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Digital photography is a means of individual expression, which makes it an art form. Whether you’re shooting for leisure and fun, such as a family vacation, or being paid to shoot a wedding, portrait or other assignment, you are creating art. You must compose an image within the frame of your viewfinder, just as a painter does within the borders of a canvas. You are capturing a single view of reality, so others can appreciate what you saw that prompted you to take a picture of a scene, object or person.
As you develop your photographer’s eye and mind, it is important to understand the concept of composition consciously, and then be able to apply the concept unconsciously. Like any skill, once you’ve learned and practiced it, eventually you will use that skill without even thinking about what you are doing. That is a worthy goal for any digital photographer because once you achieve it all your photos will be better, family snapshots or professional images.
Don’t confuse framing with composition, although many photographers do. Framing is simply the movement of your camera and/or you to find the best angle and view of the photo you want to compose. You move your camera to the right or left, higher or lower or zoom the lens. Often, what needs to be moved the most to take better pictures is you. Another simple technique that many amateurs fail to understand and use. With the widespread use of photo editing software, many photographers actually decide on the final framing of a shot with a cropping tool.
It’s easy to be a framer of photos; it takes some thinking and effort to be a composer. By definition, composition is also rather simple: the pleasing display of elements (objects and subjects) within the frame of your viewfinder that strongly draws people into your photos and holds them for as much time as possible. Composition reveals the relationship between objects and subjects, and provides you with the ability to change those relationships, which you can’t do with framing.
Whether it’s digital photography or fine-art painting, composition begins with streamlining or simplifying the elements within an image. The second step to better-composed photos is to eliminate all the unnecessary elements or distractions. Simplify and eliminate are the action words for composition. The tricky part is to keep those two actions in balance. Try these techniques to simplify and eliminate.
Move closer to the image you want to shoot to simplify the relationships between a few key elements.
Scan the edges of your framing for any distracting elements, especially partial elements, such as one little leaf at the end of a limb that has drifted into your frame—and eliminate it by moving closer yet.
Once you’ve simplified and eliminated, move your camera and/or yourself to various angles to find the one view that gives your composition the most balance.
Another technique that many photographers use is to disregard objects, subjects or details, as recognizable elements. Instead, they defocus their eyes and see a person, for example, as a basic shape first. Viewing objects and subject as basic forms makes it easier to compose a digital photo that captures the strong relationship between those objects and subjects; and that makes for better pictures and more people interested in seeing them.
When you’re able to use this technique successfully, composition will cross from a conscious effort to an unconscious action. Your mind will see the shapes of objects and subjects subconsciously, which is where an excellent composition is created. That’s important because the subconscious is also where the viewers of your photos will decide if you have composed a photo that attracts and holds them; and that is also where their minds will enjoy the experience the most.