Taking your photography up a notch means understanding and using some common, but often overlooked, elements of composition. Ranging from the classic rule of thirds to the more obscure, these tips give you a complete tour, with examples throughout.
1. Centered Composition
We’ll start off with the simplest element, which is often overlooked and even shunned because it is so basic. Centering is what most people who are starting out as photographers default to - after all - the focus point on your camera by default is usually smack bang in the centre, right?
Once you learn to move that focus point around and expand your compositional repertoire, centered composition may seem overly simplistic, however, it does have its place. Centering can be used to create a sense of calmness, stillness and serenity. It can also work hand in hand with another compositional element - symmetry (which we’ll talk about later).
Square format - where Instagram reigns king - is the ideal aspect ratio for centering and you’ll see many successful images on this popular social media platform that utilise it well.
This image of Jett works by using centering mainly due to his focused gaze directly into the camera and his body oriented straight forwards. The simplistic environment, with no competing elements, and straight horizon also compliment the decision to use centering in this shot.
Canon EOS 1D X, Canon EF 24-70mm ƒ/2.8L II @ 24mm, ISO 1600, 1/1250 sec, ƒ/2.8
2. Leading Lines
Using leading lines is a great way to draw the viewers attention to where you want it - your furry subject! Leading lines often go hand in hand with perspective created by man-made objects such as roads, train lines, bridges, jetties or in the case of this shot - hand railings, buildings and staircases.
Leading lines can occur in nature as well and don’t need to be straight. The lines of a curving road or a tree branch, perhaps some hills on the horizon - leading lines can be found in many unexpected places.
Have a look through some of your photos and see if you can identify where you’ve used leading lines to draw attention to the subject - either intentionally or unintentionally!
Canon EOS 1D X, Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/4L IS @ 16mm, ISO 1000, 1/200 sec, ƒ/4 (OCF used)
P.S. This is Shiloh, she was photographed for the Tails of Brisbane project.
Another rather straightforward technique used to draw attention to the subject within an image is framing.
In this case, Clive here is perfectly framed within the chair - with the chair cushion forming a kind of “frame within a frame”. The framing has been accentuated with symmetry and centering, but framing can also be achieved organically as well using natural elements such as foliage of trees and bushes.
Canon EOS 1D X, Canon EF 100mm ƒ/2.8L Macro IS, ISO 2000, 1/500 sec, ƒ/3.5
Pattern can be a tricky element to incorporate into pet photography as often we’re working in natural environments, but it can be done if you always keep an eye out for opportunities - you’ll find many more opportunities for patterns when shooting in urban environments.
Patterns can form part of the (or the entire) background - say a pattern of bricks on a wall - or repeated elements within the image such as a fence or railing or even a natural element like a row of trees. The pattern can be emphasised by staying unbroken - or the pattern can be interrupted - perhaps with a removed part of the pattern - or one item that doesn’t quite fit the pattern.
Multiple dogs themselves can even form a pattern in the image - how about a row of puppies? Or a row of puppies, with one sneaky kitten in there to break the pattern?
In this image of Sascha the Husky, the pattern is formed by the white railings of the jetty, repeating all the way along. To emphasise this, Sascha herself forms part of the pattern - the line of her back echoing the diagonal lines present in the railing. In a way, she compliments the pattern - but she also breaks it up.
Canon EOS 1D X, Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS II @ 200mm, ISO 400, 1/800 sec, ƒ/3.5
5. Rule of Thirds
The “rule of thirds” is probably the most well known and widely used rule of composition - and for good reason - it’s probably the most easily understood and effective rule of them all.
The basic idea is to divide your image into thirds - both horizontally and vertically. This creates a grid and gives you 4 main lines on which to place important parts of your image - such as the subject itself, horizon lines, eyes or anything you want to draw attention to.
In this shot of Hudson the Sheltie, his sparkly sharp eyes are placed directly on the top horizontal third line.
If you click through to the blog post to see the non-square crop of this shot with overlaid “rule of thirds” lines, you’ll see his body is also placed against the second vertical third line. Because he’s looking off to the left-hand side of the image, this helps to give him space to look into, as well as creating a more interesting composition.
