On composition, part six

Some of the things that create the difference between snapshots and compelling photographs are subtle. Nevertheless, they are extremely good habits to have. In this case, I’m going to talk about position.

Because we live in a three dimensional world, the relation and position of objects within the frame will change depending on how close you are to them, how close they are to each other, your viewing angle, and so on. Decent photographers of any sort know that positioning themselves to put the elements together in a pleasant way is paramount, and sometimes takes some special effort. At top, a small portion of Minnehaha Falls in north Georgia was selected to be viewed from the side, where the elaborate splashing of the water provided the greatest effect. To do this, I had to climb up the edge of the falls on some tricky rock slopes to set the tripod alongside the cascade (one of the reasons I wear both beltpacks for the equipment, which don’t swing around, and footwear that can get wet.) This effort provided a perspective not usually seen in photographs of the falls, shown in an overall view at right – the portion I emphasized is towards the top. Being closer to the rocks and foliage enhanced their sharpness against the softness of the rushing water (this is a time exposure,) and even the foliage behind the falls mimics the lines of the water. The light angle on the wet rocks provided increased contrast and made even the subtle colors of the lichen and leaves stand out.

Always consider your background when composing your shot. The shapes, colors, and details behind your main subject can serve to either enhance or contrast it as needed, but can also be distracting. Bold lines, like the horizon, can serve to cut your subject in two, so it often pays to move the horizon above or below your subject, which is often accomplished by getting your own viewing angle higher or lower, or by moving closer to or further from the subject. The sun and moon can easily be positioned among some kind of foreground detail, or carefully allowed to peek through the foliage, allowing a tiny burst of light to provide an accent point without overwhelming the exposure. Getting close to subjects allows them to become larger, so they can be expanded or shrunk in relation to more distant objects or the background. Crouching down can provide a more imposing subject, letting it loom overhead, and can accentuate or silhouette it against the sky.

So, when you are looking for subjects and compositions, wander around, bob a little, crouch and stretch on tiptoe, climb up on handy surfaces, try to see as many perspectives as you can. Position yourself so that the elements fall together in the frame the way you want them to. At left, the higher perspective placed the indistinct water lily in a counterpoint position in the frame, giving a stronger sense of “setting.” The position also allowed me to get greater detail from the wings of the dragonfly – you’ll notice the black “veins” don’t stand out as well against the dark water as the green leaves. Had I gone for lower, though, I would have been crowding the dragonfly against the flower, too close together in the center of the frame.

Also be aware of the changing nature of your background. The sun and moon move steadily across the sky, sometimes faster than you think (I mentioned before that they move their own width in 150 seconds.) A little patience or planning can sometimes allow you to place them in your frame as needed. Clouds also move a bit, and can fill a spot in an empty sky for greater atmosphere (heh!) or can alternately form a distraction behind your subject. I’ve waited out the clouds more times than I can count – sometimes it simply fails, since they don’t always do what you want them to. But sunlight coming through leaves also shifts quite a lot in a few minutes, perhaps providing you with a nice spotlight as needed, or shifting away distracting hotspots. And the edges of clouds or hazy patches covering the sun can serve to soften the contrast in a scene without changing the color register too much.

Another example seen here was a result of liking the shape of the leaf and wanting it to accentuate the frame, helped by the butterfly facing that way. To get it, I had to balance on one foot while leaning out off of the walkway, trying not to fall into the foliage. Such a simple effort to place the subjects within the frame in a better way; not hard to do, it just takes the effort of trying to see things dynamically.

For the infra-red exposure at right, I was balanced with both feet on one small rock in the middle of the stream, while the tripod was in the streambed itself, pressed downward into the mud until it settled firmly. If you look at the details within the image, shifting left or right by any significant amount would change the relation of the various elements to each other, producing a different composition, one that I found weaker than this one. It might have been even stronger had I been able to get higher, showing more water and more reflection of the sky within it, but sometimes you deal with the limitations.

Were you aware that the sky is the deepest blue facing away from the sun? Can you look at the sun’s position and know where the light will fall earlier or later in the day, so you can return when the light hits your subject more dramatically? Have you noticed that the reflections in the water depend on what angle you’re standing at? How about how different people look when you photograph them from waist or chest level rather than eye level? Now try it with pets – you’re going to have to get real low, and this is often an invitation for nose smudges on your lens, but it makes a world of difference to animal photography. Here’s a hint: a small, inexpensive auto floor mat makes a great ground pad, keeping you from mud and grass stains when working low – knee pads help too, especially in stony areas where it can get really uncomfortable. Here’s another sneaky thing: I’ve taken photos by setting the timer on my camera and extending it well above my head on the tripod or monopod, gaining a perspective I myself couldn’t even see.

Feel free to look around the gallery, and ask yourself where I had to be to get any particular image. If it seems like a lot of them require an angle or perspective that isn’t “normal,” then you know why it’s such a useful thing. Don’t just take the photo – assure yourself that the ones you take are the most effective perspective you can find.

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