Strong structure is the key to an interesting image. The structure and shapes provide a framework for the details of the image to hang from, and help guide the viewer through the image and maintain their interest.
There are a number of different techniques you can use to create structure. Knowing when or in which combination to use them is a matter of practice and depends on your subject and knowing what you want to achieve.
Think in Two Dimensions
The first, and I think, most important thing to remember when composing a photograph is that an image needs to work in two dimensions, not the three you are used to. Therefore you cannot just take a photograph of a beautiful landscape and expect it to work as an image. The depth and distance that makes the landscape beautiful in reality will not translate to the photograph, which is why photos of landscapes can often be so disappointing. Instead, look for ways either to add a sense of depth or a really bold, strong shape.
Remember Foreground and Background
To improve your landscape photographs include something in the foreground. Foreground helps to give your photograph the illusion of depth and distance, and therefore entice the viewer to explore the photograph more. Often it is even better if you can include foreground and background elements that are related or complement each other, like two people looking at each other from a distance. A wall or path running into the photograph is also effective because it joins the foreground and background and provides a path for the viewer’s eye to follow.
In the example below, I stood inside a larger sculpture to take a landscape photograph of the sculptures opposite to add a foreground element and give a sense of depth.
Compare this with the image below which is the same photograph but cropped to demonstrate what it would look like without the foreground element.
In my opinion, nowhere near as interesting.
Foreground and background are important not just to provide image structure. Always remember background when taking a photograph of an object or person. Ideally if the focus of your image is the person or object in the foreground, you should try and ensure the background is as plain as possible. Look out especially for trees or lamp posts growing out of people’s heads. In the three-dimensions of real life you can see the tree or lamp post is in the background, but as soon as you photograph the scene the background and foreground are flattened and take equal precedence.
In the photograph below I shot Kris Akabusi with a plain background. Kris is in sharp focus while the background is slightly blurred to emphasise him. I didn’t completely blur the background because it, quite literally, explains who the focus of the portrait is.
Look for Shapes
Look for strong geometric shapes when composing your images. For example, taking a photograph of the corner of a building and pointing your camera slightly up or down will give the impression of a diamond shape which you can use to fill the photograph and create a compelling image.
Look for Lines
Repeating or converging lines can be used to organise a photograph and give it a compelling structure. When using repeating lines, look for a viewpoint that emphases where they converge, or makes them appear parallel to simplify your image at the same time, making it easier and more interesting to view.
Similar to the importance of a plain background, try and simplify your images as much as possible. Before you take your photograph, stop and think what it is you are taking a photograph of. If it’s a small detail focus in on that only. For example, if a flower has caught your eye, take a photograph of the flower only, not the flower bed. You’ll get a stronger composition and more interesting photo by focusing exactly what it is you want to photograph. Trying to capture a whole scene is often not the best way to go.
Get Close and Zoom Out
Often the best way to get a strong composition and simplify an image is to get as close as you can to an object (we’ll come on to people in a moment). One way to do this is to use your camera’s widest zoom setting and physically move your camera so the object fills the frame. This emphases the object in the foreground while throwing the background into soft focus, enhancing your image.
Stand Back and Zoom In
If you’re photographing people, zoom in with your camera and stand back as far as necessary to compose your shot. By standing back and using a longer zoom you minimise any distortions that appear when using your camera at its widest setting. Although this distortion enhances objects by making them appear bigger, it can make people’s proportions appear odd.
By using a longer zoom you also help to blur the background slightly, making the people in your photograph stand out more, enhancing your image.
Don’t forget to try these out in various combinations and to practice. Only be experimenting will you know what works and in what circumstances. Go try them for yourself.