Readers' Submissions

Photographing Thailand Part III, Composition Series – Rules and “Stuff”

  • Written by BKKSteve
  • January 13th, 2007
  • 12 min read


Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

By BKKSW


I’ve gotta start this off by coming clean. This is already the second week of the new year and I haven’t written nary a word about photography in almost six weeks and I need to share why. When I made the commitment to write this series I did so because I wanted to share the “fun” and that fun feeling I get when photographing whatever it may be that makes me happy and/or gives me that feeling of accomplishment I get from the experience. Over the last six weeks the fun left my photography and yes, the fun left my life. No, nothing really serious or lasting happened, but more a lot of little things with one major thing. The major thing was my son contacting pneumonia which required his hospitalization for nearly a week. I don’t write well enough to describe the feeling of helplessness a father gets when one of his children is suffering and there’s nothing you can do to make it stop. Then there was the holidays, terrorists setting off bombs in my city, and other smaller things that had the combined affect of stealing the fun from my photography. The lesson here is that while it’s possible to work and go through the mechanics of photography, it’s very difficult (for me) to do the “creative” side of photography when fun and happiness is missing from my life. The good news is that my son is better, the fun is back, and the year is still young.. so let’s start off with the very difficult topic of composition which I’m going to break down into a small series which focuses on the type of topics typically photographed. This first part is going to briefly go over some rules and give you a link to read a great description of the basic rule of composition, and then I’m going to explain how I “think” my way through a composition while keeping the rules as very general guidelines and my creativity as my compass

Perhaps the most touted rule of composition is “the rule of thirds.” Basically this means dividing the frame up into nine equal parts such as in a “tic-tac-toe” style. Imagine your viewfinder with tic-tac-toe lines criss crossing it. At every intersection you try to align or tie in part of the composition in a way to make a better looking photograph. Once you “get it” this is simple to understand, but until you do it can leave you scratching your head and wondering ‘huh?” Wikipedia has a nice simple explanation here and they include a nice example so there’s no need for me to duplicate it. What I will do is talk about it. Many people have asked me “what do I aim the camera at” now that I have a nice camera? How do I make an interesting photograph?

Perhaps the most common type of photograph is a portrait. The most common type of portrait is what we’ve always received at school or the family studio where the subject is centered in the middle of the frame and you are, all by yourself, the centre of attention. There’s nothing wrong with this. What it does is ‘document’ what the person looks like at different stages of their life. Well and good right? It’s just that most people don’t get all that excited about a grade school portrait unless they have a vested interest in that person such as being a close relative. To everyone else it’s just another uninteresting photograph and they’d rather be looking at almost anything else So, how can we make that photograph more interesting using the “rule of thirds?” Let’s build an interesting portrait using our imagination. Why our imagination? Why don’t I just post some images showing you what I’m talking about? Well, the most important ingredient in composition is YOU. You and your imagination which translates into your creativity. This “creativity” is something that doesn’t come naturally to almost every one, instead it’s something that must be developed. This means you’re going to have to set this article aside until you have time to spend with your eyes closed building a composition, you’re going to need a good 15 minutes, until then…

Ok, now that we have 15 minutes to learn let’s make the most of it. Who’s the most interesting person in your immediate life? Put that person in a standard high school portrait. The pose is usually head on, pick a background colour that compliments the clothes and that’s it. How do we make it more about them? Something that shows a lot more about who they are in ways only the composition can change? For instance we could say show them happy or some other emotion, but that isn’t really composition. It’s something else we’ll discuss when we get to portraits. Composition would be where to place them in the frame and what else to include in the frame.

Lets put this person in the right third of the frame. What do we put in the left two thirds? How about something scenic, trees and maybe a lake? Now, we’ve got a portrait of this person that tells the viewer he visited a lake, possibly likes the outdoors, and maybe we can show off the landscape at the same time? What if we added a fishing hat, fishing vest, pole, and a string of fish to the subject? Now we’ve told the viewer this person is not only at this scenic lake, but he likes to fish and the props show the commitment or skill level this person has to fishing. What if the props are now not modern tools of fishing, but antique tools of fishing? A bamboo fly rod, wicker thingy to put the fish in, older hat with flies in it? We now added “traditional” to the composition AND probably added some interesting detail and colour contrast.. the brown shine of wicker and bamboo against green trees and a blue lake. We’re adding items of interest to the composition.

Ok, so our guy is in the right third dressed as a fly fishermen who enjoys traditional gear and we see in the left two thirds the lakeshore and trees. The lake occupies the top two thirds of the scene. What can we do to add even more contrast and interest? A fishing boat? His family on the fishing boat but distant in the frame where he’s still the main focal point but now we’re adding that not only does he have a family but he recreates with this family? What we’re doing is starting to tell a story by using composition.

