How to Compose a Picture

Some picture have a more pleasing arrangement of visual elements that others. There are some guidelines as to what leads to a pleasing arrangement, known as a good composition. It seems that all "rules" for composition have exceptions, so the overriding rule is that if it looks good to you, go ahead.

The most important guideline is to fill the frame with interesting things. Pictures are food for the brain, so don't serve up an empty plate. The only thing less interesting that a plain blue sky is a plain gray sky. Aside from plain sky, omnipresent uninteresting things in photos include out-of-focus rooms, out-of-focus who-knows-what, blank walls, empty pavement, bare ground, and large expanses of uniform grass.  A sharp background full of junk can be a distraction from the subject, so having it out of focus can be an advantage in that case; just don't include more of it than necessary. Here are some ways to get rid of uninteresting things:
  • If the sky is plain but the foreground is interesting, tip the camera down to get rid of most of the sky
  • If the sky is interesting but the ground is not, then tip the camera up to capture much more sky than ground
  • If neither the sky nor ground is interesting, zoom in so the subject fills the frame
  • Use the zoom for individuals and small groups so they fill the frame
  • Hold the camera vertically if that better isolates the interesting part of the scene
  • If everything is interesting, use a wide angle or make a stitched panorama
  • If interesting objects are scattered in the scene, again use a wide angle or a stitched panorama to catch many of them
  • If nothing is interesting, keep the camera in your pocket
This is the fill the frame with stuff (FFWS) rule. It is important, but there are exceptions. A tree in a barren landscape may work because the empty space shows the isolation of the tree and contributes to the feeling of presence.  A lovely tree against out-of-focus living room furniture is not likely to work.

In this example an interesting cloud formation is featured.  If the horizon were more nearly centered more of the parking lot pavement would have have been featured rather than the cloud formation.  The picture was taken from the parking lot of Kosmic Kones in Hilo, Hawaii. Click the image to enlarge.

Sky featured

Another consideration is visual flow.  Visual flow usually derives from the perspective of objects appearing smaller in the distance, like the iconic railroad tracks going to the horizon. Tipping camera down to feature the foreground of scene often provides visual flow at no extra cost over getting rid of boring sky. The flow may come from lines, like the railroad tracks, but it is just as effectively derived from a texture pattern.  The pattern of ocean waves is a good example. there will be better visual flow if the waves breaking on the beach are complimented by a distant pattern of whitecaps.

Here is an example of visual flow from White Sands national Monument:

White Sands visual flow

The flow derives from both the geometry and the texture pattern of the footprints. The footprints lend scale. From the footprints, we know these are large sand dunes, not sand box ones. Click the image to enlarge.

The best known rule of composition is the rule of thirds. It mainly comes into play after the precondition of the FFWS rule has been met.  Suppose there is a stream in a forest with a small waterfall. The rocks, trees, and stream are all interesting, but the top of the waterfall will be a focal point. The rule of thirds suggest that it is better not to put it in the center of the frame. Instead, image the image divided into thirds like a stretched tic-tac-toe grid. The rule says to put the focal point at one of the four imaginary grid intersections. For scenics, the rule suggests putting the horizon down one-third of the way from the top of the frame, but that should be subordinate to getting rid of boring sky.

If the composition is not quite right when you take the picture, you have a second chance to improve it by cropping the image in Photoshop. The logical cropping of an image may be a long horizontal, not possible with the fixed shape of the camera frame. You may not have had time to study the composition when you took the picture, or maybe you had a wide angle lens and could not zoom in on the subject.  Sometimes an interesting composition in the frame was not apparent at the time the picture was taken.

Instructions for using Photoshop to crop images are here.

In this example, the rule of thirds is obeyed top-to-bottom, but the fence post is too near the center:

Uncropped Original

Also, there is little bit of road in the lower left corner that doesn't help.  Here is a version that is cropped to put the fence post at a one-third point:

Cropped horizontally

The composition is improved, but we have lost the perspective cue of the long foreground.  The rule of thirds can be imposed with a vertical format:

Cropped vertically   w thirds lines

This better. It is still not a great picture, but it is better. Pleasant.

The advantage of having a high resolution image is that the image can be cropped and there will still be enough resolution in the selected part of the image to give decent result.  If you are sending pictures to friends as e-mail attachments, posting them on the net, or using a digital picture frame, there is not much need for more than about a megapixel.  Anything more than that is spare that you can leave on the cutting room floor if you choose. If you are going to make prints or albums, it is different story.  An 8" x 10" print can use three to seven megapixels, larger prints even more.  Large prints do not necessarily require a proportionately larger number of pixels because they are usually viewed at larger distances. A roadside billboard does not require 300 dots per inch.