Perfecting image composition is something that can take artists a lifetime to master.
It’s also a subject heavily reliant on individual taste. But while aesthetic preferences do come into play when composing an image, there are certain theories and “rules” every artist should be aware of in order to understand how their composition is succeeding or failing to draw viewers’ eyes.
Professional photographer Kevin O’Connor joins the podcast to talk about some of the most crucial fundamentals to composing strong images. Balance, tension, focus, and more.
These are lessons that can be learned today and practiced tonight. And while Kevin focuses on composition as it relates to photography, fine artists such as painters and illustrators will find plenty to learn here, too.
- Defining “balance” as a compositional element
- How to create balance or find it organically in your photos
- The rule of thirds
- Tips on creating more interesting compositions when shooting portraits
- Create a triangle!
- Locked elbows, locked knees, and bullseye vision
- Creating dynamic tension with composition
- Some examples of thinking outside the box to create tension
- Thinking in quadrants
- How to compose stock photography
- The importance of critiques
- Much more!
Listen in to learn about fundamentals of composition
- This episode featured a question from Roger.
- Kevin mentions his article on the art of cropping, which can be read here.
- Kevin has also written extensively on how to shoot sharper images.
- Love the show? Have some feedback for us? Leave us a review on iTunes
Prefer to read over listen? Want to save this conversation for reference later? We transcribe all of our shows for these reasons! Download this episode’s transcription below:
Or, to view a web version of the transcript:
Hey everybody and welcome to another episode of AskBC.
I’m your host Justin from Breathing Color, and today Kevin O’Connor is back on the show, and we’re going to chat about the fundamentals of strong image composition.
Before we get started with Kevin, I wanted to talk to you guys a little bit about our Image of the Day collection.
Every day, we feature a different photograph or art piece on our social media accounts. If you follow us on Facebook or Twitter or are on our blog mailing list, you’ve probably seen some of the awesome images we find and post daily.
We curate this Image of the Day collection to stay engaged with the art community that uses our products and to promote some of the really talented artists that are sharing their work on the internet.
You can view the entire collection on a single page by visting the blog at breathingcolor.com/blog and clicking “Image of the Day” on the header.
That’ll take you to a gallery on our site packed with art from around the world from amateur and professional photographers, illustrators, painters, and more. We’ve featured everyone from an 18-year-old up-and-coming photographer to an ultra-successful Swedish design team, and we want to feature you, too!
If you’re a photographer or fine artist, you can submit your work to be considered for our Image of the Day collection – we’d love to see your art and possibly share it with our entire audience. The instructions on how and what to submit are up at: breathingcolor.com/blog/iotd – iotd as in “image of the day”.
That page will walk you through everything you need to know, but one thing I’d like to mention is that every place that we put your image will also include your name and a link back to your portfolio or website – it’s important to us that whether it’s on our gallery page, in a tweet, or in an email, viewers will always have a way to visit your website, check out more of your art, or buy prints from you.
So again if you’d like to see your work featured in our digital collection, head to breathingcolor.com/blog/iotd for the details.
We’ve received submissions from some really talented artists so far, and I’m looking forward to continuing to build that collection as a fun and hopefully inspiring asset to the Breathing Color community.
Alright, now let’s get into my discussion with someone who could certainly be found in the Image of the Day collection – Kevin O’Connor.
Justin: Welcome back to the show, Kevin. Thanks for taking the time to join us again today. How are you doing?
Kevin: It’s a great day. It’s raining, and we like it when it rains!
Justin: Rain in California, right? That’s awesome, finally.
Well, we’re here today to talk a little bit about composition – fundamentals of composition, I guess. A little 101. Now, I’m not a professional photographer myself, but from what I understand about the craft, the key to composition is understanding both, I guess, the rules and also how and when to break them.
Would you agree with that statement?
Kevin: I think that’s a really good starting point. If you don’t understand the rules well, you’re not gonna break them effectively.
