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Cheat Sheet

Digital Photography Composition For Dummies

When you hear photographers discussing photographic composition, what they're referring to is simply the way you arrange your subject and supporting elements (both physical and nonphysical) — along with the background, foreground, and midground — in an image. Successful composition in photography takes an understanding of the rules, including depth of field, and a good eye for perspective. In addition, you want to select the best lens for the shot. Then you practice putting it all together by taking lots of photos!

Considering the Rules of Photographic Composition

The rules of composition in photography are more like guidelines than laws. You're ultimately in control of how your photographs are composed, but the following time-tested tips are worth considering when you're deciding how to compose a particular scene:

  • Apply the rule of thirds by breaking your frame into thirds vertically and horizontally. Anything that you place on a line or at the intersection of two lines of thirds plays an important role in your composition. So try to avoid putting unnecessary or distracting elements at these points.

  • Use leading lines to guide a viewer through an image. If your scene has strong linear elements, you can use them to direct a viewer to certain areas of your scene. Find a perspective that uses compositional lines to lead viewers to important elements like your subject.

  • Fill your frame with elements that are relevant to your message. Try not to include anything that's distracting or aesthetically undesirable. Viewers will examine and ponder whatever's in your frame in order to discover meaning. You should include only the elements that are relevant to your message.

  • Create a focal point that makes sense based on your message. Focus on whatever you deem to be the most important element — the subject — in your scene.

  • Pay attention to the background. Your background should support your subject. In other words, you don't want to photograph Aunt Sallie in front of the restrooms when you could have taken her picture in front of the Louvre simply by changing your angle.

  • Frame your subject. By placing foreground elements at the edges of your frame, you create compositional frames. These frames surround your subject and draw more attention to it.

  • Avoid mergers. Don't let distracting background elements merge with your subject. A merging element can cause the shape of your subject to appear distorted, and viewers generally dislike it. And sometimes it looks downright silly. For example, a photo looks really funny when a street sign in the background rses straight up from a person's head.

Managing Depth of Field in Photographic Compositions

When composing photographic images, depth of field is one of the main considerations to remember. Depth of field refers to how much of your scene is in sharp focus. The shallower your depth of field, the more your focal point stands out against the blurred elements. The greater your depth of field, the more detail you reveal throughout the scene. It can be used to tell viewers where exactly to look in a frame.

The following two compositional tools control how much depth of field occurs in a photograph:

  • Aperture: Your aperture determines how much light can enter your lens in a given moment. The larger the aperture opening, the shallower your depth of field. So, if you close your aperture, you can increase your depth of field.

  • Magnification: Your lens choice determines how much a scene is magnified in a photograph, and magnification determines depth of field. A wide-angle lens doesn't magnify a scene at all, so it provides a greater depth of field than a telephoto lens (also referred to as a long lens), which magnifies the scene to allow you to get tighter crops from far away. The longer a lens is, the shallower the depth of field it produces.

To maximize depth of field, use a wide-angle lens and shoot with a small aperture opening. To minimize depth of field, use a telephoto lens and shoot with a large aperture opening.

Changing Your Perspective to Find the Best Photographic Composition

When you compose a photograph, your perspective is based on your distance and angle to the subject as well as the distance and angle of the subject to the other compositional elements in the scene. A perspective that creates a great photographic composition reveals the subject in a clear and interesting way and positions supporting elements in areas that add to the message without distracting from the subject.

Move around with your camera until you find a perspective that provides a place for everything in your scene. Here are some things to keep in mind when finding your perspective:

  • Try to avoid angles that cause elements to merge in uncomfortable ways. Doing so allows viewers to see the various elements in a scene in the most aesthetically pleasing way.

  • Use angles to convey your message. Try a higher angle to reveal depth in a scene. And get low to emphasize a subject's height.

  • Zoom or get physically closer to your subject to increase how much detail is visible in your subject. Zoom in on your subject when you want to eliminate much of the surrounding environment from your frame. Move your camera physically closer if you want to maintain some of the surrounding information but also get more detail in your subject.

Choosing Your Lens When You Compose a Photograph

Lens choice matters in photographic composition. The lens can either work in your favor or muck up the story you're trying to tell. You have several types of lenses to choose from, and each has its forte.

To figure out which lens is appropriate for a scene, first figure out what your subject is and then pay attention to the elements in the foreground and background. By determining how much of the scene you want to include, you can decide which lens works best.

Here are the two categories of lenses as well as some of the specific types in each category:

  • Fixed lenses: These lenses contain only one focal length. The lenses most often used in this category are normal lenses, which produce a view that's closest to the human eye; telephoto lenses, which have a focal length that magnifies a scene; and wide-angle lenses, which have a smaller focal length that shows more of your scene.

  • Normal lenses are great for capturing scenes in a way that's closest to how you see it with your eyes. And your telephoto lens comes in handy when you want to get closer to a subject but can't do so physically. When a scene has several elements of interest (whether in the foreground or background) that are relevant to your subject, a wide-angle lens may be most appropriate for capturing the whole story. A wide-angle lens also may be useful if your less-than-interesting subject is made more remarkable because of the foreground or background.

  • Zoom lenses: These lenses contain a range of focal lengths, providing you with the convenience of only carrying one lens to your shoot. Some photographers tend to zoom in on everything, with the idea that the bigger a subject is in a frame, the better. This isn't always the truth. But, of course, if your scene doesn't include a lot of interesting elements, you may be wise to zoom in on your subject and eliminate the uninteresting aspects. Similarly, if you feel that your subject is interesting and should be shown with as much detail as possible, zoom in to increase the attention it receives.

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