Canon PowerShot G12, Directing the Viewer: A Word about Composition

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As a photographer, it’s your job to lead the viewer through your image. You accomplish this by utilizing the principles of composition, which is the arrangement of elements in the scene that draws the viewer’s eye through the image and holds their attention. As the director, you need to understand how people see, and then use that information to focus their attention on the most important elements in your image.

There is a general order at which we look at elements in a photograph. The first is brightness. The eye wants to travel to the brightest object within a scene. So if you have a bright sky, it’s probably the first place the eye will travel to. The second order of attention is sharpness. Sharp, detailed elements will get more attention than soft, blurry areas. Finally, the eye will move to vivid colors while leaving the dull, flat colors for last. It is important to know these essentials in order to grab—and keep— the viewer’s attention and then direct them through the frame.

In Figure 7.13, the eye is drawn to the bright white cloud in the middle of the frame. From there, it is pulled by the vibrant sky down to the reflection in the water, and finally along the sharp grasses of the river bank. The elements within the image all help to keep the eye moving but never leave the frame.

Rule of thirds

There are, in fact, quite a few philosophies concerning composition. The easiest one to begin with is known as the “rule of thirds.” Using this principle, you simply divide your LCD into thirds by imagining two horizontal and two vertical lines that divide the frame equally.

If you prefer something more concrete, press the Display button to make a grid overlay the screen. (You can turn the grid off permanently by going to the camera’s main menu, selecting Custom Display, and pressing the Function/Set button in the boxes to the right of Grid Lines to make sure neither includes a checkmark.)

The key to using this method of composition is to position your main subject at or near one of the intersecting points.

By placing your subject near these intersecting lines, you are giving the viewer space to move within the frame. The one thing you don’t want to do is place your subject smack-dab in the middle of the frame. This is sometimes referred to as “bull’s eye” composition, and it requires the right subject matter for it to work. It’s not always wrong, but it will usually be less appealing and may not hold the viewer’s focus.

Speaking of the middle of the frame, the other general rule of thirds deals with horizon lines. Generally speaking, you should position the horizon one-third of the way up or down in the frame (Figure 7.14). Splitting the frame in half by placing your horizon in the middle of the picture is akin to placing the subject in the middle of the frame; it doesn’t lend a sense of importance to either the sky or the ground.

The composition of the elements pulls the viewer’s eyes around the image, leading from one element to the next in a circular pattern.
Figure 7.13 The composition of the elements pulls the viewer’s eyes around the image, leading from one element to the next in a circular pattern.
Placing the horizon of this image at the bottom third of the frame places emphasis on the village above it.
Figure 7.14 Placing the horizon of this image at the bottom third of the frame places emphasis on the village above it.

Creating depth

Because a photograph is a flat, two-dimensional space, you need to create a sense of depth by using the elements in the scene to create a three-dimensional feel. This is accomplished by including different and distinct spaces for the eye to travel: a foreground, middle ground, and background. By using these three spaces, you draw the viewer in and render depth to your image.

Jeff Lynch’s photo of sunset at Palo Duro Canyon, shown in Figure 7.15, contains a lot of motion for a still landscape. The outcropping in the foreground at left draws your eye, but then the shadow casts your view to the opposite ridge in the middle ground, and the rest of the canyon extends toward the center of the frame.

The dominant outcropping and shadows against the receding background add to the feeling of depth in this image.
Figure 7.15 The dominant outcropping and shadows against the receding background add to the feeling of depth in this image.