Travel Photography
Pro Tips For Effective Composition

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Although several factors contribute to the success of our best travel pictures, effective visual design may be the most significant. For photographs with high viewer appeal, it's worth taking the time to make a pleasing composition. (Hearst Castle, California; Maxxum AF 24-85mm zoom at 24mm; f/16; Tiffen polarizer; Fujichrome Sensia II 100.)
Photos © 1998, Peter K. Burian, All Rights Reserved

Whenever I judge photo contests including a travel category, one fact quickly becomes apparent: picture-taking during vacation and other trips is not always taken seriously. The photographer who might spend hours making an exceptional landscape or portrait or architectural image tends to shoot quickly while traveling. Frankly, most of us are guilty of snapshooting at times, especially in locations that are entirely new to us. We become so overwhelmed by exotic surroundings that we shoot first and think about it later.

With today's sophisticated cameras, lenses, and color print films, almost anyone can produce sharp travel photos with correct exposures. On the other hand, very few of these technically-acceptable photos should satisfy the creative standards of the serious photographer. Granted, photographic excellence, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Still, most of us would agree on certain criteria. Cluttered backgrounds, partially-blurred foreground objects, tiny subjects dead center in the frame and overpowered by irrelevant space do not make for an appealing picture.

Primary factors in successful travel photography are thoughtful composition using visual harmony, dynamic tension, and effective image design. Consideration of these elements definitely improves our images. A badly composed photograph will lessen appreciation of any picture, even if the viewer does not recognize the reason. Today's "intelligent" SLR cameras can almost take the picture for you, but they have yet to be programmed to seek out and arrange the visual elements for well-balanced images. Although most photographers already know many of the principles of composition, it's worth refreshing your memory, especially with techniques you have not used recently.

Many photographers find that effective composition can become intuitive with experience. This is certainly true with straightforward subject matter such as this, but more complex situations do benefit from thoughtful planning of image design. (Maxxum AF 24-105mm D zoom; Tiffen 812 and B+W polarizer; Fujichrome Velvia.)

The Intersection Of Thirds
The traditional way of creating a well-balanced picture, the "Rule of Thirds" is a useful guideline that has been used by painters for centuries. That's because the center of any picture is not a usual resting place for the eye and a central composition is static, not dynamic. Imagine that your camera's viewing screen is etched with grid lines, resembling a tick tack toe game. As you view the subject--whether a blossoming cherry tree in Washington, DC, a distant pyramid, or a deserted house in a ghost town--place the subject at one of the intersecting points. This technique works equally well with a horizontal and a vertical framing and is far more effective than a dead center, bull's eye composition.

Emphasize dramatic skies by placing the horizon low in the frame, along the lowest line in your imaginary grid. If the sky is dull, but important to the story, place it at the highest line. When the subject is quite large in the frame, as in a close-up portrait, place the most important subject element--the closest eye, perhaps--at an intersecting point. This will be one of the two top points to avoid excessive empty space above the subject.

Hint: In many off-center compositions with a small center of interest, there will be some "empty" space in the frame. Try to include a secondary, smaller or more distant object, too. This will offer a resting place for the viewer's eye as it explores the rest of the picture area.

While off-center framing is often very effective, some architectural subjects do benefit from an emphasis on symmetry. This works best when there is no single, obvious center of interest. (San Antonio, Texas; Leica M6 TTL with 28mm Leica lens; Manfrotto tripod; Kodak Elite Chrome 100.

In most cultures we read from left to right, and tend to scan a picture in this manner as well. Hence, placing the primary subject closer to the left side of the frame is usually appropriate. If it is in the dead center we are less likely to explore the other areas. With a moving subject leave plenty of space for it to "travel into." With a static subject--whether a person or animal--leave space for the subject to look into if it is gazing to the side.

Basic Compositional Techniques
Unlike painters who start with a blank canvas and add only pertinent subject matter, photographers must usually work to exclude many extraneous elements. Hence, simplification is generally the principle compositional goal in photography. Start by deciding the specific purpose of the picture and then rely on the following techniques.

  • Fill the frame. "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." Wise words from World War II photojournalist Robert Capa and probably the most useful photographic advice. If you cannot walk up to the subject, switch to a longer lens to shoot portraits instead of snapshots. When the situation presents vertical lines, use a matching camera orientation to avoid wasted space at the edges of a frame. Otherwise, crop the print or trim the picture with image-editing software.
  • Camera orientation is the most basic compositional decision that we make. With this tall clown, vertical framing seemed most logical, but the horizontal image proved to be more successful because I wanted to include his arm and hand. (Maxxum AF 24-120mm D; Fujichrome Provia 100F.)

    Find a clear center of interest. Instead of forcing the viewer's eye to roam around the picture, searching for something to observe, include some specific object that will achieve this goal. Whether that's a Beefeater in London or a small boat on the Ganges River, make it the focal point of the image to achieve your intended purpose.

