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7 Tips for Better Compositions

Tips & Tricks

John Cooper specializes in corporate, industrial, and commercial photography for various business communities in Texas and teaches basic skills to other burgeoning photographers. If you are just starting out, or looking for a refresher, check out his advice below.

7 Tips for Better Compositions
by John Cooper

What makes one photo better than another?  Good photographs have compositions comprised of visual elements that abide by certain design principles.  Photography, it is said, is the subjective application of objective tools.

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Here is a cheat sheet on how to get better photographs. It is not an analysis of art theory or physics.  However, I urge you to research those topics if your passion is photography. In the meantime, here are 7 quick ways to make better photos.  You “make” photos, by the way – you do not merely “take” them.

You Can’t Fix Blur

Yes, we can put a man on the moon but we still cannot focus a blurred image.  The rule of thumb for hand-held shots is to use a shutter speed that is faster than the reciprocal of the lens’ focal length.  Using a 200mm telephoto, for example, would require you to use faster than a 1/200th second shutter speed.  A 50mm would require faster than 1/50th and so on.  Image stabilization has changed this up to 2 stops but it’s not worth the risk, in my opinion.  Remember, you can’t fix blur no matter what version of Photoshop you may have.  Increase your ISO and/or open you aperture or use a tripod.  Do whatever it takes to get tack sharp focus every time the shutter actuates.

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Understand the Rule of Thirds

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The Rule of Thirds has to do with the way our eyes work.  The easiest way to improve your landscapes, for example, is to place the horizon on either the top third or bottom third of the Y axis.  Try this simple trick and it will lead you a new level of understanding of how our eyes work. In the following photo of the young lady, the Rule of Thirds is using both the X and the Y axis.  The upper left power point is precisely on her right pupil while the opposing power point, lower right, is approximately on the dog’s eye.  The affect is that a tension of interest between both of these power points creates a sense of movement – a valuable compositional element.

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Shoot During Golden Hours

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We all know about them so why waste time during other parts of the day? Trying to make photographs outside of Golden Hour lighting is like practicing a bad golf swing over and over.  You will soon be an expert at having a bad golf swing  – or have a few gigs of deleted photos! This applies only to using ambient light of the highest quality regarding sunlight.  The Golden Hour happens every sunny day around sunrise and sunset, which also happens to be the favorite times of day for most of us.

Use Lines and Shapes to Help Composition.

The goal of a photograph should be to capture the viewer’s eye and keep them interested so that they hang around and discover aspects in a pleasing way.  One easy way of doing this is by providing lines to guide the eyes where you want them to go.  The diagonal line of chairs also provides the  sense of movement that was previously mentioned.

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The leading line in the image below is the edge of the pier.  What else do you see?  Note the Rule of Thirds employed – only the horizon is on the top.  The edge of the bait house is on the left third point of the X axis.

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Change Your Point of View

Changing your point of view is a reasonable way of doing many things in life so why not photography?  The train is positioned higher in the frame making it appear further way, which is the “look” I was aiming for. Imagine if I had shot it merely from where I had been standing or just straight on.

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Get Emotional

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A photograph should tell a story and most stories are filled with emotion.  So, too, should your photography be emotional. Use visual clues to emphasize the emotion you’re painting.  This isn’t limited to images of people. The light at the end of this pier below could be seen as a metaphor for what awaits us all.

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Daybreak brings emotions full of new beginnings and optimism.

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The proverbial light at the end of tunnel always evokes emotions of our journey through life.

Use Light as Your Primary Compositional Tool

This should be the tip that is at the top of this list but it is a complex concept to deal with.  The word “photography” actually means “light graphic” or writing with light. Understand light in your photography and magic happens. Good lighting is equally important in color and monochromatic work.  It is just easier to see in black and white.

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I often teach others about photography and my favorite thing to do is force them to see the light.  In my view, photography is about the light and the subject matter is secondary. Try it.  On your next outing forget about flowers, birds, old cars, and all other interesting objects.  Search only for daylight and study how it hits whatever it hits. This is your target.  It is harder to do than you think, but trial and error the process a few times.  Once you see the light and how it provides life to whatever it hits, you will never view photography the same way again.

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Special thanks to John Cooper for these tips. For more tips from John Cooper, see: 10 Tips for Better Architectural Photographs from a Former Architect.

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Alexandria Huff is a portrait photographer based in San Francisco. Her tutorials can be found here on the BorrowLenses Blog, 500px, Shutterfly, Snapknot, and SmugMug. She specializes in studio lighting. Follow her work on 500px.

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