Composition talks a lot about "rule of thirds", "leading lines", etc. and those are all great things (and I'll talk about them too in an upcoming blog entry) but what isn't talked about enough (in my opinion) is learning to be aware of what you're capturing in your image.
I'm not talking about your intended subject of course – I assume you'll be able to make sure that's there! No, what I'm talking about is all the stuff that you don't notice until it's too late, until you've taken the picture and are back at your computer looking at it. That's when you notice the light pole sticking out of your subject's head or that red car parked across the street or those power lines or … well, you get the idea.
Photography, unlike painting, is a subtractive art form. We open the shutter and whatever is in front of the camera and fits in the frame is going to be captured, no matter how close or far away it is. Somewhere in there is our subject and our goal in creating the picture is [or should be] that later on when we show people our image they'll understand what the subject is and be drawn to it so they can take in that captured moment in the way you had intended. How does "subtractive" fit into that? Well, in order to help ensure our intended subject is appreciate we need to make sure that we "subtract" from our composition anything that might distract our viewer away from our subject. Realizing that something is competing with your subject is what I mean by building awareness.
Generally we're drawn to our subject because we find it interesting and exciting. Often we find it so interesting that we don't see much else and if we just took the photo in that moment it would be some time later when we started to notice the problems, the distractions. SLOW DOWN! That one bit of advice made a huge difference in my photographs and I believe everything else in composition grows from that first principle. Look through your viewfinder (or the screen on the back of your camera), see what is going to be captured when you press the shutter, decide if that's something that will add to your image or distract from your subject. Is there something bright in the background (brighter than your subject) or maybe something really colorful that isn't part of your subject? How about something with a lot of contrast, a dark area against a light background (like a roof line against a sky)? These are all things that will draw the viewer's attention and if they're not your subject, they'll be looking at the distractions instead of your subject (and may not even realize what your subject it).
Pay particular attention to those things I just mentioned - they're key distractions and so easy to have them end up in your photograph. Just the way our vision works we're automatically drawn to very bright things, areas of high contrast, and bright colors (particularly warm colors like red and orange). In addition to these, be mindful of the "pole out of the head" stuff I mentioned earlier or backgrounds that are very chaotic. Your subject should stand our from the background, not blend into it.
So, how do you deal with this? Well, we have a few basic tools that can be used individually or in combination. First, we need to what? SLOW DOWN - very good. How else can we recognize the problems, right? Okay, next is evaluating how to address the problem; can we just ask our subject to move? Can we move the distraction itself (e.g. a trash can or red sweater lying on a chair)? Maybe we can use our control of "depth of field" to cause the background to blur so it's less distracting. How about we move? Really, if all you did was shift a couple feet to the left or right, or got down a little lower or up a little higher, it would change entirely what the background of your subject is.
Let's take for example the following photographs. I met this young musician in Centennial Olympic Park here in Atlanta while out teaching a composition class. Perfect. He was sitting on a concrete railing near reflecting pool with a background made up of trees, fences, various buildings, and passing cars. A very chaotic and distracting background indeed! I saw it as an excellent opportunity to show just this principle - move yourself to control the background and remove distractions. My instructions to him were simply to stay where he was seated and keep playing while I took a few photos.
Crouching low in front and shifting just a bit to his left so I could have the building in the background but not touching him.
Slightly above - standing across from him and using the reflecting pool as the background. The choice to process this image as Black & White was due to the fact that that most of the tones in the scene were monochromatic - the stone, his grey jacket, even the reflecting pool itself. The color that was there, mostly his face and guitar, seemed a bit distracting to the overall image and if you find yourself with a lot of distracting colors in your image, try converting it to B&W and see if you don't like it better.
Crouching down so I'm shooting up at him, off to his right so he's framed by the trees in the background
Standing above with the sidewalk as the background.
See how different each of these photographs are? My subject never moved (well, except for the strumming) and yet they look almost like they were taken in entirely different locations. Each one tells the story of this musician just a little differently and all that was required was for me to move myself around a little bit so that I could choose the background I wanted for each image.
Try this same technique with your next image. Slow down, take the time to frame your subject and really look at what else is going on. Move around and take different "versions" of the photo at different angles. You'll be amazed at how different each turns out and once you start shooting from unconventional points of view, your images will immediately stand out from majority of other photos that were just taken at a normal upright eye level.
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