. The right-hand picture is also subjected to the rule of thirds (see below).

Rule of thirds

The "rule of thirds" is a compositional rule of thumb often applied in photography. The idea is to align your object to imaginary lines which devide both the horizontal and vertical axis in thirds. Composing your picture according to the hereby resulting nine rectangles is often considered aesthetically pleasing. Many viewfinders can display grid lines to aid composition according to the rule of thirds.

Rule of thirds
The body of this dunlin makes out roughly two thirds of the width, leaving one third empty in front of it.
The hight of the bird occupies approximately one third of the canvas.

Rule of
              thirds applied to a landscape image
The shoreline, water and horizon each make out roughly a third of the picture.

Finding the right perspective

A proper perspective can make the difference between a lousy and an excellent picture. This can often be achieved by getting your camera on the same level as your subject:

Looking down to your subject  On level with your subject
A Lapland bunting from a top-down perspective (left) and on eye-level (right).
Click to enlarge images.

The two pictures above display the same bird and were taken using the same camera settings. What's different is the perspective: The photo on the left shows the bunting from a top-down perspective as seen from a upright-standing viewer, resulting in a rather dull perspective with the plumage of the bird amlost merging with its background. The picture on the right however was taken while lying flat on the gravel. The photographer was thus on eye-level with the subject creating an more intimate face-to-face perspective. Moreover, the subject is now clearly separated from the blurry background.

Nevertheless, an unusual point of view can also yield interesting pictures, so think about your perspective prior to pressing the release.

Treefrog from a worm's-eye view
European tree frog from an rather unusual bottom-up perspective

Aperture and depth of field

The last point we want to address here is the aperture, which is directly linked to the amount of light bundled through your lens and the resulting depth of field in your viewfinder.

Mullein Moth  Mullein Moth  Mullein MothMullein Moth caterpillar (Cucullia verbasci) shot with different apertures, namely f 2.8 (left), f 5.6 (center) and f 11(right).
Click to enlarge images.

It is important to understand the relationship between aperture and depth-of-field: If you use a wide aperture (i.e. a low f-number), your depth of field will be quite narrow. This means that the area in-focus will be rather small. The picture on the left is a good example for this: With a wide aperture of f 2.8, only a small part of the caterpillar's head is in focus, while the rest of the image is very blurry. If you close down the aperture a bit - like f 5.6 in the central image - a bigger part of your subject will be in focus and you will be able to recognize details in the background. With an even smaller aperture of f 11, most of the animal is now sharp and the background is quite noticable.

I really appreciate a blurry background and a narrow depth of field like in the left hand picture; such a smooth and even background really makes your subject pop out. But the small in-focus area comes at a price: some details - like the caterpillar's back and feet - get lost and blurred out when using a wide aperture. So it's always a trade-off between a pleasing background blur and a gain in increased depth-of-field.

There is of course no standard rule for a perfect composition. But keeping these points in mind may help you to improve your images.

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