When you crop images in Lightroom, it gives this automatic overlay to help you crop the image according to the rule of thirds - I find this really handy.
Canon EOS 1D X, Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS II @ 200mm, ISO 500, 1/800 sec, ƒ/2.8
6. Negative Space
Today we’re focusing on negative space - the area of your image not taken up by the subject. It’s a universal element of composition also widely used in design, sculpture and architecture, as well as photography.
Negative space is often an important element - the “blank” space surrounding a subject helps to emphasise the subject, providing breathing room in the image and drawing your eye to the subject - emphasising it’s importance.
When using negative space, consider using other elements of composition to help place your subject within the frame.
In this image, you’ll notice I have composed using the rule of thirds - placing Rogue on the first “third line” from the left - but also centered from top to bottom.
When using negative space - be generous - don’t feel as though you need to cram every pixel with “something”. If your subject is looking anywhere but directly at you - make sure you leave more space on that side for them to “look into”.
“Head space” is also an important consideration - for portrait style images - always leave more space above the subject’s head than below their feet. Unless you’re going for a close crop for other design reasons, give your subject room to breathe!
Canon EOS 1D X, Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS II @ 165mm, ISO 250, 1/2000 sec, ƒ/2.8
7. Balancing Elements
Placing your subject off to one side when using the Rule of Thirds or another compositional technique can sometimes leave the image feeling a bit “empty” on the other side. Negative space can be great, but if the subject is quite “heavy” in appearance the image can end up feeling out of balance. Adding an element of interest to balance the subject can address this.
Formal balance is more relevant when talking about a centered, symmetrical image when it’s very obvious both sides of the image are in perfect balance.
Informal balance is more relevant when taking about Balancing Elements, and can refer to objects that are not identical but have a similar “feel” and weight.
In this semi-silhouette of Logan at the beach - his silhouette and reflection is quite a heavy element on the left. The area of sandbar on the right helps to balance the weight of this.
Canon EOS 1D X, Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS II @ 70mm, ISO 100, 1/1000 sec, ƒ/4
Symmetry, also referred to as symmetrical balance, often goes hand in hand with centering, which was the very first element of composition we covered.
Symmetry occurs when there are equal weights on both sides of an image. It allows the image to feel stable and formal, but can also have the effect of feeling a little static, or boring.
To offset this, whenever you use symmetry, keep in mind you’ll need to give the image some extra interest in another way, to help keep the viewer absorbed.
In pet photography we have the perfect solution - a living subject that you can get interaction from to create expression and connection with the viewer.
This image of Layla works because of her direct, piercing gaze directly into the camera lens with those shiny sharp eyes. The interesting and colourful background also help draw us in. These elements keep the viewer engaged, despite the very straightforward composition.
Canon EOS 1D X, Canon EF 35mm ƒ/1.4L, ISO 1000, 1/800 sec, ƒ/1.8
Giving the impression of three dimensions via a two-dimensional medium is always a challenge. Adding depth to your images can be done in a number of ways and helps your viewer to fully explore the image, rather than just being a passive observer.
One technique you can use to create depth is to use perspective - we discussed using leading lines to do this last week. Another technique is to use framing - using foreground objects to create a frame and encourage the viewer to explore, by leading them into the image.
One of my favourite ways to create depth is to use layering. Including a definite foreground and background layer in the shot helps to “sandwich” the middle ground where the subject is, front to back while adding interest and depth.
In this shot of Shay the Border Collie, I’ve used foliage in the foreground and background and a shallow depth of field to help draw the focus to her. Backlighting is also used for effect here, to make her stand out even further against the background layer.
Canon EOS 1D X, Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS II @ 200mm, ISO 640, 1/1250 sec, ƒ/2.8
10. Filling the frame
Filling the frame is a compositional technique that is exactly how it sounds - filling the frame with your subject! Instead of using other methods to place the subject in the frame, surrounded by space or background elements, filling the frame with your subject puts them front and centre, right in the viewers face.
Filling the frame has the advantage of showing lots of detail - eyes, wrinkles, individual whiskers and hairs, black wet noses - all those little things pet owners love. Up close and personal, the expression and mood of the image becomes front and foremost and the background and context becomes much less important.