Let’s use another example. How about a shopping cart? How many interesting ways are there to photograph a shopping cart? A shopping cart is pretty boring. Once I was tasked with doing a product shot of a shopping cart. Its important features were the size (it was big) and ease of pushing. First, I wanted to show scale so I added a shorter than average woman to make the cart seem bigger than it was, then added a shorter than average kid in the seating part of the shopping cart. All of a sudden that cart looked big. Now (we were at a grocery store) I added groceries to the cart and made sure to add contrasting colours of packaged items, fruits, a couple different coloured melons, squashes, making sure not to fill it all the way up. In fact I selected smaller melons and squashes and build my composition to emphasis scale. What else could we do? A straight on picture of a shopping cart with a woman pushing it in the center of the frame? Very ordinary and boring? I thought so.

What I’m going to do next is choose a background and I think I want the mirrored area of a produce department where all the colourful produce goes across the entire width of the frame and the mirrors are reflecting the most interesting parts of the store. Instead of putting the shopping cart right next to the produce counter I’m going to put it about 10-12 feet from the counter which with the right lens has the effect of making the cart more prominent (bigger) in the frame. I don’t want the cart centered but not all the way over to the side, so I’m going to use the lady pushing the cart and the cart as my first focal plane, the produce counter as my second, and leave some blank produce counter area to the left part of the frame. I hope you’re able to draw this picture in your head the way I’m describing. Halfway between the cart and the produce I’m going to make a third focal plane AND show scale.. by putting some small produce boxes on the floor like they’re sitting there waiting to be emptied. By angling the cart just right, using a wider lens, moving up close to the shopping cart and lady as close as I can get without distorting the human features of the lady.. now we’ve got a good product shot! And of course the shopping cart brand name tags (that will eventually be the store name tags) are angled just right to be prominent and easily read. We’ve went from a plain empty boring shopping cart, to a “shopping cart event” in the venue it’s meant for. We built a composition, and we did it by just taking some time and thinking the composition through.

I said before that composition was a huge subject and it is. Many different subjects and types of subjects and ways to photograph them. Still, the basics are the same. Whether we’re showing up at Yosemite, the Grand Palace, or the grocery store.. we need to give some thought to what we want to photograph, what we want to include in the frame, and how to make the most important parts of the subject stand out and be interesting. After all, a photograph is useless if people won’t look at it or remember it. Often I’ll just sit and study a scene, especially outdoor landscapes, for a good 30-60 minutes before taking my camera out of the bag. I’ll run it all through in my mind like we did above. Let’s go to some examples. I’m not going to bore you by “building” more compositions, instead I’ll just show you some and briefly describe the “why” of the composition.

This first one is a couple newly married. A picture of the couple next to a tree, a cake, the alter.. is pretty standard. This one captures the emotion of the wedding, places the subjects in the top third of the frame, has an element connecting the thirds, and the bridge is symbolic of their commitment and willingness to connect/compromise and stay committed. Instead of the standard close up (of which there were also many) this made them smaller in the frame but didn’t distract from the emotion or feeling, the choice of black and white made the bride stand out as the focal point and took away the bright and different colours of the water and trees which were swallowing her. The angle, distance, size of subjects in the frame.. all of this builds the composition which stands out from the ordinary and is the type that will sit on the mantel for years to come. It also didn’t show the brides sunburn, stain on her dress, or big pimple that she feared would ruin the picture…J

This next one has many complex elements and is always hard to pull off. It’s a passageway at a temple near Chiang Rai with combining vertical and horizontal elements which bring you from the edge of the frame to the center. Many people would have made the mistake of standing in the centre of the passageway and shooting straight down to the centre, but standing off to one side still gets you there but in a more interesting way. We have examples of cascading edges, mirrored effects (follow the left side pillars into the floor), and the contrasting red ceiling amidst the white walls. If we were in the centre we’d have two identical sides, but this way we have the same type of side shown in two different ways in the same picture. I used this example from over five years ago to make a point though. How could we have made it better? What if we had laid on the floor and shot straight from the floor? Can you imagine the reflection? The perspective of the ceiling? If I would have given it some more thought I would have captured a better image. Speaking of laying on the floor..

Here I am in the middle of Death Valley with only a film camera, 118 F in the shade, not a car in sight, and I want a picture to show just how desolate this place is. Laying on the very hot asphalt I rotated the camera to the portrait position and carefully framed this composition. This time I was in the exact middle, do you know why? Yes, the dashed lines in the road carry you right down the road to the very end and made the centre position the right way to do this. More, I used a wide angle lens to add more depth and further exaggerate the road/sky composition. I’m happy this one turned out well, it’s sold to several magazines and wouldn’t have happened if nature hadn’t called…J

Until next time..


Stickman's thoughts:

As a keen photographer, I REALLY enjoy this series.