Justin: Yeah, so learn really well first, and then you can kind of naturally see when you can step outside of those. I’m excited to get your thoughts on composition, maybe we can start the conversation with a gateway question from a listener that I have.
So this listener’s name is Roger, and he asks “How would you define the term ‘balance’ in the composition of an image? Is it important, and if so what are the considerations?”
Kevin: Well, that’s an awful lot in that one little question from a reader, isn’t it?
Justin: [laughs] Yeah, just a few words.
Kevin: There’s a lot we can say here. But I think, if we talk about composition, just in general – balance pops up over and over. So, let’s start with composition and work balance into it, because they’re tied together so tightly, you can’t really separate them.
Justin: Yeah, that sounds perfect.
Kevin: Okay, so the first rule that almost everybody knows, but just in case we’ll review it again, is the rule of thirds.
Justin: That one I do know!
Kevin: Well, see, you’re cooking with gas, Justin, what can I say?
Just in case some of our readers or listeners aren’t familiar with it, the rule of thirds says that you should divide your composition into both horizontal and vertical thirds. Whether you are composing a horizontal image, a vertical image, or a square image.
And then, to make the image better balanced, there’s a strong preference for putting the primary object of interest for your image on one of those lines, which divides the left to the center, or the center to the right, rather than putting it dead center.
In my very first photography class, my principal instructor started the class by looking at all of us and saying, “You know, I”m sure you all think you’re great photographers, but most of you suffer from several afflictions. You have locked elbows, locked knees, and bulls eye vision.”
And she went on to explain that locked elbows meant that you never rotated the camera to take a vertical frame instead of a horizontal. Locked knees indicated that you never stooped down or climbed up to change your perspective from eye level, and bullseye vision meant that you put everything dead center in the middle of the frame.
Justin: That’s pretty funny.
Kevin: And it’s also very accurate! When we submitted our first assignments to her right after she made that comment, she just looked through the whole stack and started holding them up and said, “Okay, based on what I said to you, what do we think about this one?” Well, ther ewas the image dead center composition. Over and over, dead center.
I got to the point where even when the client was requiring dead center for some reason, I winced every time I had to do it. Because, that conditioning was so well ingrained in me that you never want to do that.
So if we talk about using the rule of thirds, the next thing we often go to is the idea of balancing the elements in a photo, because most of the time we’re going to have more than one element in the final image. So one of the easiest ways to talk about balancing is, imagine that you have a picture that you’re doing of two people. Now, you could put one on the left and one on the right, and they would be balanced, but this would be kind of dull. It might be much more interesting, especially if this is a couple to have the two of them posed together on one side, looking back across the frame to the other side. If we do that, then the large, empty space is in balance with the two people on the other side of the frame. If you pose them so that they’re looking out of the frame, it’s not as balanced as it was – they don’t have anywhere to look. So you want to pose them so that they’re looking back across the empty space rather than out of the edge of the frame. It’s a pretty simple example of balance, and I think that we know this one, a lot of us, but it starts to get more interesting when we have either multiple objects that we want to balance, or we have multiple points of interest in the image, and how do you make all of those work together? So I do a lot of portrait photography, and one of the most interesting ways to photograph a group of people is to pose them in a triangular shape. So, if you – instead of lining everybody up for a family portrait, pose mom and dad sitting down, and then one or more of the children on their knees behind them, or standing up if they’re very young, so that you start to bring a triangular composition, it starts to feel like it has more balance to it instead of everybody just standing in a straight line like they’re walking in a parade. Now, the parade composition can work very well sometimes, but it’s also going to look a little static after a while.
Justin: Yeah, a little boring.
Kevin: Making these people appear in the frame as a geometric figure draws the eye in and leads it from one face to another. If we have a picture where one element is so dominant that the eye can’t get away from that element to see the rest of what’s in the frame, generally we think of that as an unbalanced image.
Justin: Makes sense. Whenever you make that triangular shape, do you still follow that rule of thirds? Or would that be something that’s more centered?
