The subject at our Shoot The Shit Room on Clubhouse this week was Composition and once again, the chat was led by Lisa with Neil Thomas Douglas.

Neil has spoken for us before at conferences on this subject and it’s something that he is very knowledgeable about and speaks passionately on. So I knew this would be an interesting discussion. I’ve pulled out some tips for us all from the chat.

1. Left to Right

Be conscious that people will naturally read an image from left to right if that’s how they read text. So in Western Culture that is almost always true. The eye will land on the left first. So if your subject is on the left, there is no ‘journey’ for the eye to take. Putting the subject on the right feels more engaging. You could also place another important element on the right to draw the eye or balance your image. 

2. Positive and Negative Space

In any given image, the subjects occupy the Positive Spaces and any areas without clutter are the Negative Spaces. You can use Negative Space to surround your Positive Space – or your subject – to give it more definition and importance. You can choose to give up more of your frame for negative space and this draws the eye to the busy parts. There’s not much for it to engage with in the negative space but it can signpost the eye to where it should be looking. Balancing the Positive and Negative Spaces is like the Yin and Yang of your composition.

3. Use Camera Tools

If you think about all the images that you admire taken in the pre-digital era, they were all taken on cameras with much less assistance in them than our current cameras.The tools that we take for granted now like in camera light meters, did not exist in cameras until relatively recently. Our kit is now set up to assist us compose much more technically correct images so make sure that you are accessing these useful parts of your camera. In your viewfinder, switch on the grid, to assist you to make accurate choices on whether your image is centrally composed or on the rule of thirds. If your camera has a built-in spirit level, ensure that is switched on. This is one of my favourite developments in cameras as it seems I can never shoot straight if left to my own devices. Then try to train your brain to check these just before pressing the shutter. It’s easy to get carried away in a moment if the scene before you looks great but stop yourself for a second and think, is this intentionally composed?

4. How Much Sky?

Neil has a super simple rule for this. If the sky is interesting let it fill two thirds of the frame. If it’s not, use the foreground to fill two thirds of the frame. Again, having your viewfinder grid and spirit level will assist with this. Here, you can see that his sky fills the top third of the frame and the sun is creating a line that draws the eye to the couple. Another tip is to never have your horizon cutting into your subject’s heads. This jars the eye and feels afflictive. When you shoot check where your horizon line is in relation to your subject and move position until it is agreeable.

Image by Neil Thomas Douglas

5. Leading Lines

Our eyes are easily drawn, they like to follow a path. They feel more comfortable when they are led around a frame. So use the possible lines in a scene to your advantage. We see in 3 dimensions with the two lenses in our eyes. Cameras see in 2 dimensions with a single lens. The flattening into 2-D is often what makes up the compositional elements to an image. Choose which ones that will assist your viewer on the journey that you want them to take. Changing where you place your camera can turn many elements into leading lines. These buildings became the leading lines to my subject in this shot.

Image by Devlin Photos

6. Composing with Colour

The above shot is also a good example of how you can use colour when placing elements in your frame. By shooting at Blue Hour, the ambient light forms a swathe of blue for the top two thirds of my frame and then the buildings are lit with an orange tungsten light. As complimentary colours, these two sing when placed next to each other, creating an harmonious shot.

7. Framing With The Brightest Element

Like magpies, we are drawn to the brightest element in any scene. So this can be another great compositional tool for you to deploy. Frame your subject with that brightness and they will stand out from the rest of the picture. Neil does this a lot with water as he shoots plenty of elopements out in the Scottish landscape. But equally you could create impact with simple backlighting or by finding a reflection. Next time you have an obvious bright spot in front of you when you are shooting try this technique for yourself. Change your position until the subject is within the brightness with some breathing space around them. This feels comfortable to the eye.

Image by Neil Thomas Douglas

8. Use Light and Shadow to Compose

Every single image you take is made up of light and shade. You can use these as your compositional elements. Here Neil has a relatively dark frame, with the couple in a small pool of light. They are walking out of the frame on the right side which creates a sense of mystery, we can’t see what they are walking into. As we read this image from left to right though, our eye is drawn over the LOVE ME words which sets this up as a romantic picture even before the eye arrives at the couple. You can always use your post production tools to intensify the contrast between the dark and light. 

Image by Neil Thomas Douglas

Finally, I would like to point out that all rules can be broken and many successful images do. The skill is to learn the rules before you attempt to break them and that way you will understand exactly what it is that you are breaking and approach it with intention, not potluck.

Ansel Adams was renowned for his very careful landscape compositions, he was meticulous in both composing them and in managing their post production. He loved to play with the rules. Look at the iconic Grand Tetons and Snake River from 1942 – the viewer is invited to start their journey around this image on the right, not the more comfortable left. This is a rebellious composition from the start.

Image by Ansel Adams

Neil took influence from this image and created this while in Iceland…

Image by Neil Thomas Douglas

It is fantastic composition and a wonderful homage to Adams.

If you’d like to study composition more then we recommend a couple of books 

The Photographer’s Eye by Michael Freeman

Portraits by William Eggleston

Plus Neil highly rates this talk over on the B&H Youtube channel – Better Photographic Composition | Beyond the Rule Of Thirds by David Brommer.