Tuesday, 8 April 2008

How to get the Right Composition for Your Photographs

The Basics of a Good Photographic Composition
I want to discuss the merits of getting a photograph with good composition.. My motivation for writing this website is to help beginners to macro photography learn the basics and start getting impressive photographs for their portfolios. It is easy to become disillusioned and feel dejected when you have spent a lot of money on (digital) camera equipment and the results are poor with no sign of improvement. The main point to remember is that it is all part and parcel of the process. You must stay focussed and keep trying new and interesting methods of photography. In a strange way those early images that are a bit fuzzy, badly composed and under or over exposed are quite valuable. It is these first attempts that provide the inspiration to improve and evolve our skills and techniques to get better photographs of our subjects. Looks like I have gone off at a tangent again…perhaps I should compose myself before writing the rest of this post on photographic composition!

Make your Average Macro Photograph into a Masterpiece
So you’ve figured out the right aperture value to get your desired depth of field. The shutter speed has been calculated and you are using a sturdy tripod and a remote switch. Exposure problems are a thing of the past now that you understand how to use a bit of fill-in flash (actually I might not have covered that one yet but I will do soon). The photograph is taken with no movement and all the details are pin sharp and in focus. Is there anything more that you could have done to improve the outcome of this photograph? The answer to this question is YES. Composition is essentially the component of photography that can make what would be a rather average image into a photographic masterpiece. First of all we need to establish exactly what composition means. In photography the composition is really the bringing together of several elements that collectively make the photograph better. The brilliant photographs that you admire are not created by chance. Professional photographs are usually inspired by an imaginative person expressing their creative ability.

Have you ever watched one of those really badly written television drama programmes? Where an “artist” (of some description) comes to town and tries to gain the affections (or finances) of a young and impresionable girl. The stereotypical “artist” is shown framing objects by using his fingers to make a rectangle. I want you to do this before you continue reading the rest of this page. I find that after a while that it makes the fingers hurt? Although the writing and acting is usually terrible this stereotypical artist is actually looking at the composition. An easier way to do this is to cut a rectangle (6 x 4) from a sheet of cardboard. This is a very useful technique for finding a good composition in landscape photography. Macro Photography is much different and these techniques are much less useful here. The only realistic way to compose your images in macro photography is through the viewfinder. Still life objects are much easier to photograph than living organisms. Setting up the camera on a tripod and moving the still life objects (such as coins, stamps etc) into position is not too difficult. It gets much more difficult when working outdoors with wild flowers or insects. Sometimes you can move material that you do not want in the frame of the photographic composition. There are times when you have to move the whole set-up to eliminate a particular eyesore. At least if you are thinking about the final results by looking at the frame as a whole, you are on the right track. This is really what you need to think about when composing during macro photography.

Here is my list of things to check when composing a macro photograph. If you’re not doing most of these already you have not been reading my website.

  1. Magnification – how big do you want your subject in the frame
  2. Distance – how close do you want to be to your subject
  3. Depth of Field – do you want to blur the background or make it sharp
  4. Plane of Focus – align the camera parallel to the subject
  5. Aperture – set the aperture to control the depth of field
  6. Shutter Speed – use the appropriate shutter speed. If there is any movement do you want to freeze it or add motion blur.
  7. Exposure – Ensure that your settings give you a good exposure. Take a test shot to test the settings with the histogram feature. Do you need to use flash or increase the ISO setting?
  8. Subject – Chose a good angle for your subject. Focus on the portion you want to be sharpest in the frame. When photographing a living creature it is popular to go for the eyes (if possible).
  9. Background – Check that your background and subject are suited. Look for anything that might spoil the photograph in the background.
  10. Take the photograph. Check the histogram and LCD screen to make sure you got the best possible result. If not, recompose and take the image again until you get the image your want or your battery runs out!

The composition of a photograph is simply what you see in the frame. This is inclusive of the subject and the background. It is everything that goes into the photograph. To make the composition stronger you have to consider which side of the subject to photograph. It is important in macro photography to consider the depth of field. To improve the depth of field align the camera sensor with the subject, this is the plane of focus. Eliminate any objects that distract the eye from the subject. In general day to day photography composition is often overlooked. If you take a snap shot of Granny sitting on bench at the zoo you might not think about the trees in the background. Later you may discover that by chance Granny has a large branch sprouting from her head. With a little bit more thought about composition this scenario would have been avoided. Although this site is solely about macro photography composition applies to all photography.

