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Key to Composition: Don't 'Take' Photos, Make Them

June 04, 1988|ROBERT LACHMAN | Times Staff Writer

The dictionary defines composition as an "arrangement of parts so as to form a unified, harmonious whole." It's a simple definition of what can be a complex problem. And it's also the most important factor to consider when you want to improve your photographs.

You need to change your thought process when shooting pictures, breaking away from the idea of "snap" shots. Don't take pictures, make them. Learn to create as you shoot.

If you break composition into its parts, it's easier to understand. Master just a few of the components and you will see a marked difference in your photographs. What follows is a guide to help you acquire a photographic eye.

The Eye: Your eye is an incredible machine, a high-tech computer far superior to any camera. Use your camera as an expression of the way you see. Look through the viewfinder and think.

In Search of: Good photos don't just happen; you have to seek them out. Like most anything else in life, practice and hard work are the only ways to improve. Buying an expensive camera and carrying the world's largest gadget bag won't improve your photos.

Plan: Do your homework before you start. Design a game plan before you shoot. Anticipate any problems that may arise. You should expect the unexpected and make it work for you. Consider your options before you put film in the camera. Will you be shooting slide or print film, color or black and white, available light or flash? Consider your lenses, angles and lighting.

Subjectivity: Only you know what you like, so follow your instincts. Photography isn't an exact science. It's OK to break some rules.

Emotion: Exceptional photos can evoke an emotional response. Asking your subject to say "cheese" will bring a boring reaction.

Appreciation: Most people don't appreciate the ease in which photos can be taken. Everything is automatic. You don't need additional light meters or a degree in chemistry to take good pictures. Technology allows you to concentrate more on the creative side.

Enjoy: You must enjoy taking pictures in order to take good pictures.

Practice: When it comes to photography, practice may not make perfect but it usually makes it a little better. Just go out there and shoot, then shoot some more and, finally, shoot even more. Don't hesitate to experiment.

Light: Pay attention to your light source. This will create the aura or mood of your photographic expression. Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to take pictures, even if you think there's not enough light. In low-light situations, hold the camera still or try a tripod but keep shooting. Many great photos are taken during inclement weather and low light. Learn to use the light to your advantage.

Imagination: Use and challenge your imagination. This is what separates the good photographer from the bad.

Ask Yourself: Why do some people always take memorable pictures? Why do their photos have impact? They follow a few simple rules and use the camera as an extension of their creativity.

Keep It Simple: First, decide what your subject is and the composition should follow. Next, avoid any related subjects that will make a picture confusing.

Eliminate Distracting Elements: Make sure you check your background. You should move around to keep telephone poles, trees, lamps and wires from being distractions. Change your point of view. Move in closer. Change your depth of field. If the background is important, position your subject accordingly.

Rule of Thirds: Move your subject out of the center. Imagine that there are tick-tack-toe lines in your viewfinder and place your subject at the intersection of the converging lines. By using this rule, your composition will improve instantly and if you use the open space correctly it will draw the reader to the subject.

Pattern, Texture, Lines and Shapes: All photos have lines and geometric shapes. Look for diagonals, S-curves, interesting shapes and recurring patterns. All subject matter takes on some form. Be aware of it and use it to your advantage.

Framing: Framing your subject will add dimension to your photo. Don't be afraid to use the branches of a tree or the arch of a doorway to your advantage. Proper framing can also add additional perspective to your photographs.

Cropping: Be aware of what you're leaving in or cutting out of a photograph. Don't just indiscriminately crop off hands or feet. Picking a horizontal or vertical format may change the way you crop your picture.

Think: Putting all this together means you must focus, frame the subject and finally shoot.

Edit: Don't torture your friends. Throw out the photos that are out of focus. Toss out the photos where the expressions are bad or eyes are closed. If you're shooting an important photo, take more than one frame. Remember, it's nearly impossible to get a group of people together and shoot one photo and get everyone with perfect expressions.

Afterward: Don't expect every picture to be perfect. If you make a few mistakes along the way, don't be disappointed. It's important to review your work with a critical eye to see what works best for you.

Rules are meant to be broken: Break the rules if a more dynamic and creative photo can be achieved.

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