A basic primer on making your adventure photography more engaging with simple rules of composition.
Whether you appreciate the term or not, if you snap a selfie with an iPhone or craft a composition with an expensive DSLR, you are a “Photographer”. Which means make art. This is a short post focuses on techniques to make that art more appealing to the eye, using a few time-tested composition rules. The more you practice these rules, the more intuitive they will become whenever you pull that camera out of the bag or your pocket.
Before I get into that, please see my other three posts if you are curious about equipment or a few tips to enhance your image or finally how to tell a story with your photographs (Adventure Photography 101, Adventure Photography 301, and Adventure Photography 401). This post (201) is simply focused on the composition.
While there are many tips and books written ad nauseam, I am just going to use some of my photos to focus on ten rules that often resonate for me.
Rule of Thirds
Framing, Symmetry, and Patterns
Rule of Space
Rule of Odds
1. Rule of Thirds
This technique is amongst the most basic and often forgotten. I was occasionally frustrated during my travels when a well-meaning bystander would offer to take my picture, and fall into the impulse to center me (the subject) into the frame. That does not have the same visual impact as imagining a 3 by 3 grid, and placing the object of interest at the intersection of one third of the frame, and hence I would almost always prefer to set up my tripod instead.
Here is are a couple examples bracket the object in either the lower third or the right third of the grid. It can be look even been when the object is squarely off-center at the junction of one of those thirds aiming towards the rest of the viewable composition, allowing the eye to drift to the rest of the scene.
Usually you can turn on a function in your camera to make this grid appear in the viewfinder. Often I find myself just taking wider field a little extra with my DSLR camera, which has a great 42 mp sensor so I can crop it down appropriately later on with the rule of thirds in mind. Many photographers discount that recommending that your effort should be applied to take one single shot with as little post-editing as possible to save time. I just like seeing extra however and it often will help me when I notice the camera angle was a little off on the tripod.
2. Leading Lines
This can go into how you may be using the photograph to tell a story. If you find elements of the scene that translate in linear manner for the eyes, the natural inclination for the viewer is to follow the lines you have set up for them. Roads often make the best lines, but you can truly find interesting surroundings in the strangest of places that do the same thing. Such as bricks or terraces along a stretch in an European village, or people conveniently aligned in a row. The lines do not have to necessarily be linear, just leading. Here is an example of using the road, leading from the subject at the left third of the frame.
3. Contrasting Colors
This is a difficult one during photography as none of us can paint mother nature. But the theory is a very basic one that gets to primal cues that our human eyes find appealing. In a way it goes back to the evolution of helping our eyes pick out edible parts of our surroundings (think red berries on green bushes). When you look at the graphic below (https://photographyicon.com/complementary/) you see how red and green are on opposite sides of the pie. Same with blue and orange hues. When you can find such complementing colors in your scene, it can be pleasing to the viewer’s eyes. Here is an example where I did find a blue contrasting sign in the midst of yellow and orange neon in the scene.
4. Framing, Symmetry, and Patterns
This is an encapsulation of some of favorite techniques that all depend greatly on having the fortunate surroundings. Starting with framing, the general intent is to use the surroundings to focus the viewer’s attention naturally on the object of interest.
With the right use of symmetry you can bring train the eyes towards an object, such as centering your subject amidst the intersecting symmetrical lines.
With patterns, the entire scene becomes the focus, so it is less about getting the eye to zero in on a specific subject and more about using the right pattern to help the viewer understand the place.
5. Balancing elements
Of all of the techniques I strive for in a prized photo, the one I seek out the most is to control the balancing elements. Often I will use my bike or myself as one of the subjects to balance the frame with a second object I found of interest, with white space in between. Often the more white space between the two objects, the better the scene, as long as it adheres to a certain appealing ratio.
6. Dynamic Tension
This is a prized technique that combines many visual cues supplied by a background object. Often this is aided by objects with dramatic triangular shapes (either real of implied with shadows) such as bridges. They can be unbalanced (one side bigger than the other) and that actually helps add tension to the picture. Lines will typically extend out of scene to aid in a feeling of continuation. Points of interest at the end of the lines will help draw the eye in contrasting directions to make the entire scene captivating such as this one.
7. The Golden Ratio
This technique digs into the mathematics the making an object interesting in a wider scene. Without getting into the computation, history of art, and buzzwords like the Fibonacci Spiral, think of focusing in on your subject of interest, but not making it fill the frame. Instead, have it fill one upper or lower portion on a frame, using the rest of the available space to paint a portrait of space.
8. Rule of Space
Mentally, we like to imagine we know how a scene will unfold. Giving a subject open space in the frame for it to “move” allows our subconscious to engage with a photograph. Useful when shooting roads or rivers, where it eventually leads out of scene for the viewer.
The impulse is usually to square up a photograph – making you and the horizon a three-dimensional box. With a turn of the camera, changing the perspective will often make a photograph more interesting since it can cause the mind to focus in on the objects more to process the unusual point of view.
10. The rule of odds
This rule bases itself in the theory that odd numbers of objects in a scene lends itself to visual balance and harmony. Even better if the subject (unlike my example below) is framed between alternating visuals. Usually three (or maybe 5) is the max for the objects in focus, since after that the density starts to blur together.
There are many other tips and tricks, whether qualified use of negative space or juxtaposition of differing objects. Experiment and enjoy the process of finding a new way of telling your story through photography.