As any professional photographer will tell you when it comes to taking good pictures, understanding how to really use your camera will always produce better results than using auto functions. But what if you don’t want to engage with the controls on your camera, or you’re quite happy using the camera function on your phone – is it still possible to take great photographs?
The good news is that there are some simple rules and techniques everyone can use to improve their pictures. Familiarise yourself with the main compositional tools, as we call them in the trade, and notice the difference immediately.
1. Move your feet
In order to visually explore your subject, try moving around the subject. See if there is a better viewpoint than what you first saw. Even better, make efforts to take different positions from which to photograph. Try kneeling down and looking up at your subject, or get up high, up some steps or from an upper floor to view your subject. When you look down on a subject you often diminish their importance. Conversely, if you get low and look up at the subject you give them more importance and power.
You will find that a photograph of your small child or your dog from their eye level is always more satisfying than looking down on them from your standing position. There is no cost to you in taking more pictures, and if you can create a variety of viewpoints you will have a choice as to which is the best.
The simplest and most effective way to improve your pictures is by taking many pictures from different positions, then choosing which best suits the subject. Over time, you will learn what works for you and then you concentrate on those positions.
2. Leading Lines
Lines are the most important tool in your composition toolbox. Leading lines are something photographers use to take the eye of the viewer into and around their pictures. It’s the easiest way to visually stretch a picture and encourage the viewer to follow a line to the point of the picture.
There are different lines to consider. Diagonal lines suggest dynamic movement – a swift movement that can be used with an activity. Try including a diagonal line into pictures of people running, cars or motorbikes moving. Anything that has purposeful directional travel will benefit from the use of a diagonal line.
Horizontal lines give a sense of stillness. If you want to give your picture a peaceful feel, finding ways to incorporate horizontal lines will help you with this. Vertical lines imply power and strength – think of skyscrapers or huge trees. If you get down low and look up at a subject with vertical lines it will seem to soar.
Curved lines allow the eye to slowly wander around the picture. This gives a lazy feel and a gentle slow movement; it can also refer to the body’s sensuous lines. Using a line to move the eye from the front to the back of a picture gives depth and this is a feature that gives your pictures a three-dimensional quality.
4. The Rule of Thirds
The Rule of Thirds originates from the discovery of a sequence of numbers by a mathematician in the 12 century called Fibonacci. It became the basis of a design concept that became known as the Golden Ratio. In photography, you simply divide your viewfinder into a noughts and crosses board.
Your aim is to put the most important elements of your picture on one of the cross points, with other features in the picture resting on the lines. Doing this makes your pictures look more sophisticated, it shows an understanding of photographic design and creates balance. Once you start to do this for yourself you will see that many photographers use this device to give their pictures more character.
4. Framing the shot
Frames are easy to use, and will forever remain an important tool to create a better photograph. They are an important part of controlling and giving emphasis to your pictures. A frame can be anything – it could be a physical thing like a window or door frame, or it could be the bough of a tree arching over a landscape.
A frame could also be a bold color against which your subject is set. A frame will allow the subject of your picture to have more importance.
5. Repeating patterns
Patterns work well as a photograph but are usually considered as a subject for the picture rather than as a way to improve something you want to photograph. If you enjoy going out to take pictures and do not have a specific subject in mind, then looking for patterns can be very rewarding.
Patterns are sometimes found in nature, such as the way leaves have patterns in them, or how petals create a pattern. But often, you will find patterns that have been made by the human hand. You can even see patterns in everyday objects, e.g. the stacking of supermarket trollies or bicycles racked up.
Think of these compositional devices as tools you keep in your photography toolbox. It’s unlikely that you would use all the tools in the same picture – chances are you’ll choose the tool that best suits the subject you are photographing.
It doesn’t matter what type of camera you use but if you want to make your pictures look more professional, employing these simple methods will significantly improve your photographic results.