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Family Time:
Basic composition
by Bill Hartley

A builder designs and constructs; and accountant adds and subtracts; a doctor fixes and mends, but an artist composes. Artists include writers, musicians, painters and photographers. A good writer is an artist and he or she composes work so it flows and gives meaning. A musician composes a song so it has rhythm, beat, or order. A painter composes a painting by adding elements of design, color, texture form, and light. All of these elements create the illusion of movement, depth of field and flow. A good photographer, like a good writer, musician, or painter is an artist. And a good photograph will incorporate many of the same elements other artist's use - rhythm, color, texture, light and depth of field - to give the effect of movement and flow to create a good photographic image.

There are a number of ways to make your images look better. One of the easiest ways to improve upon a photograph is to improve upon its composition. You may think composition is easy, but it is probably one of the more challenging parts of photography.

For a photographer, composition means arranging the elements in a photograph. Let's suppose you have a chance to photograph a child that is standing in a field of flowers. Should you photograph the field of flowers with a small child in the background? Should you try to move closer so the child becomes a big part of the picture? Should the child be off to the side of the picture? Should they be in the middle? Should you move around to photograph them from the side or front?

How you choose to frame your subject, in this case the child and flowers, is called composing an image. Good photographers are good composers.

When it comes to composition, there is no such thing as right and wrong. Good composition can be challenging. You may rely on any number of rules and suggestions to help you compose pictures. But a picture that one person likes, another person might not. The person you really need to please is yourself. If the pictures come out the way you want them to, then you've taken good photographs.

Photographers have been developing rules to help take better pictures ever since the camera was invented. Not every rule can be applied to every situation, but most photographers find them helpful. But remember these rules of composition are only guidelines. Once you have learned them, you can start experimenting. By applying different rules of composition, you'll see how your photographic results can change.

Remember, that it is the person behind the camera, and not the camera that takes great photographs. This is especially true in composition, because you make all the decisions. Some photographers think that composing a photograph is the most fun and creative part of photography, and it is.

One Subject
Before taking a picture, decide what the main subject will be. Then compose your picture so your chosen subject stands out in a clear and interesting way. The trick to picking a main subject, is to make sure that it takes up at least 25% (or ) of the picture, which means it needs to also appear that large when looking through the camera's viewfinder. If not, your subject will appear too small and will be lost in the photograph. And therefore, will not be an effective subject.

A subject may be one thing or a group of things. It could be a single child or a group of children. It could be a single bird or a flock of birds. Choosing one main subject does not mean you include nothing else in your image. It only means that you have decided what the most important element of your picture will be. Your subject exists in the middle of an environment - a room, around a tree, in front of a building or other surroundings. It would be tough to photograph the child we talked about earlier without getting a flower in the photograph. Even if it were possible, it would probably not be as interesting, because it wouldn't show the child in a natural environment.

Center Composition
When composing images the best place to start is by putting your subject right smack in the center of the picture. In these types of photographs are easiest for others to determine the subject. Centered subject composition is the most common photographic composition. It is also the starting point to other styles of composition.

After you have centered your subject and taken a photo, continue looking through the viewfinder. Move your camera around the subject. Does another angle make the subject or its surroundings look more appealing? If so, take another photo. Then compare the results.

The Rule of Thirds
A photograph, like your camera's viewfinder, is a rectangle. In order to understand the Rule of Thirds, we will need to divide this rectangle into nine equal parts, by drawing two vertical and two horizontal lines, as shown in the boxed grid on the below. 

The Rule of Thirds suggests that you position your main subject a third of the way from either side of your frame, and a third of the way from the top or bottom. Another way to better understand the Rule of Thirds is to look at where the lines intersect. These intersections are called "power points," because these spots naturally attract the viewer's eye. 

When you place your subject at any power point you are taking advantage of the Rule of Thirds.

Although many people will position their subject in the exact center of a photograph, (which is not always a bad idea) you may find other choices make more interesting photos. With your mind's eye, imagine the power points. Now, move your camera from one side to the other. Then top to bottom. Does this new position create a more interesting (better composed) photograph? 

A Trick to Understanding Composition

  • Take a piece of paper and cut out a rectangle 2x3 inches, in the center of the paper. It can be a little bigger or smaller.
  • Look through your family photographs. Pick out some images that you think look good and some that aren't so good.
  • Look at the composition of the images, and think about how they were composed.
  • Now, lay the rectangle cut-out over each photograph. Position the main subject in the center of the rectangle first. Then, move it to the right, now up, next down. Repeat the process on the left side, stopping in each position. Look carefully at how the composition changes when you move the rectangle. You will see the power points and begin to understand how better composition makes better photographs.

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