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In The Three S’s of Composition I gave you a new framework for thinking about composition in photography. The three S’s are simple ideas you can remember and use to make your photographic compositions stronger. Today I’d like to explore another framework that will help you improve framing, placement and composition in your photos. This time there are three different things to think about when you compose your photos:
1. What to include in the photo
2. What to leave out of the photo
3. Where to place the main subject
Let’s look at these ideas in more detail.
1. Deciding what to include in the photo
As a photographer it’s up to you to decide what to include in your photo. When you’re photographing a scene, have a think about what needs to be included in the composition. For example, in the photo below I thought about how much of the building to include, and how much empty space to leave above the trees.
There’s no right answer to questions like these, it’s a matter of exploring the possibilities, maybe trying different focal lengths or moving closer to the subject, trusting your instinct and doing what feels right to you.
When it comes to the background of your photos, especially photos like portraits where there’s a clear distinction between subject and background, you also need to think about how sharp the background should be. This is as well as thinking about how much of it to include.
With portraits and similar subjects you can use a short telephoto lens with a wide aperture to blur the background. This is something you might do if the background is messy or distracting. Or you can stop down so the background is sharper. This is helpful when the background tells a story about the model, or is interesting enough to be rendered sharply.
You can see a couple of examples below, both made with a 56mm lens on an APS-C camera. In the first (left), I set the aperture to f3.2 to blur the background. It’s not completely out of focus (an aperture of f1.2 would have been great for that) as I wanted to show the artist in his workshop. It had to be sharp enough for you to see the setting, and blurred enough not to be a distraction.
In the second (right) I used f5.6 because I needed more of the background to be in focus. The texture of the concrete block behind the dancer and the stones on the beach are an important part of the composition, and needed to be sharp.
2. Deciding what to leave out of the photo
This is similar to the first idea, but looking at it from a different direction. Instead of thinking about what should be included in the composition, think about what can be left out instead. This involves thinking about what’s important in the composition, then framing it so that anything that’s not important is cropped out. That might mean you need to move in closer, or to use a different focal length, or just do the best you can depending on the situation.
The photos below show how it works. I made the first (left) from the angle I first came across the street performer. But as I made the photo, I realized that the photo would look better without the posters in the background. So I moved in front of him and made the photo you see on the right, with a much simpler background.
3. Deciding where to place the subject in the composition
Now you’ve thought about what needs to be included in the photo, and what needs to be left out, it’s time to think about where to place the subject. Hopefully you’ll find that the resulting composition has a natural place in the frame for your subject.
Just like the rule of thirds, you’re thinking about placement. It’s just that you’re coming at it from a different direction. Instead of asking yourself if you should place the subject on a third, you’re asking where’s the natural place for the subject in the frame, after you’ve decided what to include and what to leave out. Hopefully that makes sense.
In the street portrait above, for example, the center of the frame was the natural place to position the subject. I like the way he was framed by the doorway on the right and the line made by the way the wall sticks out on the left.
If I had been thinking about the rule of thirds, and the rule of thirds alone, I would probably have come up with something like the composition on the left. But because I was thinking of what needed to be in the photo (the street performer) and what needed to be left out of it (the posters) I came up with the composition on the right. A different mental framework, a different result.
Let me finish with another example. Here’s a photo that I made in China, of two men playing a board game in the street.
When you look at the photo you can see that I had choices. I could have moved in closer and concentrated on the game board. I could have stepped back and included more of the people playing the game. But I didn’t want to do either of those things. I wanted to capture enough of the scene to tell the story – so the viewer can see that there are two men playing a game.
I also wanted to include clues to the story without revealing everything. You can’t see the face of the man on the right. The blue transparent socks of the man on the left are strangely interesting (to me at least). The sandled feet at the top of the frame belong to somebody watching the game.
This technique of including details, but not revealing everything, leaves something to the viewer’s imagination. It adds a little mystery to the photo. It makes people curious, wanting to see more. All this is a result of the decision about what to include and what to leave out of the photo.
You can learn more about all aspects of creative composition with my ebook Mastering Composition. It has 20 heart-felt lessons that take you on a journey beyond the rule of thirds, exploring the other aspects of composition you need to understand to create beautiful images.
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