Kevin: I tend to never put anything in the center because of my early conditioning that we discussed a couple of minutes ago. I have this vision of my instructor rising up out of her grave to scold me if I were ever to do that again. So yeah, they tend to be a little bit off on one of the thirds, or on the intersection between the thirds. If you look at just a standard grid divided into thirds like that on your composition shape, you’ll find that moving things around can be a really easy way to play with the cropping of your image if you’ve already created the image, and enhance it. You’ll remember that some time ago I wrote a blog post about cropping and how it was a neglected art, and we see that very frequently where a little bit of cropping would make such a stronger image that you wonder why people just don’t run to the crop tool in Lightroom or Photoshop and take advantage of it. One of the nice things in the latest versions of both of those applications is, you can tell it to put in the rule of thirds overlay so that you can move it around on the frame exactly how it’s going to crop, and take advantage of that compositional tool to strengthen your image a great deal with very little work.
Justin: Yeah that’s handy. You can do that on your camera as well can’t you? Have the actual grid show up?
Kevin: Many cameras offer it as an option where you can do that. In the olden days, we used to send the little glass screen into certain specialty shops, and they would actually etch onto the glass screen so that you’d see it in the viewfinder. Sometimes they’d also put in the crops, because if you were shooting with most cameras at the time, they never showed you an 8×10” through the frame, and yet that was the most-often sold composition. And if you shot to fill the frame, you couldn’t crop it into a 8×10” because that ratio is 4:5, whereas the standard 35mm camera is a ratio of 2:3 or 4:6. You’d find yourself with only 5x7s instead of 8x10s, because that’s all you shot. There was no way to fix it.
Justin: That’s so funny how 8×10” became the standard even though that wasn’t a standard size that a camera took. I find that so amazing.
Kevin: And then when you go to Europe and you see that all of their photos are based on a much more rational compositional scheme – you look at it and say “oh golly, wouldn’t that be nice if it were the same way here.”
Justin: Yeah, make your job a little easier.
Kevin: And that’s why we had those little screens etched so that we always knew where an 8×10” would fit, and we never shot outside it because that was our bread and butter when we were running studios.
Justin: Yeah, is that a camera setting on modern day cameras, where you can also view the scale like that?
Kevin: I don’t think most cameras offer that because the demand is less than it used to be. When you send a print in to be printed by an outside service, a lot of times now they’ll actually print the whole frame. You get an 8×12” instead of an 8×10” and they’ll smile at you and say, “We do this so that you get to do the cropping instead of us. So you chop off the two inches you don’t want.”
Kevin: This sounds like a wonderful thing, except for the fact that it is excruciatingly difficult to find 8×12” frames almost anywhere, they’re still being sold primarily as 8×10” frames instead of 8×12”.
Justin: Yeah, another marvel, strange.
Kevin: Things grow up from very interesting sorts of perspectives, don’t they? The original 35mm camera that Oscar invented for Leica, used 35mm film and he built the camera to match the existing film instead of specifying something different. When Victor Hasselblad built his camera, he used existing film as well and chose to make all of the frames on his camera square. Composition gets to be very different when you’re composing in a square form. Although, the popularity of something like Instagram shows that the square has a lot of life in it if you use it correctly.
Justin: Yeah, it forces you to be a little creative, doesn’t it?
Kevin: A lot creative, sometimes! When you look at these images, you think, “How do we enhance those?” Regardless of whether it’s a square or a rectangle. All sorts of things start to appear after you start mastering with rule of thirds and then start to balance elements. There’s some other things that go into this that we should probably talk about. One of the easiest things to talk about in terms of balance is the idea of symmetry. It’s really easy to take a symmetrical picture sometimes, although not always visually interesting. If something is exactly mirrored on the left and on the right, sometimes that’s interesting, but more often than not, it looks a little trite. You think to yourself, “Oh, that person is learning how to compose.” But you don’t’ think to yourself, “That person has learned.” They’re practicing. So, one of the things that we most often see in terms of this is a picture of the landscape where the horizon is set dead center. In general, most instructors will encourage you to experiment with making that horizon line not at the dead center of the frame, but either one third above the center or below, hitting the rule of thirds line again.
