Photo newbie has questions about composition

Hey everyone, I’ve got some questions about photography in general. Right now, I’m using the BF’s Canon Rebel G while I wait for my D40 to come in. I’m taking a photography class (needed to fill 3 hours for my scholarship, and I’ve always liked it anyway). Anyway, I get the basics of ISO, aperture, shutter speed, depth of field, white balance/color temperature, focusing, etc etc. What I don’t get is composition. How do you make a visually interesting picture? I’ve got some pictures that I’ve taken since the class starts, and I’ll type my own comments/criticisms on them, and see if they agree with what you guys think. These are all unedited, ripped straight from the film. Also, some of these were just taken with class assignments in mind, so keep that… in mind. Also, let me know if some of them link to the wrong image. I previewed, but you never know how things are going to work on others’ end. Also, bear in mind that I’m not particularly asking for help with homework, because not only are most of these not for class, but I really want suggestions on how to improve.

Picture one

This one I’m planning on cropping out the right side, with the car wash bay. Other than that, I like the foreground/background play with the fence in the front, and the line of fence going down the right. I also like the contrast of the dying grass in front and the lush green trees in the background.

Picture two

This one looks really neat. I think that the perspective of the lamp post is neat, and I like how it captured a big swirly mass in a single shot.

Picture 3

This one is for a class assignment where we were to capture the essence of a space. I don’t care for the light in the background, because I feel that it distracts the eyes. You can’t tell unless you happen to know, but it’s out back of a Waffle House, and so the chair is where they come to smoke, so I think that the mop bucket and chair are effective.

Picture 4

Another “space” shot. The dog messed up her crate, but the lighting is poor inside, so I got some lens flare, so I might crop her out. I just liked the guilty-dog and messed up crate shot. I also like the lines of perspective going toward the back.

Picture 5

Generic little kid picture, but this might be my favorite picture I’ve taken since starting this class. She has this wonderful look of intrigue and innocence, and the focus was done well. I worry that she looks a little washed out (she’s pale, but not that pale!), but I figure I could fix that with a color temperature adjustment.

Picture 6

(Here’s the bf!) The dog is such a little ball of energy, so I turned down the shutter speed and got a little bit blurry of picture of her. I like it because I know the subject, but I don’t know that it comes across well to an outsider.

Picture 7

I really like this one, but can’t explain why. It’s simple, and contrasts a bit of city living with trees. It was taken through a windshield, so it’s hazy, and I don’t know how to fix that.

Picture 8

This one is an exercise in perspective, and I really like it. I need to tilt it a bit, but the picture is nice. It’s a little touristy-snapshotty, but I’m fine with that.

Picture 9

Another motion blur one, but this one is a little shaky and blurry, and I don’t know if that’s fixable. I’m not sure why I’m including it, but if you have any ideas on whether or not I can do anything with it…

Anyway, I know it’s long, but I didn’t want to imbed 9 big images, so thanks for being patient!

First, let me state that IANAP, but having worked with them and done some design work, I can start out while we wait for better minds to come along.

I think the first picture is the most interesting, though the fence post in the foreground is a bit distracting. Some of the others are excercises in technique and some are family snaps. Let me offer a few hints.

  1. What do you want to say? It might be a gorgeous sunset, which to many is tacky and trite, but if you think it’s beautiful and want to communicate that, then there’s a purpose. When a picture is just “I’ve tried taking a picture at night, without flash, and using a tripod”, then the result will be flat and uninteresting.

  2. People are almost always more interesting to see than still lives. Remember all the vacations snaps you suffered through when someone showed them to you: “Here’s a house, and this is where we stayed, and this is the lake, and…” Pics like those are great for the people involved, as they are part of a memory. For an outsider, not so much.

  3. Size matters. You’ll be amazed how much more interesting the rusty car in pic #1 would be, blown up to cover a wall, i.e. if you make it out to be a statement, it’ll look better. Context helps a photo. In an exhibition about the folly of the consumer society, it would be a great pic, as a memory from your vacation, it’d be trite.

  4. I noticed that you said something about cropping, by which I take it that you use Photoshop or some such. Remember (and I’m sure your teachers told you), that a crappy pic can’t be made good in Photoshop (or the darkroom). With digital photography, it’s become much easier to try to do what took hours in a darkroom only a deacade ago, but a god pic is created in the mind of the photographer.

  5. OBViously you know that a pic get’s more interesting if you work with foreground / background. But check the diagonals as well. I don’t have handy examples, but goodled “diagonal”+“photo” and this was the top link. They explain it better than I can.

