Composition is undoubtedly a key element of photography. While many of you have a natural knack for seeing subjects in the best possible way, others may struggle in this area. There are no hard and fast rules. If, however, you are looking for help with composition, there are several tips to help guide you in the right direction.
Ultimately, composition is about making a pleasing image and since that is essentially about personal taste, these guidelines should be taken with a grain of salt.
Once you become more familiar with the basics of composition they will soon become second nature – then you can go ahead and break the rules.
What follows is an outline of the compositional elements I like to keep in mind when composing my image.
Balance refers to the visual play between positive and negative space. Positive space is that part of your image in which there are things, objects, your subject, etc. Negative space is the empty space that surrounds everything else. Negative space is just as important as positive space. Negative space accentuates and highlights the positive elements in your image. Without adequate negative space your image will feel crowded. You will know if the balance is off in an image – it will feel lop-sided. When the balance is right an image feels properly weighted.
Point of View
Use your feet. Walk around. Shoot from the hip and shoot from all sides. Don’t be afraid to move forward, backward or side to side in order to better frame your subject. In fact, deliberately move around and shoot your subject from different angles, levels and distances, even if you think you’ve already found the best view. Try standing up on a chair or even up on your counter in order to shoot straight down. An overhead view is great if that view serves your subject best. Some subjects look stunning in aerial view, particularly those with strong geometric shapes. A round cake with a slice or two missing looks great from directly over top.
One of the greatest vantage points for food photography is to have your subject at eye level or just below. You will be amazed at how the shape of your subject changes when you get down to its level – it really comes alive. Don’t be afraid to tilt the camera and shoot diagonally. Diagonal lines add dynamism. You don’t have to shoot straight on and parallel to the ground all the time. Changing your point of view can have the single greatest impact on your food photography and is a quick and easy way to immediately up your photography game.
Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds refers to a compositional trick in which you imagine your image divided into thirds both horizontally and vertically (in other words, into nine segments). Look through your viewfinder and imagine two invisible horizontal lines and two invisible vertical lines. Compose your image so that an important element falls on one of those lines or at the exact point where two lines intersect. This trick adds interest, dynamism and helps to balance your image. The tendency is to center the subject when offsetting it usually creates a stronger image.
Placing your subject on a third line will result in an increased amount of negative space on the opposite side. This negative space can be left blank, often to striking effect, or it can be augmented by the careful placement of secondary objects. A spoon, a sprinkle of sugar, a nut or two, can help balance a slice of cake that is set to one side. That said, try not to crowd your main subject with a lot of extra items. An overly busy image will detract from your main subject. Place items purposefully.
You can learn to use repetition and pattern to your benefit. Think of how a pair of identical objects or a group of three of objects can punctuate an image. Now imagine three identical items and a fourth different one. You can combine repetition with the use of depth of field, for example, you might present a succession of identical objects and have only one be in focus. The others, though out of focus, will serve to echo the shape of your main subject. Repetitive lines and shapes can also work in your favor. The curve of a bowl might echo the curve of a spoon or a curl of chocolate.
Depth of Field
In the last article we talked about Depth of Field. Depth of field is a tool of composition in that it allows you to isolate your subject from your background, foreground or both. Manipulating depth of field allows you to really pinpoint an area of interest in your composition. If you have a DSLR and a fast lens, you’re all set. If you have a point and shoot camera with some manual controls, set your aperture to the lowest number and set your focus on one specific area of interest.
Framing refers to the boundaries you choose to define the edges of your image. When framing your subject you should think of all the elements we just went over. Think of balance when framing. Don’t constipate your subject by squishing it up against an edge. Either give your subject adequate breathing space or get in close and cut right into it. That said, do not cut important elements off without reason.
There are instances where cutting into your subject is okay, especially for close up work, but make sure you are doing so purposefully and not randomly. You also don’t want a lot of dead space around your subject. Fill the frame, but not too much. Find the right balance.
Watch out for odd lines. We’ve all taken photos of friends standing in front of posts or the corner of a wall only to discover later that it looks like the post is growing out of the top of their head. When framing your image, look out for lines that converge in odd ways or ones that add otherwise add confusion.
A good composition sends a message to the viewer and conveys what you, the photographer, think is important in that image. The good news is that everyone has full control over the composition of their photographs, regardless of the equipment they own. Whether you have a DSLR or a point and shoot, a good composition will make your photograph just as quickly as a mediocre one will kill it.