Justin: All ties back to that, doesn’t it.
Kevin: If you make it in dead center, there better be something to differentiate what’s above and what’s below to make it a little more interesting, unless your whole idea is to create this perfect balance that has no tension in it at all.
Justin: Yeah, right. What do you think would be a good reason to do that? A boat or something?
Kevin: Well I think at this point it’s a good time to talk about a word I just used, and that’s “tension.” The more balanced an image is, the less tension it has. And the less tension it has, very often, the less interesting it is. So there needs to be some tension between the elements that are in the photos so that there is something going on there that draws the viewer’s’ interest, in addition to the subject matter, that makes them look more carefully. If you look at dynamic tension in a photo, one of the ways that you’ll see that done very often is to have what we call “a leading object” which draws the eye into the photo to the particular center of interest. Now this is harder to shoot than some people realize, but you look at it and you start to think, “Now that’s interesting, because they composed this, or cropped this after they shot it, to compose in the computer, so that my eye looks at the first thing and goes all the way into the photo because they lead me there in such a way that I couldn’t not go where they wanted me to go.” When you look at very powerful images, a lot of them are composed this way so that you don’t really have an option – your eye isn’t going to race around the photo and look at a whole bunch of disparate elements, the photographer composed it because he or she had a very strong idea of how they wanted that image to appear and how they wanted to lead your eye to it. In Western culture, the eye tends to start on the left edge of the photo and travel over to the right, and generally it starts lower in the frame on the left and rises to the right. A lot of our images that we compose that are very powerful work this way also. Imagine, for example, a photo of a person, and that person has been photographed so that they are on the right vertical of a frame that is divided into the rule of thirds. If your eye starts at the bottom left, it’s going to rise up and over to their face almost instantly. That’s an easy example of how that would work. It gets more complex when you start to work, for example, with vertical images. What do you put in the bottom left to rise to the top right, which is going to be the taller dimension, as opposed to the shorter dimension in a horizontal dimension.
Justin: That’s tough, what would you use in any case like that?
Kevin: It depends on the scene that you’re seeing, simply because you have so many options there. A lot of times, it’ll be what we call a secondary object leading to the main object. But that brings up an interesting point, Justin. This may be a good time to talk about a composition called the “near far effect”. These are always shot with wide angle lenses, and these tend to juxtapose a subject of interest in the foreground with something in the background. And they’re often, both of those are adequately sharp, so you can understand that they are meant to relate to each other. People do these images sort of naturally sometimes, if you’ve ever been to Yosemite and watched people trying to take a photo with mom and the children in the photo as well. If they’re good at what they do, they’re going to put them at the bottom of one side and toward the edge to let the grandeur of Yosemite rise above them and fill the rest of the frame. There’s so much light available most of the time when you’re doing an image like that, that you’ll probably be working at a fairly small aperture. And so you’ll have a lot of depth of field, which will be enhanced if you’re using a lens that is wider than a normal lens. When you do that it can look great, if you can tell there’s something in the foreground that relates to the background and you’ve balance both of the elements off-center enough that they balance against each other.
Justin: Interesting, yeah these are things that I just don’t think about as an art-consumer. It’s kind of interesting to get a professional’s thoughts on what’s going on behind the scenes and in your brain as you’re composing these things.
Kevin: Some of this comes only from long practice. You look at your images, you put them into competitions or clubs or groups for critique from other photographers who may see something you didn’t, which I find incredibly valuable. People critique my work and I learn every time they do it. You look at your own work in the privacy of your own editing area, and you think “What on Earth was I thinking, and how do I salvage this because I don’t like it now?” But going back to that “near-far effect.” One of the marvelous things about shooting that way, is if you have one subject of interest in the foreground, and one subject in the background, it creates the illusion of depth. Of course, we’re working in a two dimensional medium, but if you can make it look like it’s a three dimensional thing, that can be a really marvelous way to compose your images so that you end up with these lovely, lovely compositions that draw the viewer in and hold them. If somebody’s gone to the huge amount of trouble that photographers go to to create an image, I always want to look at it and give it full consideration. But it’s a lot easier to do that if they’ve actively composed it in such a way that it’s very hard for me to take my eyes away from it.