Lead-in lines
The human brain is a funny thing! Trust me I’ve got one. When you look at a picture that has lines in it the eye follows the line to see where they go. In photography this behaviour can be exploited when creating the composition. In landscape photograph of a farm-house you could use the farm track (dirt road) up to the farm-house as a lead-in line. This would lead the observer to the point of focus. In macro photography you can use the same principle to improve your composition. In botanical photography some species of flowers have “honey guides” leading into the flower itself. These are often brightly coloured strips of colour to attract bees and other insects to the pollen. Honey guides make great lead-in lines for some species of flowers. The main point I want to make is that you should think about lead-in lines when setting up your composition. If the subject or background has lines that the eye will follow you must decide to use them to your advantage, or discard them if they will lead the eye away from the subject. It all comes down to what you are trying to achieve with your photography. A medical student would probably not look for lead-in lines when photographing abdominal ulcers. A lot of my early plant photography was taken for identification and I did not require good backgrounds or composition. I still tried to get the best composition because I would often have to show my pictures to ecologists and botanists. (Experts in their fields!)

The Rule of Thirds
The Rule of Thirds was first discovered 2500 years ago by the ancient Greeks. It is wildly accepted as the Rule of Composition in all forms of photography. The rule is simple and easy to follow. Divide the image by 3 equal lines horizontally and vertically. This makes a grid containing 9 boxes over the image. In a landscape photograph you would place the horizon on one of the horizontal lines. The rule should be used in macro photography whenever the subject allows it. The rule of thirds is not really a rule but more of a composition guideline. Sometimes you have to ignore the rule of thirds and just capture the image. Later you can crop the image using the rule of thirds, provided that you left some room in the frame. If you capture is full frame the rule of thirds has to be applied at the time of taking the photograph.

Rule of the Nonchalant Artist
There are times when your macro subject will not work with the rule of thirds. When this happens you have to use my own rule called “the Rule of the Nonchalant Artist”. This rule means ignore all other rules and conventions in the name of art. The rule of the nonchalant artist can be used for all subjects where the rule of thirds doesn’t work. The big difference between the two rules is that the rule of thirds actually works. Make sure you use it whenever the subject allows it.

Manipulate the Background
Manipulation does not just take place in badly written television programmes. It is easy to add your own background to many of your macro photographs. The easiest and least expensive way to do this is to use a sheet of coloured card. Place the sheet of coloured card underneath or behind (or both) of your subject. The card should ideally be at least 10cm further away than your subject. It does not have to be card you could use something else, but make sure your background material is made from a non-reflective surface (matt finish). A pack of coloured card can be found at all good stationers and possibly at some rubbish ones as well. This effect is obviously easier to implement with static subjects. It can be used outdoor with insects as well but you need a degree of luck and a compliant creature as a model.

Figure 1. Manipulated Background Using Coloured Cards (Click Image to Enlarge)

Macro Photography for Beginners
I hope that this has been a useful post and helps you to improve the composition of your photographs. I hope that you understand the rules of thirds because it really does make a huge amount of difference to the results. If you have any questions, suggestions, queries or comments please use the comment box or send me an email. I will either answer you directly or cover your question in a subsequent post. Thank you for reading my macro photography for beginners website. Cheers...

My next post follows on from this one...read about Composition and Manual Focus and have a look at my apple experiment.

Marvin Africa


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just came upon your site and would like to thank you for all your hard work and passion to pass on your experiential knowledge so generously.
Just last year I bought a pricey 5d MII canon/ 70-200 f/2.8 L IS, 16-35 L IS f/2.8. I am now looking for a tack sharp lens for flower, etc macro shooting. The canon 100 macro looks like it might serve this purpose- color saturation and definition quite important to me. I tried the 180macro f/3.5 because it is glorified as being the "best" for flowers - color saturation etc. - nice lens but .... Found myself looking at the leica alternatives - not in my budget. Looked at the sigma 150 os macro and tried it out - more flexibility than the 180 canon because of the os Don't want to make bad choices for my next rather large investment.
Given my equipment, can you suggest a excellent choice for a lens. I love tack sharp, good dof, excellent color reflected in pics. Also the best (appropriate) flexible flash if used or needed.
Asking for too much? - sorry!!