Monday, August 25, 2008

Using a compact camera creatively...A free online photography course - Part 2: Composition

A free online photography course for people wanting to improve their photos
(or "how to keep you friends and family from falling asleep when showing them your holiday photos!")

In the first part of this free online photography course geared towards compact camera users, we covered selective focusing, filling the frame with the subject and getting in closer to isolate or emphasize the main subject.

Just a quick recap:
  • The main aim of this course is to highlight that you don't need a 'BIG' camera to take good photos
  • The main reason I'm doing this is due to the frequency I hear people blame their equipment for the bad photos they took - from experience, though, bad photos are due to being taken quickly with very little thought and almost no adherence to any accepted standard guidelines for taking good photos.
  • Lastly my goal for everyone who participates in this course is that their families and friends will start to accept their invitations again to look at their holiday photos :-)
Of course we have all heard of the saying that "guidelines are made to be broke", which of course is true. But before you break them, you should know two things (1) what the guidelines are, and (2) why you are breaking them and "just because I want to" doesn't count!

This free online photography course is about helping you understand and practice the guidelines in this course while giving you one-on-one feedback about your photos.

One thing I’ve noticed about the compact camera is that it’s just too easy to take shots without thinking actually about it. This is good under certain circumstances, think stag night, but I think that the ease of use for these cameras is one of the main, if not the root cause, of bad or average images aka snap shots.

I’ve found that if you take a moment and put some thought into taking a shot, it’s possible to get really good shots. This is what this free online photography course is all about – enabling people to take better pictures with their existing camera by learning a few basic guidelines which you will proudly hang on your walls - physical or virtual :-)

At the end of each section there is a "go out and get your hands dirty" assignment. As part of this assignment you email me your images and I'll review them and give you feedback to help you improve. You can then either re-shoot the assignment if you feel it’s necessary or move on to the next section.

All of this is FREE, no strings attached. I won't sell your email address or photos to anyone - that's a promise.

The topics covered in this free online photography course are:

Guidelines for taking better shots

Ideas for creating better memories

Guidelines for taking better shots

This lesson will focus on other areas of Composition not covered in Part 1:
  • The rule of thirds
  • Looking into open space
  • Angle - Get down low
  • Angle - Go up high
  • Angling the image
  • Leading lines

Composition - Part 2

In Part 1 of composition, you learned some basic guidelines that helped move you away from the dreaded disease I’ve termed 'centeritis'. I covered the topics of filling the frame with the subject and also getting in close to the subject. If fact I can't emphasize enough the importance of these two areas.

Part 2 of Composition explains some basic guidelines that are frequently used to achieve dynamic, balanced and pleasing pictures.

Composition is the basic ingredient to making successful and effective images. Poorly composed photographs are the main cause of putting your family and friends to sleep during post dinner holiday snap reviews. They may not know why the photo looks bad or boring and probably won’t be able to pin point any particular area, but people are intrinsically drawn to well composed images and conversely turn away from badly composed images.

  • Rule of thirds
The ‘rule of thirds’ guideline is probably the most talked about composition guideline. In my book, it is also the easiest to remember and implement and would instantly improve 90% of photos taken today.

Artists have been using this guideline for a long time before cameras were around, and as photography means ‘painting with light’ it’s an obvious pick for applying it here. The rule of thirds guidelines produces a ratio of 2:1 which gives the composition of the image both order and stability. Although it may sound counter-intuitive the center of the picture is not a satisfying place of the eye to rest.

To understand this guideline all you have to do is take an image and divide both sides up into three equal parts, like this picture of my family standing on the Van Gogh Bridge in Leiden, Holland:

Image 1: Rule of thirds - simply put means placing an important part of the image on one of the four points where the lines intersect

The aim of for the photographer is to position the main subject or focal point on one of the four points where the lines intersect. Your subject doesn’t have to be exactly right on the exact intersection, but as close to the vicinity as possible should be your aim.
One Thing: Given a few more seconds to think about the composition I would have closed in slightly which would have filled the frame and brought the composition of the photo closer to the rule of thirds guideline.
It really is that simple. Using this guideline, along with filling the image and getting in close, will instantly improve the majority of your shots.

For shots of landscapes frequently break the rule of thirds by placing the horizon in the middle of the picture. As a very general (and very good) guideline to follow the horizon should be placed on with the top or bottom grid line.

The most frequently asked question is “how do I know which grid line should I use?” and of course the answer is “it depends”!

To decide which grid line to place the horizon you need to look at the image and decide which part holds the most interest to the viewer. Is it the cloud formations in the sky or the babbling brook or patterned landscape? Whichever you decide is the most interesting part of the photo should get the bigger share of the photograph.

Further reading:

Rule of Thirds – Digital Photography School
Break the Rule of Thirds – Digital Photography School
Rule of Thirds -

  • Rule of thirds - looking into open space
The ‘rule of thirds’ guideline often means that people sit or stand on either side of the image. Although they may stand facing the camera, which can produce flat and boring images, people can also sit or stand in a specific direction.

