So, last week I was chatting about how to improve your pictures of your kids in terms of getting angles and natural moments, and how to best capture their perspective. This week, we’re going to have a whistle-stop tour of some really simple yet effective ways your can make your images look better by how you place things within them. Basically, some simple composition tips! These work for photographing kids, friends, landscapes, shelfies, flowers, fruit bowls.. you name it!
I’ve included images that I think demonstrate some of the points most obviously, as sometimes it can be pretty subtle, and often you will see multiple techniques used in the same image. The best thing is that each of these tips and tricks can be used with any type of camera or image making, so whether you use a camera phone, a Polaroid or anything else, everyone can have a go with these techniques.
Framing is a classic tool, and it’s one of my favourites because it’s so versatile. There is the obvious use of a literal frame such as a window or box type shape around your subject that makes your eye focus on it, but there are so many other ways to use it. You can peer through doorways and it gives a candid observational feel to your photo. You can peer through the leaves of a tree to frame the view down the canal and it can soften the light. You could use it to hide a distracting element or to tell your story in a particular way. It can be used to either make you feel more connected, or the opposite - to isolate a subject. And always consider your background!
This image uses the physical structures of the wooden beams of the windmill to frame the bride and groom to section them within it. If the top beam behind their heads was not there, it would not be nearly so striking or powerful. When you have structures like this be careful to see where it intersects - if their heads had been above this beam they would have felt imbalanced and chopped off, and if they had been significantly below, they would have felt much smaller and it would have a very different vibe.
This image uses the architecture of the chairs to frame those behind, creating a tunnel effect which draws the eye through to the end of the row. It’s a minimal image in both subject and colour but it has the effect of a frame within a frame.
2) Leading Lines
Oh, does my heart ache for the perfect leading lines! This is where I encourage you to literally draw across images that you see to help you understand them because leading lines are EVERYWHERE. In their most obvious format, you might see them as the lines of an aisle in a church, leading your eye to the couple getting married at the end. You might see them in a path sweeping through a landscape, pulling you eye across the image. (Bonus tip here: if you are in a country where the written word reads from left to right, images where the lines lead from left to right are especially powerful because your brains reads an image much like it would text. MORE ON THIS LATER!) But they might also be the lines of extended arms leading towards a face - look for the subtleties!
Paths are the easiest way to use leading lines, especially when they are tree-lined! Also canals, rivers, streets... ready-made parallel lines and perspective.
Leading lines can be exaggerated by using perspective if you move them to the edge of a frame so they lead more across, or if you get low to exaggerate the height of structures either side - have a play and see how it shifts.
3) Rule of Thirds
You might have heard of this one? You’ve probably seen a grid at some point on your phone screen, or on the back of a camera - this is something you can use to help you see where the thirds fall in your image from top to bottom and left to right. Your eyes like balance, and this grid helps you to achieve that. You can place your subject in the centre of the frame in the central third, and sometimes this is highly effective, but it can be more visually interesting to place it off-centre on one of these lines. You can also use these lines to help when framing (see above) and also to help tell a story across an image by segmenting it.
In this image, Mum is holding her newborn and it placed on the left vertical third line, with baby’s bottom and her hand cradling on the bottom horizontal third, giving a rested feel. By placing them both on the left side of the image it gives a sense of a beginning, and a sense of concentrated focus is provided by the other thirds being negative space, provided by the layer of the curtain, also giving a sense of privacy and intimacy.
Here's a rough sketch to show a thirds grid over an image. Have a look to see which thirds objects fall into just to have a go at identifying them.
4) Power Points
Now, this is where the rule of thirds gets REALLY interesting, and where that whole brain reading from left to write comes in as being really useful for the emotion in an image. The power points are found where the thirds in the grid intersect. Things on these points have the most impact. Anything on the left hand side feels like it’s at the beginning of something, and things on the right, especially at the bottom feel more rested and complete. You might want to have faces looking in towards the frame when placed on these points, but it also depends on what emotion you want to evoke. When placing them, consider what effect you’d like to achieve in the reader of your image and how you might best achieve that. When using the rule of thirds and power points, the empty space around your subject is called negative space, and you can use this to help isolate your subject, or to give it a greater sense of impact. Experiment, and have a play!
This is one of the clearest and simplest examples I can find of a power point technique. The bride and groom are embracing on the bottom right power point giving a sense of completedness and serenity. The horizon sit on the bottom third and the background and foreground are uncluttered, giving a sense of simplicity. The light is soft giving a sense of tenderness and romance. Her veil trails off behind her to the right giving a sense that whilst more may be to come, but this moment has come together and needs nothing more.
I’m not just saying this because triangles are my favourite shape (but they are), but you will find hidden triangles in so many images! This is another way of segmenting a frame and placing subjects effectively. In the image below, the little girl’s outstretched arm works as a leading line towards her face, but it also help to chop the frame into 3 triangles - can you spot them? You can find lots of triangles in images where there’s any kind of diagonal, or perspective into a corner, and they’re great to use when working with strong shadows and harsh light. They also add a lot of visual interest when something doesn’t seemingly fit the rule of thirds so obviously.
These bridesmaid shoes here are placed at the very tip of the triangle. The base of the doorframe forms one side, the base of the frame another, and the shadows from the the blinds on the floor leading diagonally up towards the doorframe form the third side. That then leaves two almost triangles but fairly equal and separate segments either side of this triangle, lending a sense of balance and external chaotic environment.
Oh layers... I love wearing layers and I freakin’ love photographing with layers!! For me, this often means using the layers to frame someone or something, or to add a touch of romance. For example, photographing a wedding guest over the shoulder of another to make you feel in-the-moment, and give an observational vibe. Or using a veil and shooting under, over or through it to add softness and texture, to give a sense of intimacy. Or maybe using multiple layers to give a sense of hustle and bustle and lots of stories all intermingling. Try it!
Shooting through a veil here gives a soft focus effect, whilst framing this intimate sisterly moment between the bride and bridesmaid as she is getting ready during the final stages of bridal prep on her wedding day.
Reflections can be a great way of introducing layers with delicacy and a sense of transition. The reflections of the leaves on the glass here as the bride prepares herself before her wedding ceremony give the atmosphere of the season and a sense that change is about to happen for her.
An over-the-shoulder example for that "in-the-thick-of-it" feel during wedding speeches.
An over-the-shoulder layering technique extended to create a full frame effect (and a triangle!) with lots of negative space for this portrait of a wedding guest.
7) Balancing the light
Photography literally means to draw with light, so light is really the most important thing to create an image. When using it to help compose your image, think about where the light is coming from - is it straight behind leaving your subject in shadow? Is it behind you and completely face on to your subject? Is it strong light causing harsh shadows and really bright highlights? Do you want to change this or not? Sometimes it can be really helpful to move just slightly round so the light comes at more of an angle, or is softened slightly, to give more of what we call a “fall off” which is essentially the fade from bright to dark. It helps to round the curves on a subject and a soft falloff is pleasing to the eye and flattering to a subject, it also helps your subject feel more 3D and present. Natural window light for example gives a really nice soft light, typically at an angle and makes for gorgeous portraits. Think about where in the frame you place your light source and what direction it is moving in.
This image uses the strong shadows as a key feature to act like leading lines and to create triangles within the image.
So, there we go, just a few tips on some of the basic techniques you can use and have a play with to help you to improve your images! The more you practice, the more innate the skills or the eye becomes to noticing strong compositions, so don't worry about what you start out with practicing on - if the kids aren't patient enough, then capture still life around the house, flat lays, or just things that you notice. It can be quite meditative, and it really is so much fun. Let me know how you get on!