Justin: Yeah, definitely. How do you normally add depth? Does that come from larger and smaller objects in the foreground or background, blurriness, and stuff like that?
Kevin: That’s a good start. I spend a lot of time, becuase I live in a rural part of California, I’ve spent a lot of time on horseback photographing cattle round-ups for various ranchers in the area. And one of the easiest ways to show a photo with depth is to have the action for the roundup or the branding or whatever going on in the foreground, and then the pastures or the hills and mountains out in the background, and you see this whole story of this action that’s happening in the context of a very Western-looking scene.
Justin: Right, so some of it’s in the actual content, rather than how in-focus something is or how big or small.
Kevin: You’ll also notice that depth will change, in terms of its appearance, to a certain degree, depending on the paper that you choose to print the image on.
Justin: That’s an interesting thought.
Kevin: You can make a comparison – image that you shot this beautiful scenic where there’s something interesting in the foreground, and then as you go back you have the classic layers of hills that are getting progressively softer because the atmosphere is softening the dark tones so that the things furthest off are grey. Depending on which substrate you’re printing on – for example, some of the beautiful matte papers that we can choose, are going to make that image look softer and less contrasty. And it’s not going to feel quite as much depth as if you were to print that on something – a coated paper, not necessarily gloss, but a photo luster paper – you’ll see a very different feel to the depth between the two papers.
Justin: Yeah, that makes sense. It’s an interesting thing to consider when you’re going to choose your media I guess.
Kevin: I’m going to bet that a lot of people don’t think about that, but I think they should.
Justin: I would agree with you. I mean, the fact that we get this call day in and out at Breathing Color, “What’s your favorite type of paper to print on?” It’s like, well you should really consider the subject that you’re printing onto the paper. That should be your first consideration, I would think, rather than asking the person that’s selling the media what their favorite thing to print on is. Just seems like a really odd question, it always has, when you start to consider these things that you’re talking about – it makes a lot more sense to just understand the image that you’re working with and the different aspects of it when you’re deciding your paper.
Kevin: Well, as with so many important questions in life, the two-word answer, “It depends,” is a really good one.
Justin: [laughs] Yeah, that always works really well, let me tell you.
Kevin: Yeah, I’ll bet. [laughs]. But let’s explore images with balance or lack of balance and see what we come up with, shall we?
Kevin: So let’s pick on Yosemite again. You’ll see a lot of images that are composed in Yosemite or other national parks, where you’ll see a range of mountains, then you’ll see some trees, then you’ll see some water, and then you’ll see all of what’s at the top reflected in the bottom. So, is this good balance or is it not?
Justin: That’s a good question.
Kevin: I would suggest that it’s dangerous, because it looks easy, and you get excited about the reflection, “Oh, I got the reflection! It looks gorgeous, I’m going to be able to make that print beautifully. It’s a little bit darker than in real life in the top part of the frame that’s reflecting, but I can balance that anyway I wanted in Photoshop or Lightroom, so I’m going to make this a really amazing image.” And people get lost in that part and forget that it still needs to be visually interesting, in and of it’s own right, not just because you got a good reflection.
Justin: Yeah, I could see that.
Kevin: One of the easiest ways to do that is to experiment with shooting a vertical image instead of a horizontal. Simply because it forces the eye to look at the reflection differently. So many of these images are shot horizontally that I can hear the voice of my instructor in the background saying, “Oh, another locked elbow shot.”
Justin: Yeah that is a really good point, it’s certainly more common to see landscape-oriented images.
Kevin: It’s, of course, important to say that some of this is personal aesthetic preference. And when you take your images into have a critique done, it’s fascinating to watch how different people respond to the critiques of their work. Some people hear the critique, understand it, and learn from it. Other people hear it, understand it, and they’re very comfortable saying, “I understand your point, but that wasn’t quite what I was going for, and here’s why.” And then of course there are always a few people who get very defensive and cannot stand to be told, “This is the most boring photo you’ve ever shown us.”
