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Making a Photo: Part II – Advanced Photo Composition

Author: Ben Reeves
He is a travel writer and photojournalist working in Phuket. Originally from the UK, he arrived in Thailand by way of Oman.
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Old Dogs and New Tricks

Way back in the first of these articles (this being the tenth), I introduced the essentials of photo composition, including the rule of thirds, lead-in lines and filling the frame. While the rules are simple, they are staggeringly effective at turning a pleasant scene into a great picture. One problem with these rules, however, is that they depend on the scene being impressive to begin with. Such a scene is easy to spot and making a good photograph of it quickly becomes equally simple. The skill of photography – particularly at the professional level – is to turn the mundane into the beautiful. For that, you need a few more rules of composition and, ideally, a photography course in Bangkok. Some of these rules for advanced photo composition are even fairly new to me, yet seeing the results of testing them was like seeing a jigsaw come together.

Advanced Photo Composition – Natural Framing

An important part of image composition is drawing the viewer into the picture. When someone is looking at your shot, you don’t want them to see a flat image, but a window out onto your subject, with the feeling at the back of their mind that they can open the window and step inside. There are different techniques in advanced photo composition to achieve this, depending on the kind of picture you are taking, but the simplest and almost universally successful is natural framing.advanced photo composition

Any aperture in the world is a natural frame – I’ve seen or myself used doorways, window, a hole in a fence, branches of a tree forming a rough square, a rock formation; make a rectangle with the thumb and index finger of both hands and you’ve made a frame. Line your subject up through that frame and it draws your eyes into the shot, making it a more engaging image.

You don’t have to use the natural shape as a picture frame within the picture, either. Just having frames of some sort within the shot creates a pleasant symmetry, reflecting the shape of the photo as a whole, like a rectangle within a rectangle.

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Advanced Photo Composition – Symmetry & Patterns

There is something about patterns and symmetry. Our eye naturally favours a balanced picture, even at the expense of the rule of thirds. This will mostly mean balancing the picture down a central line running from the top of the frame to the bottom. You can obviously use the focus points in your viewfinder to show where that line is.

One of my favourite pictures using symmetry, however, was of a mountainous scene by a lake in Ireland. The water was perfectly still and formed a perfect mirror which, with the horizon running through the middle of the shot, created a beautiful symmetry. My sister took the picture and gave a framed print of it to my step-dad as a birthday present. The only problem was that the string to hang it from was between two pegs on the back, which were mounted at the middle of the frame. The symmetry in the photo was so good, it was impossible to tell which way up we were supposed to hang it!

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An example of beautiful symmetry in photography composition

Repeating patterns also appeal to our natural affinity for order, though breaks in the pattern appeal even more to our affinity for chaos. The stark contrast of an oddball in a rank of uniformity will always make a great picture. If you’re doing photography in Bangkok, look out for open windows on otherwise blank-faced office buildings, a brightly coloured taxi in a car park (or traffic jam) of otherwise dull cars; even a broken floor tile can make an artistic image, if taken carefully.

advanced photo compositionTemples in Thailand are particularly good places to find beautiful repeating patterns, from the saffron-robed monks to the colourful mosaics. Regular wear and tear will generally create the break in the symmetry for you, too. Whatever you do, do not go about trying to ‘create’ the break because the first thing you’ll end up breaking is the law.

Symmetry in Portraiture

I have recently started to take an interest in model photography, mostly because it is a new challenge. It is often said that the fastest way to ruin a hobby is to make it your job and I can certainly attest to the fact. If I ever have to photograph another condo launch, it’ll be a lifetime too soon! Model photography is something I have never previously done much of, and I still have a lot to learn, which is a big part of what makes it fun.

One rule of advanced photo composition I recently discovered is aligning the dominant eye in the picture down the centreline of the frame. This breaks two of the more common rules I mentioned in my first article – the rule of thirds and looking room.

advanced photo compositionThe dominant eye is generally the closest, which is the point you should be focussing on. If you’re taking pictures of people, you should always use the eye as your focus point, which is why you will always see me point my camera directly at the subject’s face, then shift down or to one side to frame and take the shot. I have set my camera to only use the central autofocus point, which gives me greater control. A lot of pros do that.advanced photo composition

What really amazed me was the instant effect that putting said eye on the central line had. Ignoring the other rules made the shot so much more powerful and made the model look that much more real and alive. The guide I saw suggested that this rule creates the feeling that the eye is following around the room – a trick most often ascribed to Renaissance-era paintings. Just try taking a look at a few of them with a photographer’s eye and you’ll be surprised how many put the dominant eye on the centre line. Even the Mona Lisa uses this trick!

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