Strong Focal PointIt is usually best to have one main subject as the focal point because a photograph can successfully tell only one story. Lacking a strong center of interest forces the viewer to search for something to observe as the eyes seek a resting place. Always give the focal point sufficient prominence in the composition so that all other elements are subordinate. Even if the focal point is small, it can be given prominence by composing empty space around it.
Rule of ThirdsThe exact center of any composition is not a satisfying place for the viewer's eye to come to rest. With the main subject placed in the center, the viewer is less likely to explore the rest of the photograph. In fact, it is preferable to keep the viewer's eye moving. To create movement in your photographs and to avoid the static bull's-eye composition, use the rule-of-thirds guidelines for off-center placement of the main subject.
It is the traditional way to create a well-balanced composition and has been used by artists for centuries. To apply the rule of thirds, imagine the scene in your viewfinder divided into thirds both horizontally and vertically, similar to a tic-tac-toe grid laid over the scene. Place the main subject and other important elements of your composition along the grid lines or at the points where the grid lines intersect.
Employing the rule of thirds not only helps avoid symmetrical composition but also provides a pleasing proportion of space around the main subject to prevent distracting tension between the focal point and the edge of the frame. A common compositional faux pas occurs when the horizon is positioned directly through the middle of the frame, bisecting the scene. Utilizing the rule of thirds, the horizon is placed near one of the grid lines. This will lower or raise the horizon in the frame and give emphasis either to a dramatic sky or an interesting foreground.
Leading LinesAnother compositional technique to create energy and movement in a photograph is the use of leading lines. Whether they are graceful curves or dynamic diagonals, all lines should lead the viewer's eye to the focal point. But be careful with the use of leading lines. They can also work against you by directing the eye away from the subject or, if the line divides the photograph in two. It could lead your view right out of the image.
Refining Composition• Let the lines in your composition decide if the scene should be shot horizontally or vertically. If the scene presents long vertical lines, compose vertically to take full advantage of them. When presented with strong horizontal lines, use a horizontal camera orientation. This plays to the strengths of the composition and also will help to avoid wasted space at the edges of the frame.
• Be aware of white or light areas in your compositions. The viewer's eye will always go to the brightest part of a scene, so eliminate any bright spots that will pull attention away from the main subject.
• Look for repetition of shapes and textures. Patterns create rhythm and motion in a composition.
• Compose boldly using sweeping diagonal lines. Long horizontal lines can be static and visually boring. Conversely, diagonal lines add visual energy. Change camera angle to pivot prevailing lines so they don't run parallel to the top and bottom edges of the frame.
• Try using a wide-angle lens. Compose for a foreground, middle ground and background with overlapping compositional elements to create a three-dimensional effect in a two-dimensional photograph.
Sunrise, SunsetMost landscape photographers work primarily during the first and last hours of daylight – hours they refer to as "sweet light." The "warmth" of the light and shadows at those times of day create natural drama in your images. Scout the location before the day you plan to shoot and then arrive well before the sun tops the horizon. Even before the sun comes up, the soft glow from the pre-dawn sky provides wonderful photographic opportunities. Plan to work fairly quickly as the quality of light at sunrise and sunset changes rapidly, usually in less than an hour.
Length MattersWhen it comes to making great portraits, lenses play the most important role. Wide-angle lenses tend to make everything closest to the camera appear bigger – most notably in portraits, a person's nose. But long focal-length lenses (telephoto lenses) compress the angles in an image, giving the image much more of a two-dimensional appearance, which is much more flattering in people photographs.
Get Closer – In the Thick of the ActionThe single best tip to improve your photographs is to get closer—both physically and in your composition. The late great photojournalist Robert Capa once said, "If your photographs are no good, you're not close enough." Capa was talking about a photographer's proximity to a subject — an ability to work in close quarters. A photographer's sheer physical closeness to a subject adds a dramatic intimacy, generates strong foregrounds and produces visual depth. Photojournalists and action photographers often work in this style, employing extremely wide-angle lenses in the 17-24 mm range and getting into the thick of the action. The same strategy can also work for landscape photographers.
Get Closer – CompositionCompositional tools to improve your images. The human brain has fashioned certain coping mechanisms to make sense of the array of visual stimuli confronting it every day. Most relevant to photographic composition is closure—the mind's tendency to fill in the blanks when confronted with an incomplete set of visual cues. For example, if you make an image of a cowboy's face and part of his hat is missing, the viewer subconsciously fills in the blanks in the photograph, adding the crown and brims of the cowboy's hat. Forcing viewers to complete parts of a photograph in their imaginations provides a visual challenge that helps to engage and keep their interest. Additionally, tight crops almost always create more dramatic compositions, so instead of seeing the cowboy's entire hat, viewers focus on the real subject of the image, the cowboy's face.
