One of the best ways to get some expert composition tips is to analyze the work of master photographers. There are lots of photographers who have mastered the art of composition, but for me one of them stands out from the rest. Who better to learn from than Steve McCurry? This video from COOPH explores some of the principles underlying his work.
There are lots of good ideas in it, but there are two composition tips worth looking at in more detail.
Composition tip #1: Figure and ground
Figure and ground is the term used to describe the way in which the subject of a photo stands out from the background.
In this portrait, it is obvious that the model is the subject, and that the rocks and concrete structure behind him are the background.
You can see that the model, thanks to his fair skin, is much lighter than the rocks behind him. The tonal contrast makes him stand out from the background. This is figure and ground in action.
The relationship becomes even clearer if we convert the photo to black and white.
Other ways of making the subject stand out
Figure and ground is usually talked about in situations where most or all of the scene is in focus. As you’re no doubt aware, photographers also have other tools to make the subject stand out from the background.
The main ones are selective focus (using a wide aperture and focusing on the subject so the background goes out of focus) and color contrast (such as photographing a red flower against a green background). Figure and ground (or tonal contrast) is another tool for achieving the same effect.
Here’s another example. I made this photo in the village of Tarabuco in Bolivia. The girls are dressed in traditional clothing typical of the area. It was a bright, sunny day and the are standing in front of a sunlit wall. Here, the figure to ground is reversed – the background is bright, and the people are darker. But it still works. You can clearly see what is the subject, and what is the background.
Again, you can see the tonal contrast more easily in black and white.
Light and figure and ground
Another figure to ground technique is to place a brightly lit subject against a darker background.
In the photo below, light coming through a window illuminated the clothes and left the background in shade.
The next photo is of a street performer in Cadiz, Spain. It was winter, but bright and sunny. The sunlight helps her stand out against the background.
This is a street photo of a busy scene and as a result is more chaotic and messy than the earlier examples. The light helps the viewer differentiate between subject and background. It brings order to chaos.
Figure and ground and ambiguity
So far in all the photos we’ve seen the visual relationship between subject and background is clear and unambiguous. But that’s not always the case. A good example is when you frame the subject, perhaps by shooting through a window or a doorway. In this situation you end up with a bright background and a silhouetted foreground, as in the photo below, shot through a car window.
One of the reasons that placing a brightly lit subject against a darker background works so well is that bright subjects seem to move towards the viewer, and dark subjects recede. In photos like the one above this dynamic is reversed. The figure to ground relationship is less obvious and more ambiguous. Used well, this adds visual tension and interest.
When figure and ground doesn’t exist
It’s also good to understand that sometimes photos don’t have a clear figure to ground relationship. But that doesn’t make them ineffective. Figure to ground is a tool that you can use to bring order and clarity to the composition. But you can also work without it.
In the following photo the blacksmith is wearing dark clothing that blends in with the background. There is very little tonal contrast. But the photo works. It’s a low key, simplified composition and it’s still clear that the blacksmith is the main subject.
Sometimes the figure to ground relationship is obvious, and sometimes it isn’t. It’s up to you to find ways of creating a harmonious visual relationship between subject and background. Sometimes figure and ground is the key, but sometimes it isn’t.
Composition tip #2: Center dominant eye
This composition tip says that placing the model’s dominant eye (the one closest to the camera) in the center of the frame creates the illusion that the model is always looking at you.
It’s an interesting idea that differs from the usual advice to place the model’s eye on a third.
Here are some examples.
This diagram shows the vertical center line through each portrait. The dominant eye is crossed by the line in each one.
Three more composition tips from Steve McCurry
The video finishes with some advice from Steve McCurry himself. He gives three important composition tips we can all use.
- The rules are meant to be broken (somewhat ironic in a video about the rules of composition).
- Enjoy yourself.
- Find your own way to photograph things.
I think this is great advice.