Photographic SuperCourse: Composition Page 2

Sometimes a "background" makes a good subject in itself. Here, it's sunrise reflections in a lake surface.

The white egret facing right in the background complements the dark heron facing left in the foreground. Try to use background elements to enhance the image, rather than detract from it.
A Bit About Backgrounds

It's easy to get so wrapped up in your main subject that you don't notice what's going on in the background. Rest assured, the camera will note and duly record whatever falls within the image frame, whether you notice it or not.

Ideally, the background elements should work with the subject to create a coherent "whole" picture. I lieu of that, at least the background shouldn't detract from the overall image.

With fast-moving action subjects, you can't carefully examine the background as you shoot. But you can inspect the background area before you shoot, and move to a different camera position if the background is distracting where you first set up.

Generally, it's best to try to photograph dark subjects against lighter backgrounds, and light subjects against darker backgrounds, but watch your exposure in these situations: Built-in camera meters are easily fooled by bright, dark or contrasty subjects, so it's best to switch to manual exposure mode and read just the subject, increasing the metered exposure by 1.5 stops or so if reading a light subject, or decreasing the exposure 1.5 stops or so if reading a dark subject (bracketing exposure is a good idea here). With the right lighting, you can get good shots of light subjects against light backgrounds, and dark subjects against dark ones.

Nature's Rorschach? Don't give up because the day is hazy—the haze hides a lot of junk in the background, simplifying things for photographer and viewer. What do you see when you look at this "inkblot"? (I see a tree-covered island reflected in a lake in the fog.)

A couple of strands of barbed wire, a bit of fence, the tip of a peak and a partly cloudy sky. What does it all mean? Dunno...but it's simple, and makes you wonder.

Two leaves, backlit and slightly off-center, against a plain sky. Not a great work of art, but a pleasant photo, and a good start on the road away from busyness.

One big problem with beginners' photos is busyness. They either try to cram everything they can into one picture, or they don't even notice all the stuff that's there. Well, the camera notices all. One easy way to make better photos is to simplify. Concentrate on a single subject for starters, and try to isolate it against a plain background.

Diagonal lines are more dynamic than vertical ones (which are more dynamic than horizontal ones). But you don't need an actual line in the photo to put this to good use—here, the gull's body forms a diagonal "line" in the image.

This image is composed entirely of lines. Late-afternoon sun adds color and contrast.

Here, the natural lines of The Wave lead the viewer's eye right to the doggie. Photo by Lynne Eodice

One common compositional rule is to use a line to lead the viewer's eye where you want it in the image (generally, into the picture). Like the other rules of composition, it's a good one, but don't become a slave to it.

Silhouettes by their very nature are contrasty. They work best with subjects whose outlines are readily identifiable. A birder could tell you these are great-tailed grackles posing...but they're obvious as birds to any viewer.

Here, there's contrast between dark/light, monochrome/color, and solid/lacy.

Contrasting colors can add interest to a shot,and often result in an image that works in color but not in black-and-white: These red berries and green leaves both reflect about the same amount of light, and thus would both reproduce as about the same shade of gray in a black-and-white photo.

Contrast adds interest to an image. It can be light/dark, contrasting colors, color/monochrome, solid/fragile—anything that grabs the viewer's eye.