Throw all the rules on framing out of the window and compose to suit the subject instead
Centre your subject
We’re told never to place the subject in the very centre of the frame, but, as with all rules, there are exceptions…
One thing that often separates the amateur snap from the enthusiast’s composition is the placement of the subject. Non-photographers will often thoughtlessly plonk the subject in the middle of the frame, whereas those of us who have heard of basic compositional rules like the rule of thirds and the golden ratio know better – the subject looks more visually pleasing when placed off-centre on one of the third lines. Or does it?
The answer is, it depends what you want to say about a subject. A central subject gives images a directness, and can work well in a symmetrical composition, or for scenes with minimal background detail. It can also create a sense of isolation, as the subject is surrounded by space on all sides. Bill Brandt puts it like this: “A subject placed squarely in the centre of the frame, if attention is not distracted by fussy surroundings, has a simple dignity that makes it all the more impressive.”
Tilt your camera
A wonky horizon can add extra dynamism to both portraits and landscapes
We go to great lengths to ensure our horizons are straight, using tripodmounted spirit levels or our Nikon’s virtual horizon (top tip: set this up as your front Fn button for a quick horizon check when looking through your viewfinder). We even correct it in processing (see page 50).
However, while a slightly wonky horizon is never a good thing, an intentionally tilted frame can be another story. There’s something about diagonal lines in an image that are visually pleasing, and creative tilt can add extra dynamism to your composition. This can work well for portraits, as you can tilt diagonal lines so that they lead the eye through the image towards your subject. But it can also spice up a landscape, particularly with scenes (above right).
I am not interested in rules or conventions. Photography is not a sport
Shoot from the hip
Compose without looking through the viewfinder for loose, spontaneous and engaging photos
An excellent piece of advice when composing a frame is to scan the edges of the viewfinder before taking the shot. It’s the edges that go unnoticed, so unwanted distractions can easily creep into the corners of your scene. But when you think about it, the viewfinder can be a different type of distraction. It’s a barrier between you and whatever it is you’re photographing, and it covers up your most important means of communication – your face.
So why not take a maverick approach, free yourself from the confines of that rectangular box, and shoot from the hip? This works well for portraits; catch your subject offguard and grab a shot while they think you’re taking a break (left). It can also help if you want to be inconspicuous.
Focusing can be an issue, though, so try setting the focus manually and then judging it by distance. It’s an approach that’ll deny you compositional precision, but it’ll give you a fresh perspective on the world, and the people, in front of your lens.