Justin: Those people probably don’t belong at a photo critique session, you know?
Kevin: Well, this comes back to my point about composition, and that is – it’s easy to get so wrapped up in your own style of doing things that you get too comfortable and you don’t learn. And then it’s time to go join a camera club or, if you’re a member of a professional group, to enter a competition, or to go to the monthly critiques if they offer such a thing. It never hurts to hear what other people think when they respond to your image, because people are so different – they’ll respond very differently.
Justin: Yeah, totally. It seems extremely beneficial to hear all those different perspectives – take it for what you will, but seems beneficial nonetheless.
Kevin: So with that in mind, let’s talk about balance again, because that was what prompted the initial thought for this podcast. Balance can be thought of mentally sometimes as having a fulcrum in the center with a balance beam across it. And if you do that, then you start to think about, “well something that is heavier on one side needs to be counterbalanced on the other side. How are we going to do that?” So you might, for example, see an image of a rock on the beach, and you put that according to the rule of thirds, at the right side of the frame, and what’s going to fill in on the left side? Well maybe you’re fortunate enough to see a couple of rocks out in the ocean that are balancing against this rock, and you can compose the scene so that they’re on the left rule of thirds vertical line, while the big rock is closer to the camera and on the right. And there’s a dynamic tension there, which you can capitalize on by playing with the frame, moving things around, balancing across the horizontal divide, as well as the vertical divide. And I think most of our listeners are going to be comfortable enough playing around with this that they will find something that works very well for them. I see an awful lot of images like this because I live near the coast, and so many of the stores that are targeting visitors are going to be offering these kinds of images for people to buy and take home, wishing they lived here as well. And, as you can imagine, there is a wide range of quality in how these images are composed, how they are cropped, and for that matter how they are printed and displayed.
Justin: Right, I can imagine.
Kevin: And I should point out, however, in talking about something like this, that we’re talking primarily as though the photos are going to be used to be on the wall. And the reason I make that distinction is, you’ll find that if you’re shooting stock photography that you want to sell to somebody who wants to use it for a particular need, a lot of times they want you to leave extra room because they’re going to put in an object that will balance against your image.
Justin: Hmm, really good point.
Kevin: Imagine, please, that you have an image of a landscape – and knowing you’d shoot that horizontal and you look at it and your stock company needs you to shoot that vertically and leave a lot of sky at the otp bea use that’s where the text is going to go or the photo of the product plus its name and the brand of the company so that they can build this up by licensing your image to promote their product. We’re still talking about balance, but we’ve left the scene wide open at the top so that they can put other things in. Or, if we’re talking about horizontal composition, we’ve put our image at the bottom of it or at the left or right side, but we’re still leaving open space for them to drop something in on top.
Justin: Right. I can imagine that gets pretty tough when you have to start considering objects that don’t even yet exist. I guess if you have a general idea of where they need to go then it’s not so bad.
Kevin: It’s a pretty easy thing to do once you get comfortable with it, but like so many things, practice makes you better at doing these things pretty quickly. You go shoot, you give yourself an assignment, “today I’m going to work on balance and composition.” And you bring those images back, you look at them and say, “Okay, which ones are well-balanced, which ones can I crop to make better balanced, which ones suffer from locked elbows, locked knees, and bulls eye vision that I don’t want to ever again?”
Justin: How long do you think it would take for someone to be able to understand that theory and be able to compose an image relatively quickly? Obviously it’s going to vary greatly depending on how many photos you take per week or whatever it might be, but what do you think is like a general, decent estimate? A couple of years doing somewhat serious photography? A couple of months?
Kevin: I think it’s a very hard question to answer. The reason I say that, is people start in different spaces, people have different amounts of time to invest. One interesting thing that has come up several times in discussion in the last few years is that people who are musicians who do photography, often have more a innate and better sense of balance right away.