Shot blind and wide angle, this image of Booker and Eva, two playful Staffys, shows their relationship with each other. Filling the frame places less emphasis on where they are, instead highlighting their connection and what they love doing together.
Canon EOS 1D X, Canon EF 24-70mm ƒ/2.8L II @ 24mm, ISO 1600, 1/1000 sec, ƒ/2.8
Composition using the juxtaposition of one element with another is something not often used in pet photography, as we're often shooting in natural environments.
Juxtaposition is the technique of placing two contrasting, very different subjects in the same image. By emphasising the difference between the two, it draws attention to their unique characteristics. Sometimes it can even have the opposite effect and make the viewing think about the similarities they also possess.
In pet photography when working with multiple subjects, you could juxtapose a giant dog and a tiny dog, a black dog and a white dog, a hairy dog and a hairless dog. Anything, where there is a great difference between the two subjects, helps to emphasise those differences.
Alternatively, you can juxtapose a single subject with some other object in the image. In this shot of Lady Meatball (yes, her real name, translated from French!) in front of the enormous 2000-year-old Roman Aqueduct spanning the River Gard in southern France, we instantly see the differences between the two main elements.
Huge and tiny, old and new, hard and soft, animal and mineral.
But we also notice the similarities - the similar tones and the arches echoing the shape of her ears and even the shape of her body. And of course, a French Bulldog in front of a historic French structure!
Though little used, juxtaposition can be a fantastic and interesting composition technique in pet photography.
Canon EOS 1D X, Canon EF 35mm ƒ/1.4L, ISO 250, 1/640 sec, ƒ/2
12. Diagonals and Triangles
Somewhat related to “leading lines” - using diagonals and triangles in your images can help to draw the viewer’s eye into and through the image, “pointing” to important parts. Important elements can be placed along a diagonal, or perhaps at the intersection of converging diagonal lines.
While horizontal lines convey serenity, diagonals give a dynamic and energetic feel to the image, conveying action and creating tension.
This shot of Ted was taken as part of my #tailsofbrisbane project last year. In contrast to the stable, straight horizon line running through the centre - which complements and echoes Ted’s relaxed pose, there are two sets of diagonals - the bench seat that Ted is lying on - and the bridge overhead. Both of these “point” straight to the most important part of the image - Ted’s handsome face!
The diagonals also work together to create numerous dynamic triangles in the image - almost too many to count!
Canon EOS 1D X, Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/4L IS @ 16mm, ISO 320, 1/800 sec, ƒ/4
13. The Golden Ratio
The concept of the Golden Ratio dates back millennia to Greek and Roman mathematicians and has been utilised in maths, art and architecture ever since, particularly by the great Renaissance artists. If you're a geek like me and these kinds of things interest you, you can read more about the Golden Ratio on Wikipedia.
The ratio of 1:1.618, where it relates to two sides of a shape, is said to be the most aesthetically pleasing and balanced to the human eye - even appearing naturally in many patterns in nature.
In relation to photography, there are two main ways to use the Golden Ratio when composing (or later cropping) your images.
The Phi Grid at first looks similar to the Rule of Thirds, but instead of each third being equal, they use the Golden Ratio of 1:0.618:1 - resulting in the centre "box" being smaller than the outer boxes.
You can see this in practice in the below image, where Shadow's eye and little pink tongue lie on the intersection of the dividing lines.
Canon EOS 1D X Mark II, Canon EF 24-70mm ƒ/2.8L II @ 61mm, ISO 500, 1/1000 sec, ƒ/3.2
The second way to use the Golden Ratio in your photographic composition is to refer to what's called the Fibonacci Spiral. This aesthetically pleasing composition was written about by a 12th Century mathematician and was used extensively in Renaissance art - you'll find many classic paintings that adhere to the compositional technique.
Here's an example using this spiral shape to help the viewer move around the frame, emphasising the main subject and creating a sense of flow and movement around what are actually quite static subjects.
Canon EOS 1D X Mark II, Canon EF 24-70mm ƒ/2.8L II @ 24mm, ISO 160, 1/500 sec, ƒ/2.8
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