PanningYou can create dynamic photographs by panning with moving subjects. Panning with speeding racecars, for example, blurs the background, capturing the illusion of velocity. Shutter speeds of 1/1,000 of a second or faster freeze the racecars and make them appear as though they are parked on the racetrack. A slow shutter speed works much better for telling the story of a racecar traveling more than 200 mph. Using a slow shutter speed while panning the camera at a rate relative to your subject's speed, you can maintain fairly sharp focus on the subject and blur the background. Panning often works best in low light, with a slow ISO or with the use of a neutral density filter if shooting in bright light conditions.
Since some auto focus cameras don't react quickly to fast-moving subjects, you may have to switch off the auto focus feature. Set the exposure program for shutter priority or manual operation so you can select the appropriate shutter speed. The shutter speed you choose and the speed of your panning motion depend on the amount of available light and the speed of your subject, but generally a shutter-speed range from 1/4 to 1/30 of a second works best. Take note of the background to determine where you want your subject to be when you make the exposure and pre-focus on that spot.
Pick up your subject in the viewfinder and pace your panning motion with its speed by pivoting at the waist as you track it to the desired spot. Don't stop the motion when you release the shutter. Continue to pan right through the exposure. Effective panning requires practice so make several exposures at various shutter speeds and compare your results until you develop a feel for it. Race cars obviously require a little faster shutter speed, whereas slower shutter speeds work better for running baseball players and thoroughbreds breaking from the starting gate.
BlurringBy stabilizing the camera on a tripod and using slow shutter speeds, moving objects become impressionistic blurs in front of your lens, conveying action in a different way than panning does. Motion itself becomes the subject of blurred photographs. Blurring is achieved with shutter speeds of generally 1/30 of a second or slower depending on how fast your subject is moving. Just as with panning, it helps to work in low light or to use a neutral density filter.
A pan-blur combination can be achieved with a small on-camera flash. Using this technique, you either pan with the subject or hold the camera steady using a slow shutter to record the movement, and a flash to freeze the subject. This works best in dimly lit situations with shutter speeds of 1/15 or slower. Take a meter reading of the scene with the shutter speed at 1/15 (slower if you want more blur) and set the appropriate aperture. You may want to underexpose a little bit to make the subject stand out. For a panning shot, begin your pan as the subject approaches and release the shutter triggering the flash.
For a blurring shot, brace the camera and release the shutter as the subject moves past. A slow shutter speed will create a blur of the subject's movement and the flash will freeze it in mid-motion as it passes by, creating a unique effect. As with all photographic techniques, a little practice and experimentation with motion can lead to some interesting results and help you to develop a photographic style that is much less static.
Warming Filters for On-Camera FlashAlmost all electronic flashes, including studio strobes, on-camera flash, and shoe-mounted flashes, are balanced for nominal daylight, 5,000 degrees Kelvin. Although using nominal daylight to set standards for color uniformity, the coolness of the light may often be inconsistent with the photographer's artistic vision. In comparison, normal incandescent light bulbs scale in at about 2,400 degrees Kelvin, about twice as warm as the electronic flash on our camera.
Most of us have seen the effects of electronic flash used indoors with a mix of light, which includes incandescent bulbs. This happens because we're adding a cool daylight light source to a warm scene. The solution to this problem is to warm up your electronic flash at the source. Use a 1/4 CTO gel filter to add just a bit of warmth to the flash. C.T.O. stands for "color temperature orange." These filters are available in strengths of 1/4, 1/2, and full CTO. A full CTO filter will take a daylight light source and convert it to 3,200 degrees Kelvin. The filters come in 16x16 inch sheets available at large photographic supply houses and cost about $10 per sheet.
To apply the filter, simply cut it to size and tape it onto the face of the strobe (flash). The added warmth of the 1/4 CTO gel filter makes images look more natural in almost all situations.
Backyard PhotographyYou don't have to journey to the ends of the earth to get great nature photographs. A whole world awaits, right in your own backyard. With a little bit of planning and a small amount of landscaping, you can create a natural environment that serves as your outdoor "studio" for photographing wildlife, flowers and insects. Backyards are usually good places to practice macro photography. You can track the development of flower buds and be ready to photograph them when they look their best—fully open and in the best light. Flowers, and the insects that visit them, are great subjects for close-up work. Fast shutter speeds will freeze fast-moving insects in flight, so shoot in strong sunlight at the times of day when light is the warmest and striking your subjects at a low angle. You might be surprised at the great photo opportunities you can create in your backyard.
More Backyard PhotographySome photographers consider the area within 100 miles of their homes as their "backyards." They have favorite locations they can get to quickly and easily, and visit them often. It pays to do some reconnaissance so you know the quickest routes to familiar places when dramatic weather conditions, gorgeous sunsets or double rainbows occur. It can be difficult to find a good foreground for these situations if you live in the city. Rooftops and power lines ruin a great skyscape every time. But knowing where you can find interesting foregrounds in a hurry, such as those in city parks or National Forests, is invaluable.