There are many great digital cameras on the market that allow users to take control of elements such as focus, exposure, lighting, and so forth. However, for the majority of consumers, a simple point and shoot camera is the device of choice. Although understanding and using appropriate lighting is critical to produce quality shots even with these cameras, basic picture composition must be the first consideration. If the composition of the image captured is poor, then great lighting, perfect exposure, and so forth will not remedy the problem.
There are a number of “rules of composition” that can be studied but understanding and employing just a few basics will allow even less committed amateurs to produce more enviable images.
• Identify your subject. Every picture should have a single point of interest or subject. Trying to capture an entire scene of activity often produces less than desirable results. It is generally better to focus on individual elements so that a viewer’s eye will immediately identify the subject of the image. Therefore, getting up close with the camera and capturing an image of a single tuba player often produces better results than standing back to take a picture of an entire marching band and the audience lining the street.
• Simplify the Scene. This will accentuate the single point of interest by eliminating distracting elements from the scene. For instance, it is better to pose children sitting on the lawn with a backdrop being the carpet of shaded green grass versus a busy playground with traffic moving by in the distance. Reducing this clutter can be achieved a number of ways.
o In some instances, a simple background can be selected with subjects posed as described in the example above.
o In other instances, the photographer will need to reposition themselves and their camera to eliminate any distracting elements from the viewfinder of their camera. In a sense, they are cropping the picture as it is being taken. They can step in closer, or zoom in, to cut out the offending background and fill more of the frame with their subject. The photographer can also move their viewing angle by stepping further to the side, higher, lower, or simply turning the camera vertically to cut out some of the clutter.
o Another technique used by more experienced photographers is to reduce the effect of background elements that take attention away from the subject by purposely taking the background out of focus. The blurry background greatly softens the effect of the extraneous elements and focuses attention back on the main subject.
• Draw attention to the subject. There are a number of ways that the human eye can be drawn to a particular subject within a photograph.
o Some extraneous elements are desirable in photographs; particularly when they give it perspective or draw attention to the main point of interest. For instance, objects in the foreground can frame the subject; a woman framed by a doorway or a child framed by a swing. Other elements can provide perspective: a small kitten surrounded by coffee cups to demonstrate its diminutive size or a fence row to demonstrate the distance and size of a far off towering oak.
o It is often good practice to position the subject off center when it does not fill the entire frame of an image. Less distracting elements are then left to fill in any void remaining on the opposite side of the scene. For instance, a kitten on the right one third of a shot may be the subject but the small butterfly it is focused upon can add meaning to the scene and fills the space on the left half of the frame. One of the rules of composition asks that the photographer imagine a tick-tack-toe kind of grid over the scene in the viewfinder of their camera. The subject of the photograph should then be positioned at the intersection of a vertical and horizontal line rather than in the space created at the center of the grid.
o Lines can guide a viewer’s eye. A winding path in the foreground can draw attention to the elderly couple standing at the end, a row of trees can pull the eye toward a fountain flowing on the horizon, and so forth. These are other instances where there is a single subject but other elements are used to draw attention toward its direction.
• Outside the rules of composition. There are a few concepts to take to heart that aren’t really part of the tried and true rules of composition that are nonetheless important for amateurs.
o Take time picking the shot. Patience is what often creates great photographers. Those who meticulously move about, reframe, and change their angle of view with the camera are the ones who get the shots that create applause.
o Look closely at what is in the viewfinder of the camera. This is part and parcel of taking time to pick the right shot. Be sure to look critically at the background. Be sure there isn’t something in the background that will distract viewers from the subject: Bright scenes on a television in the background, tree limbs sprouting from the head, or ten to fifteen children in baseball uniforms can be distracting to the point of being unable to identify an intended subject.
o Take more than one shot. The ability to take multiple shots without the cost of printing is one of the great advantages of a digital camera. If a photographer wants to capture the field of runners at a track and field event, take the shot. Then zoom in with the camera and focus on an individual runner as he concentrates on a quick start or raises his arms in victory. The decision as to which shot better captures the aura of the day can be made later.
Although the “rules of composition” are more extensive than this, the ability to use these basic concepts can be a huge first step for the novice amateur in using their digital camera to create shots that are worth saving and sharing with the world.