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Composition is one of the things that lifts the work of the greatest photographers above everybody else’s. Some photographers seem to have a natural eye for it, but there are principles that anyone can follow that will improve your composition. Here are three – I think of them as the three S’s of composition.
Make your photos as simple as possible. Think about what you want to include in the composition – and what to exclude.
Simplicity involves thinking about shapes, forms, patterns and lines. It requires an awareness of light, shadow, color and tonal contrast.
It takes time to learn to see these things. It needs discipline and practice and is a natural part of the process of developing creative vision.
Whenever you take a photo, ask yourself if you can simplify the composition by leaving anything out. The easiest way is often just to get closer to the subject, but you may also use techniques such as selective focusing or switching to a longer focal length.
This portrait is a good example. I deliberately positioned my model in the light so that there was a dark background behind her. I used a short telephoto lens (85mm on a full-frame camera) to help exclude anything that wasn’t relevant to the composition.
Simplifying the composition makes your message clearer. The exclusion process makes the visual elements you choose to retain more important. You can simplify the composition by getting closer to your subject. But you may also need to provide some space around the subject, to provide context and give the eye something to look at. Sometimes the subject simply needs room to breathe.
In this portrait the wall behind the model provides space.
Space and simplicity often go together. I’ve included space around the model but the composition is simple because the background doesn’t contain any distractions.
We are often attracted to high contrast, colourful images. They have impact and an instant wow factor. But do they have staying power? Often the answer is no. Bright colours and high contrast are relatively easy to create, but they can also be a sign of a lack of creativity, or artistic vision.
Subtle images often lack immediate impact but their presence lingers in the mind. Subtlety takes time to appreciate. It’s an indication that the photographer has taken the time to think about the creation of a photo.
This photo of a monkey is subtle. The light is soft and diffuse. The only bright colors are on its face. Other colors are muted.
The composition is also simple and has space. The three concepts work together.
That doesn’t mean that every photo you make should use all three S’s (simplicity, space and subtlety). There are times when a complex composition is the best choice, or that the subject doesn’t need much space, or that the composition needs to be strong and bold. The three S’s are nothing more than tools – it’s up to the photographer to learn how to use them appropriately.