  • Strive to present a clear message. In wide angle compositions, exclude superfluous elements such as very bright areas that will pull the viewer's eye from the primary subject. Crop competing subject matter by changing your shooting position, perhaps working from a low level to frame the subject against the sky. Defocus background clutter by using a longer lens with a wide aperture, such as f/4.
  • Frame The Subject
    Especially in land or cityscape and architectural photography, a large part of the image area will be sky. While a deep azure blue expanse can add to the appeal of an image, a pale sky can be distracting. You can eliminate much of the sky in some cases by moving closer, switching to a longer lens, or cropping the image later. If neither approach seems just right, try to find some object in the foreground to use as a frame above the primary subject. Some commonly found framing devices include an archway, gate, door, or window and a branch covered with foliage.

    Especially in compositions with an excessive amount of sky, a framing device can be quite effective. While archways can be ideal, they are rare, making trees and foliage a more commonly used subject. (Salt Lake City, Utah; Nikon AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8; B+W polarizer; Fujichrome Velvia.)

    Unless you notice an obvious framing object, you may need to explore the area to find one; this may call for changing your intended vantage point before taking the picture. Look for a framing object that has some aesthetic value on its own. Pleasing shapes such as archways, interesting brick work, colorful doorways, overhanging branches with brilliant fall colors, or spring blossoms are all effective. The frame should complement the subject. A centuries old mosque for example, is unlikely to benefit from a frame provided by a new concrete structure covered with graffiti, unless you're trying to make a specific point (architectural contrast) in the image.

    Try to avoid framing devices that are excessively large, stunning, or colorful. After all, you don't want to draw the viewer's eye from the center of interest. If it is much darker than the subject, or in deep shade, it may be rendered as a silhouette; simply take the meter reading from the brighter background. If it is fairly close, fill flash can provide a brighter effect; try shooting the situation with and without flash.

    A framing subject near the bottom of a picture can be equally useful, filling in empty expanses of grass or clutter. A colorful flower garden, the rocks of an ancient farm fence, a small hill, shrubs, farm implements, etc. are but a few possibilities. Again, make sure they are complementary to the subject. Use care with depth of field to avoid a partially-blurred foreground, which can be extremely distracting.

    If you include an overhead framing object, plan to render it sharply or completely blurred (defocused). With architecture, it's best to keep the frame sharp. Use a small aperture such as f/22 and a wide angle lens; focus at a point about 1/3 of the way into the image area, to keep both the foreground and more distant background within the depth of field.

    With natural objects such as foliage, you may wish to completely blur away the frame into a soft wash of color; use a wide aperture, such as f/4 and a telephoto lens. Focus at or near infinity. Decisive tactics of this type make for stronger pictures than the wishy-washy f/8 often selected by a camera's Program mode.

    Effective visual design may seem nebulous because there are no clear-cut guidelines. However, certain factors are worth considering: unity of design, complementary or contrasting color, repetitive shapes, and a consistent theme reinforced by each element. (Caribbana Parade, Toronto; Nikon AF 80-200mm f/2.8; SB24 flash; Fujichrome Sensia II 100.)

    Effective Visual Design
    If you take a college course in fine arts, you'll find entire semesters devoted to the many principles of effective composition. At the risk of oversimplifying the issue, here is a brief summary of a few concepts that I often find useful in travel photography.

  • Compose boldly. Consider other elements of art when looking for a picture in any vast scene. Look for the rhythm of repetitive elements, a dynamic diagonal, contrasting color, texture, or shape, and a unity of design.
  • Create a sense of depth. For a three-dimensional "feel" in a two-dimensional picture, use a wide angle lens and include subjects in the foreground, mid-ground, and background. A leading line plus some overlap of the elements can help here, whether the subject consists of a street scene or a pristine beach with colorful umbrellas.
  • Find leading lines. Particularly with landscapes and panoramic city scenes, it's worth trying to find some subject element that will lead the viewer's eye into the image: from left to right or the bottom to the top. Such objects include a road receding toward a distant town, ice floes in water leading to a glacier, the graceful "S" curve of a river flowing from a mountain, or a series of fishing boats at various distances from a village. Consider some of the suggestions in the section on framing, as these apply to leading lines as well: complementary subject matter, depth of field, color, aesthetics, etc.
  • Try diagonal compositions. Diagonals can be effective, especially when the line runs from one corner of the image to the other. Such framing may produce an image composed of two triangular sections; in that case, include important subject matter in both triangles to maintain balance. At a local market in some exotic location, for example, place the lines of a stall on a diagonal, including colorful vegetables in one image area and the vendor in the other. With moving subjects, a diagonal composition has another advantage: it can help to convey an impression of movement or steepness. For example, for a photo of a Jeep climbing a moderate Utah hill, tilt the camera to make the incline appear much steeper to make a more effective image.
  • Experienced photographers will often break the "rules" of composition--to make a point or create a mood. Before doing so, it is worth knowing and practicing proven concepts and guidelines. After they become second nature, begin to experiment. For example, you might try placing a circular subject in the center for formal symmetry, include urban clutter around an ancient monument, or place a medieval character so he is looking out of the frame for a sense of tension. But do so knowingly and intentionally. Finally, edit carefully and show only your most successful travel images to others. That way, your reputation as an accomplished photographer will grow.

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