Noticing Composition in Photography
I’m back in the classroom. Teaching inspires me. I’m teaching a photography class with middle school students. For a long while, I’ve thought about how we teach photography and how people enjoy photography. I never took a photography class when I was young. Mostly because I felt “bad at math” (I was actually “bad” at times-tables but that’s another story). The emphasis on aperture, shutter speed, and ISO overwhelmed me.
I decided that I would live in the land of auto-mode.. And it was …. surprise, surprise, just fine. I took a lot of my favorite images. I did fine until I wondered about more control, which was when I dove into exposure, aperture, and ISO Leaning into auto-modes as a beginner let me pay attention to the scene without fiddling with endless settings..
The first few weeks of teaching, I thought I needed to teach aperture, exposure, and ISO. I though that was what the students expected. I needed them to know how to adjust settings. And then I realized, these kids would probably never work with this exact type of camera again. The bigger gift may be inspiring students to be “active observers”, namely to pay attention and take mindful images. Less randomness and more intentionality. What if I let them live in auto-mode for awhile?
I talked about two styles of framing a subject. They wanted to know which one was the right way. One thing that throws students (until they learn about me) is that I don’t tell them a right way or wrong way. I invite them to notice what they like. And use what speaks to their artistic vision..
And all of this can be done in auto-mode. Which was a huge relief for them. It’s hard to begin anything and be mired in minutiae. They loved being able to ignore settings and pay attention to a scene.
The first style of compositional choice that we talked about was a Center composition. In a center composition, the subject is in the middle of the image. Centering tends to be the default choice for many portraits. It has been criticized for looking mundane or expected. However, I love a center composition. I love a photo where the subject is the balancing point of the photo. Especially if I can find symmetry, meaning the same on each side, behind the subject.
In the example above, I loved seeing how the trees framed her in the center of the photo.
“Well,” the kids asked, “Why don’t the overlay show a center line?”
Because the grid is usually set up to show the Rule of Thirds. Which says that we like to see thirds in images. The places where thirds meet together, the corners, is a dynamic spot to put important things like an eye. Those intersections can be golden.
For me, I enjoy using the thirds to create ratios. So, in the example above, she fits within the center third. It’s just something that pleases me as an artist :)
Here, I used the Rule of Thirds (Guidelines) to place the cat in my composition. And the tail ends by another line. For this photo, I left an entire third of the photo to be negative space, which doesn’t mean negative like not-good, but negative space like empty space. This frames how she sat so elegantly.
This photo fit perfectly on the lines of thirds. Yay! It’s always fun to try a crop and see elements line up exactly on the guides.
When I take a photo, I decide whether to place my subject in the center of the frame, or off to one side. I don’t “see” the lines exactly on the scene. When I choose the crop in many programs, the lines appear as guides. I may use them to crop the image a bit until the subject lands on one of those thirds lines.
Other times, I use the lines to show me the exact center of the frame. For this sweet cat named Munchkin, I wanted a central composition.
I volunteer at an animal rescue, in case you wonder why I have so many cat photos :)
Here, the kitten’s eye could be aligned perfectly with the top corner intersection. Then her leg traced one line while her eyes were on the top line. In case you’re wondering, her spot-on Puss in Boots impression with the dilated eyes was because she had been spayed earlier that day. She was adopted, with her littermate, the next day.
When a subject is on the line, it helps if they’re looking back into the frame. If she had been gazing out of the left side of the image, composition can become awkward. It helps to have subjects looking either at the camera or towards the camera when they’re on one of the lines of thirds.
Here’s one of my favorite images with a center composition. This one shows center and thirds, as she shares almost perfect thirds with the space around her.
When it comes to center composition, the video below inspired me to rethink what was considered (by some) as too predictable.
The last example is how thirds can work with landscape. I often tinker with trying the horizon along different lines to see what pleases me in that situation. Here, the clouds were fascinating so I game them more of the frame.
After discussing center and thirds, I invited students to go try putting a subject in the center of the frame, then off center to see how the composition changed the feel of the scene. We’ll them try cropping with an thirds grid overlay to see if that changes how they would compose or crop their images.
The wonderful thing about art is that there isn’t a “right way”. Noticing subject placement can bring a level of storytelling that keeps an artist intrigued about image-making. You can try this project with any camera, any smartphone, any setting. It can be a fun project for students of all ages.
I often do this exercise in a moment to keep myself engaged. To look, and look again. What if I try for a center composition, or off center? How does that change the photo?
It’s fun to challenge yourself, or inspire kids. I’m excited to see what they create. Being intentionally observant is a skill that will translate through the years and through many different cameras. Do you have a favorite type of composition?
Let’s go play :)