The guideline ‘looking into open space’ positions the subject so that they are facing the far side of the photograph. This creates open space for the person in the image to look into creating a pleasing composition. Conversely by having the person looking to the near side can create a feeling of isolation and close space.

The picture below shows my youngest daughter on the train looking out of the window. By placing her on the left and looking towards the right the image creates an aesthetically pleasing image.

Image 2: Having someone look, walk or ride into open space on the photo makes a more pleasing image

One Thing: I should have taken a few more seconds and wait for my daughter to stop scratching her face. I would have also zoomed out slightly to include the whole arm and hand in the photo. This would have brought the composition of the photo closer to the rule of thirds guideline.
You should apply this guideline to other kinds of shots that contain people, animals or objects which are moving. Place the moving subject on the photo using the rule of thirds and make sure that they are moving into the open space across the photo, rather than moving out of the photo.

The rule of thirds guideline is one of the quickest to way to improve your photographs giving them order and stability whilst making them pleasant to look at.

Get your hands dirty
  1. Shoot a half body portrait of a friend - make sure they face to the opposite side of the image.
  2. Shoot a full length portrait of a friend looking into the distance - make sure their eyes are in focus
  3. Shoot someone walking or riding a bicycle using the rule of thirds guideline – make sure they are walking or riding across the image and not off the end of the image
  4. Shoot a landscape picture with the horizon on one of the grid lines – make sure that the more interesting part of the picture has the 2/3 space in the photograph and the least interesting the other 1/3
Send the images to with a subject title "Rule of Thirds" and a brief description about each image and let me know if and what difficulties you encountered. Give me a few days to get back to you with my feedback.

  • Shooting from a different Angle
Most of the pictures you see at family get-togethers are taken from one vantage point – the eye level of the person taking the picture. One of the problems with pictures taken from eye level is that this is the same view point that everyone else sees which leads to boring or uninteresting images.

Even if you take height difference into account, from say 1.2 meters (4 feet) to 2.2 meters (7.2 feet), you would not see a lot of difference in the photos taken from the same location (except if the shorter person were in a crowd of taller people!).

The reason why composing an image at a radical vertical angle makes for an interesting image is because it uses angles which people do not normally see things and adds a dynamic element to the photograph which will hold the viewers attention for much longer.

Although I may be stating the obvious, there are two ways to shoot vertical angles (1) from a low angle, and (2) from a high angle.

It should be noted that these techniques work best, and create the most dramatic effect, when used with a wide angled lens and close up to the subject.

  • Get down low
When I say “get down low to take a shot” I do not mean bending the body at the hips to lower the upper body slightly. Getting down low to me means at a very minimum kneeling down and bending somewhat and all the way to lying on the floor with the camera just high enough to see the preview. Just make sure you look before you lie, especially out in the street or if you have a pet animal at home ;-)

As mentioned above this technique will help create a much more visually stimulating image but it will also help to remove clutter from the background.

The image below was taken in a shopping mall in The Hague, Holland. No points for guessing what angle it was taken at! By taking it at eye level the background is very busy with people walking about and my wife’s head is starting to get lost in the background.

Image 3: typical photo taken at eye level – flat, boring and cluttered

After taking the above shot I took a minute to get down low and recompose the shot below. This low angled composition has created a cleaner background, making it more dynamic and getting a more grandiose perspective of the shopping mall building.

Image 4: Taken at a lower angle – cleaner and more dynamic

Although it may not be an award winning image – it definitely makes the picture more interesting to look at than the top one.
One Thing: I should have waited a few more seconds to allow the person on the left to walk out of the frame.
The next image below was taken by me lying down on the floor. We were in a windmill museum in Leiden, Holland, and I wanted to capture my family next to the windmill. As there was limited space around the windmill to maneuver, getting down low was the only way to get the windmill and my family into the same picture. Without getting down low I would have been left with a picture of my family against a brick wall, which could have been taken anywhere.

Image 5: Getting down low allowed me to include both a tall windmill and my family in one shot

One Thing: I would have recomposed the shot to include more of my family and not cut-off my wife’s legs at the knee caps.
When shooting from a low angle remember to shoot with in a mode that will keep most of the image in focus – usually landscape mode will accomplish this. Remember to have fun when shooting low, try experimenting at different angles and different focal length (zooming in and out) and just when you think you can’t go any lower, bend down a bit more – you’ll be surprised how low you can go.

  • Go up high
Similar guidelines apply to taking shots from above and they do from below. The main reason for this is because you are creating viewpoints which people are not used to. I feel that going down is easier to create a bigger impact on an image compared to going up high – probably because we look down more than we look up at things.

Shooting from high has its limitations - how tall you are or what the tallest object you can climb compared to the subject you are shooting will affect the overall impact the image has.