Justin: Yeah, I could see that. Any artistic person, really, right?
Kevin: Ansel Adams, for example, seriously considered being a concert pianist as a professional career before he became a photographer.
Justin: I didn’t know that.
Kevin: And he’s not the only one. It’s a fascinating thing to think about – well, of course it depends to a certain extent on the type of music. A lot of music that Ansel was playing was very classical composition with a lot of balance built into the compositions. I’m not sure if you were necessarily doing certain other types of music that you would have as good a sense of balance.
Justin: I don’t know, heavy metal and photography…
Kevin: well, one never knows. Heavy metal has a wide variety of compositional styles in it once you start digging into it. Interestingly enough, rappers may end up being one of the better people for having an innate sense of balance in photography because they have an innate sense of balance in words when you’re really doing a good rap that rhymes and has good rhythm, there’s an inherent balance to that that may transfer over to photography.
Justin: Yeah, that’s interesting to think about.
Kevin: It’d be interesting to try, wouldn’t it?
Justin: [laughs] It would. That’s not how you made your start is it?
Kevin: I assure you. [laughs] When I started, rap hadn’t been invented. So, it’s important to be clear that a photo doesn’t have to be symmetrical to be balanced and, in fact, when it’s symmetrical it’s more often boring than not. So composition looks at what attracts the eye. What things are going to draw us in. The first thing to note is that the eye goes immediately to the brightest parts of an image. One of the best ways to evaluate your composition – this is hard to do with a display, but with a print you can do this – make a test print and hold it upside down. Where does the eye go first. If the eye goes first to this bright area that has nothing to do with what you’re trying to say in the photo, at that point we say, “Houston, we have a problem.”
Justin: Right, that’s a cool way to look at it.
Kevin: The next thing we look at is, the eye goes to the warmest tones in a photo, assuming that you are printing in color. So the warmer end of the spectrum, the eye usually goes there first if those things are in the photo. This is one of the reasons why, for many reasons, all National Geographic photographers were rumored to be carrying red umbrellas in their equipment kit, and if they didn’t have enough of a little spot of interest somewhere in the frame, they would add it simply by having someone hold the red umbrella in it.
Justin: Really? Just hold the red umbrella there, that’s awesome.
Kevin: When you start looking into composition, one of the other things that is really critical is to look at items that are in focus as opposed to things that are not in focus. This seems pretty obvious when you think about it, but it’s often overlooked in the excitement of capturing the moment. Where’s the focus? That’s so critical. For example in a portrait, when we are composing a portrait, we beautifully set it up so that that person is not bullseye center, maybe we’ve rotated the camera so we’re taking a vertical of this person, and they’re along the right third of the rule of thirds, and then suddenly we get the image into the computer and we’re looking closely and the ears are sharp but the eyes are not. That’s a really unfortunate thing, and auto-focus doesn’t always manage to catch the eyes sharp. As long as there are sharp eyelashes and sharp pupils to the eyes, the rest of the image can be softer, but if those things are soft and something else is sharp, for example someone’s chin, someone’s ears, even if you’re using a very shallow lens their eyebrows are sharp and their eyelashes are soft, that’s not going to be considered a good composition unless you’re doing it for a very specific reason. Unfortunately there are very few specific reasons you can get away using as an excuse for that one.
Justin: It seems like one of those basic, pretty basic rules of photography, make sure the eyes are in focus in a portrait, but extremely important obviously.
Kevin: If the eyes really are the windows of the soul, and the eyes are out of focus, what statement are you making about your subject?
Justin: [laughs] That’s a good point.
Kevin: So when you’re looking at a scene and trying to figure out how to add balance into the scene to compose it correctly, one of the sort of basic rules of thumb is you divide the image into four quadrants and you look first at the left and the right halves of the frame, and then you look at the top and the bottom halves of the frame. When you look at this, you can sort of count in your mind, in each one of those four areas, how much is there that’s important? Then you start asking yourself, how do I balance against it? If you put something that’s not terrible important very close to the edge of the frame, it assumes greater weight the closer it is to the edge. Our eyes are trained to notice things right at the edges of photos. And so we’re often taught in photo classes not to get things too close, because you don’t want to draw the eye over there when what’s really important is happening somewhere else in the frame.
