Photography tips: composition

By Bill Hatcher 6 June 2012
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Award-winnning photographer Bill Hatcher shares his tips for capturing a memorable shot using skillful composition.

Award-winning photographer Bill Hatcher has spent more than 25 years documenting adventure, science and exploration around the world. Here are his tips for capturing that memorable shot.

COMPOSITION IS OFTEN considered the foundation of a compelling photo. But skillful composition is much more than a simple knack for balancing people and objects in a camera frame. That kind of symmetry may work for trapeze, but in photography it often results in boring repetitiveness or centring of people and objects. So what are the definitive ingredients for a well-composed photo?
I guess if we knew that there would be no truth to Bresson’s quote that “Your first 10,000 photos are your worst”. But you will find some things that do repeat themselves in a good composition. These formulas have the prosaic name of Rules of Composition. There are many rules, but I have some favourites.

Rules of compostion of photos

In capturing this climbing shot, above, my greatest challenge was to successfully blend two powerful subjects: the dramatic landscape of the Grand Canyon and the climber. I began by composing my background landscape into a pleasing scene. The distant Colorado River empties out the corner of the frame and I emphasised the canyon by using the dark silhouetted roof as a framing device. Next, I composed the climber in this scene by positioning him in the frame using the rule of thirds. Then, I moved my position until I was level with the roof; this allowed just an edge of skyline and the silhouetted ropes to lead to the climber. The curving ropes arching across the landscape to the climber act to connect these two powerful elements and complete the narrative of the photo. Moving to the side of the climber I also created eye-pleasing diagonals and triangle shapes. The perfect moment came when the climber stretched his body to look out from under the roof and light illuminated his face. Click, that’s the photo.

Rule of thirds is perhaps the best known rule of composition. Generally, if objects, like the sun, or horizons are centered in your photo it creates a static composition, so unless that is your intention, use thirds. Imagine dividing your photo frame vertically and horizontally into thirds with invisible lines. Place the main objects in your photo where these lines cross. This imbalance makes for a more dynamic composition.
Triangles and angles are more pleasing to the eye than squares. When shooting landscapes or people look for natural triangle patterns and repeating diagonal lines. A straight-on photo of a rock cliff or coastline does not have interesting triangles and diagonal lines; move to the side of the subject to create this.
Natural window frames are a powerful way to bring attention to a particular object in a photo. Try shooting through the opening of a carabiner or loop of rope for a portrait of a rockclimber, use a cave opening to capture a hiker or shoot through a bike frame to capture an approaching cyclist.

Silhouettes add a dramatic emphasis to a person or object in your composition. This is especially true if the object is very small or you are shooting at midday when the sunlight is bright and uninteresting.
Leading lines are a way to draw the viewer’s eye to different areas of the photo to tie together its elements. A leading line could be a river, a track or a ray of sunlight.

Composing an action photo

Action into the frame is best composed so that the subject has the largest space for their movement. For example, a runner or cyclist comes in from the lower left and has room to move up and right. This makes their movement less crowded entering into the composition.
Directing rivers or tracks out of the corners of the frame is more pleasing to the eye than having them flow off the sides of the photo. This is related to the diagonal rule, from above.
Curves and meanders are more appealing than straight lines. Look for this when shooting paths, streams and ropes. These can be straight, but appear more interesting and mysterious when curved.
Memorising these rules is not an ironclad guarantee of a great shot, but they may help clarify why some compositions are more effective than others. Also, don’t let rules blind you to making creative compositions. Landscape photographer Ansel Adams once said, “The so-called rules of photographic composition are, in my opinion, invalid, irrelevant and immaterial”. But of course as a master of composition he understood those rules and knew when to apply them successfully.