  1. Frankly, I think the fence is the most interesting thing in the picture. If it were mine, I might crop it like this. But then, in photo school, I was always crop-happy.

  2. I can’t honestly find a way to make this interesting to me. cropping it just below the horizontal abstracts it a bit, but then you lose the wiggly bug lines. I’d probably keep trying this shot till you get the perfect shot.

  3. This might be worth re-shooting too. The light is obviously a problem, but the flashback on the chair back is also a distraction from the composition. And for me, it would be more geometrically appealing if the chair back were straight, paralleling the verticals.

  4. The dog is a nice image, and the table through the bars is a nice image, but the rest of the shot is just too distracting. Not sure how to fix this one.

  5. That kid is pretty dang photogenic, but you need to find a better background and soften your flash.

  6. Not feelin it.

  7. Too symmetric, out-in-front for me. One possible crop, to move the focal point to a less obvious place.

  8. Not feelin it.

  9. Not feelin it.

Some advice: look at a LOT of photographs–spend some time at the library, surrounded with piles of photography books–and take a LOT of pictures. A LOT. Not that I’m any kind of exemplar, but I tended to make one print for every ~800 negatives. For me, photography was all in the editing.

IAAP, and the most basic rule of composition I could give you is “Fill the frame.” Eliminate all extraneous detail when composing your shot. The corollary to this is Robert Capa’s adage, “if you’re pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” (or words to that effect.)

I would say at this point the best thing to do would be to simplify your compositions. Pay attention to your backgrounds. Use aperture and low depth of field to isolate the foreground from the background.

To me, the two pictures with the most potential are the one of the kid and the one of the staircase. Compositionally, here are the problems with the kid picture: Why all the background clutter? Why didn’t you get in closer or frame her much tighter? A vertical orientation would be the most natural for a portrait, but you can certainly frame it horizontally if you would have just gotten in closer, and put her eyes somewhere on the top third of the frame. The biggest problem with the photo, though, is the background. The lighting also leaves something to be desired, but we’re talking composition here. Eliminate the distracting background, get in tight, use a longer lens (in the 85-135mm range), shoot at a wide aperture f/2.8, focus on the eyes, and you’ll have a nicely composed picture that focuses on her.

For the stairway shot, some potential there. I could tell from the picture that you weren’t quite sure what to do with it–it looks like a hasty snapshot. The black and white contrast works for the photo, but you have to do something interesting with the composition. As it is, your lines are all off. There’s no horizontal or vertical or confident diagonal to lead my eye. The easiest clean composition for a subject like this would be to play with symmetry. I mean, just placing the staircase dead center, vertical and lining up the horizontals in the skylight so they are actually horizontal would do a lot to clean up the image. It wouldn’t necessarily be a knock-you-socks off picture, but it would make some visual sense and look like a picture that’s been composed rather than a snapshot.

Now, I personally would probably have tried a more dynamic diagonal composition, with a vertical orientation, with the staircase sweeping from the bottom left of the photo to the top right. I would have to be there to really see how I would compose it in the end, because I don’t have quite enough info to visualize the entire space.

The easiest compositional rule after “fill the frame” for a photographer to learn (and the first any good photographer will break) is “The Rule of Thirds” (and the similar “Golden Mean.”) Divide up your frame horizontally into thirds. Now divide it vertically into thirds. Placing the main interest on one of those four intersections between the horizontal and vertical thirds generally leads to strong compositions, as opposed to putting your subject smack dab in the middle. Also, just placing subjects in general along any of the thirds (not necessarily the intersections), generally leads to good compositions.

Composition is hard for me to teach in general terms. It’s really something where I need a lot of visual materials at hand to show “do’s” and “don’ts” and the same subject shot with different compositional ideas in mind. The most general thing I could tell you from looking at the photos is to fill the frame, watch those backgrounds, and watch those lines for geometrical compositions.

This is exactly how I learned composition, by looking carefully at visual culture, not just photographs, but critically paying attention to paintings, movies, advertisements, anything that is consciously designed. I can’t say I sat down with the intention, but as I started learning photography (and I really had zero compositional skill when I started) and then started closely paying attention to photographs, paintings, magazines, etc., that I loved, the pattern-recognition part of my brain kicked in, and I osmotically gained a sense of composition.

Taking a lot of photographs is part of it, too, but you need to take and critically dissect your photos and learn from you own mistakes. I still find myself slapping my head for the occasional minor compositional flaws or oversight and I’ve been doing this professionally for 12 years and shoot about 100,000 frames a year these days. But recognizing those mistakes and learning from them is how you grow as a photographer.