Justin: That’s a great point.
Kevin: It becomes more challenging when we’re photographing more complex scenes. And as we mentioned when we talked about Yosemite or other landscape photography a little while ago, it’s pretty easy to do a balanced picture when you’re just photographing a mirror reflection. But when you start deliberately trying to change that to be more visually interesting, one of the best images I ever saw of Yosemite was shot by someone who waded out into the stream in which the reflection was happening and found a large rock that she put in the bottom left corner, and the reflection was still there, but because she used a very wide angle lens, the rock became an element that she balanced against the actual scene, and it introduced just enough tension that it was much more visually interesting than if she’d used a longer lens and just shot the classic, “here’s my horizontal landscape, here’s my reflection of the horizontal landscape in the bottom half of the photo, this is like hundreds of other photos of Yosemite that we’ve seen before.”
Justin: Yeah, that’s pretty darn creative.
Kevin: It was a very cold day, and she talked later on about how her legs turned bright blue by the time she was done, but she got a great shot.
Justin: that’s dedication right there.
Kevin: As Michelangelo used to say, “For great art, great sacrifice.”
Justin: That’s awesome.
Kevin: So, I’m not sure what else we should say about balance here, but I suspect you may have a few questions you want to ask – or do you think we’ve gotten to a point where we should tidy it up and not make this one too long?
Justin: Yeah, I think we’ve wrapped the subject up pretty well. Maybe we could just go back and hit on bullet points some of the things we’ve talked about. So you talked about kind of like first steps to consider when you’re looking at a subject that you want to shoot – you mentioned that fulcrum idea as a tool to consider balance, and you also mentioned the quadrants idea. What else am I missing aside from those two things? Of course we discussed rule of thirds a number of times, so you want to consider that, but as far as first things that pop into your mind when you look at the subject when considering balance.
Kevin: I’m not sure that there’s a rule necessarily, but there are some other things that we talk about in terms of elements that have visual weight. So we start, when we keep our image balanced by compensating so that each element has a counterweight that is another element in the frame. Then we look at balancing colors, balancing warmth and cool, balancing contrast, some parts of the scene may be very contrasty, some may be very non-contrasty, and finally subject positions. So all of these go together in such a way that we end up with either something balanced, or not. There’s so much to say about this, but really the best thing that I recommend people do is they get out and shoot and then figure out the balance in the computer, don’t be afraid to crop, and have their work looked at by other people who have some experience doing this as well. When they do that, they’ll find that very often, even though it can be painful at first, having somebody else who’s skilled critique your work ends up being a very useful learning tool.
Justin: Yeah, I like that as a final thought, just get out there and take tons of pictures and review them after the fact and just kind of learn from that what you can, whether that be from your own evaluation of the photos or someone else’s, or both. I think that’s an awesome take-away. Lots of things to consider, we talked about stuff that never even crossed my mind to look at, when we talk about evaluating a “good or bad” photo. So, definitely interesting, I think. Anything else you wanted to tag on here at the end, or is that pretty much it? We talked about quite a lot today.
Kevin: I’ll wish people happy shooting, we’ll encourage them to have well-balanced, well-composed pictures, with enough dynamic tension to make them interesting, and to remember that all of us, even those of us that have been doing this for a very long time, the best of us still consider ourselves students, were always learning.
Justin: I like that. Well thanks for joining us again, Kevin. I appreciate you stopping by, it’s always good to have you on and I’m sure we’ll talk to you again soon in an episode coming up.
Kevin: Thank you very much, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Alright guys, that’s it for today’s show. Thank you so much for tuning in.
Obviously, composition is a huge, massive topic and we could probably do ten or more episodes on it, but I hope today’s discussion added a little bit to your thought process when composing your images.
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