The two images below of my girls were taken on the train platform in Leiden Station in Holland. Because they were sitting down, they were relatively low compared to me which allowed me to set my lens to a wide angle (zooming out) and bring the camera to almost directly above them.

The images are fun and different as they completely change the perspective and size ratios of body parts that we are accustomed to seeing. If these were taken from a normal angle looking on they would be very boring indeed.

Image 6: This high angled shot makes my daughters head and eyes look very big giving an almost cartoon feel about her.

One Thing: I really like this fun image, but if I could retake it I would try and get both hands and maybe also the feet in the image. The problem was that I wasn’t quite tall enough and my wide angle lens not quite wide enough.

Image 7: a fun pose by daughter is made better by the high angle

One Thing: Another fun shot, unfortunately her fingers were cut off. It would have been hard to ask for more time from my daughter to hold this pose while I recomposed, but maybe I could have asked her to do it again after I had tried to recompose the shot.

  • Angled Subjects
This technique of angling the subject in the frame is done simply by rotating the camera clockwise or anti-clockwise so that the object is no longer vertical in the frame. It a simple technique to use and the only danger is that you end up with too many of your photos with people at an angle. Therefore my suggestion is to use this technique sparingly.

This techniques works for similar reasons going high or low work, you are creating viewpoints which people do not normally see – the only exception being seamen working on boats in the North Sea during winter!

The shot below of me was actually taken by my youngest daughter. I don’t know if she meant to take it at an angle or moved the camera when pressing the button, but the end result is a more interesting image of me on the beach

Image 8: angled shots create a more dynamic feel

One Thing: I know that I didn’t take this shot, but if I did I would try feel the frame with the subject more or try the picture in landscape layout to get more of the background in.

  • Leading lines
Leading lines are simply using lines and curves in a picture to lead the viewer into the image, and forcing their eyes to go where you want them to.

Personally, I think that this is one of my weakest techniques, as I never seem to find good leading lines, but when done properly is a very effective technique.

The image below is an example of leading lines, in that when the viewer looks at the image their eyes naturally travel down the street to the end. Unfortunately, when the user gets to the end there is nothing for them to look at - which is what is wrong with the image!

Image 9: The leading lines in the street and buildings lead the viewer eyes to the end of the street - unfortunately in this image there is nothing at the end for the viewer to see!

One Thing: If I would have thought about this image a bit more I would not have the leading lines point to the centre of the image (I did say I was affected by centeritis). Rather I would have put end of the street at either the top or bottom third of the image (see rules of thirds).
The next image was taken in the play park in Rotterdam Zoo, Holland. My daughter kept playing on this slide and kept asking for me to wait for her at the bottom. One problem was that it seemed that 100 other kids also wanted to go on the slide and I had to wait for a long time between her turn.

I wanted to create a fun image which captured the fun she was having as well as the size of the slide. Instead of trying to get the whole slide, which would have looked very boring, I decided to make the slide look big in the photograph as a reminder to us how big it actually was. I used the leading lines of the slide to bring the viewers eye to my daughter as she came out of the slide.

Image 10: The slide creates leading lines which lead the eye to where my daughter is

The main problem I found was that I had to wait for a long time for my daughter to come out of the slide so it was hard to concentrate on waiting for the right moment. My legs also grew tired from kneeling and squatting to get this view point!
One Thing: The result image works well in creating a memory about the slide, but my daughter is too small in the image. If I had a few more tries at this I would wait for her to come slightly closer to the camera so the joy on her face was more obvious.
The composition techniques covered above and in Part 1 of this free online photography course are not a complete extensive list, but rather ones that I have found are very effective in quickly and easily improving the quality of my photographs.

Get your hands dirty
  1. Shoot a normal everyday subject from both eye level and a very low angle and compare the results – the more normal and everyday the object is the more interesting the differences will be.
  2. If possible try photographing a large object or person from a high angle – if you have a ladder, balcony or even second floor window, you can take them from there.
  3. Have fun taking shots of objects in the kitchen using the angled subject technique – you’ll be amazed how interesting a bottle of wine looks at an angle!
  4. Try and take an image with leading lines in it – the aim is to direct the viewer's eyes to the subject that you want them to see.
Send the images to with a subject title "Angles and Lines" and a brief description about each image and let me know if and what difficulties you encountered. Give me a few days to get back to you with my feedback.

In Part 3 of this free online photography course we will be looking at the rest of the techniques covered in “Guidelines for taking better shots”, which include:
  • Ambient Day Light
  • Ambient Indoor Light
  • Faking sunsets
I hope that you have enjoyed the first two parts of the course. Please feel free to leave comments or questions you have about this course below or email them to me

1 comment:

Art of Photography said...

Thanks for your comment and your opinion about my photos.
I'm a student in photography , it's not a long time I've started.
I created that blog to show my photos and like to know people's opinion about them.
you've created an interesting and useful blog and I'd be happy if you put my blog's adress on yours if possible , and I'd be happy if sometimes you see my blog and say your opinion about it.