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Composition by Jess Buttermore

Composition by Jess Buttermore

Picture this. You capture a beautiful image of one of your children at a lovely location, edit it in a way that makes your heart sing and then step back to study it, only to realize that something wasn’t quite right. You can’t put your finger on it, but something is definitely off. Has this ever happened to you? Chances are, it was the composition. Often overlooked and underemphasized, composition can truly make or break an image.

By definition, composition is how you arrange your subject and other visual elements in your image. Just as light, movement and emotion help tell a story, so does the configuration of your subject and the overall scene. When I pick up my camera, composition is one of the most important aspects I consider.

So grab a cup of coffee and settle in because I’m here to give you the down low on how I approach composition every time I pick up my camera.

When I look through my lens and think about how I want to frame my image, I ask myself these key questions:

1. How can I ARRANGE the elements in my image to have the most visual impact?

How you arrange your subjects can really launch a photograph from good to great. In the image below, I wanted to capture both Jack and Maddie’s movement and connection as well as the sun rising above the mountains behind them. By placing my children in front of the sun and then shooting peeking sun from behind Jack’s shoulder, I was able to combine these two elements together, giving the image more visual impact than it would have had otherwise.

In the next image, I moved in nice and tight, choosing to arrange several details that I wanted to capture from this trip: our adventure box, the granite stone that is so classic to the particular beach we were visiting, and, of course, my daughter’s sandy toes. I put Maddie’s feet and the front corner of the box on one plane so that I could easily find focus on them both and then let the rock fall out of focus slightly. Here, I used the rule of thirds by positioning Maddie along the left vertical line and the rock along the bottom horizontal line.

In this next set of images, I used composition to capture two very different elements using the same subject and scene. In the first image, I centered Jack in the frame and snapped when the wave came in and Jack was looking down at the water. I moved him up into the center of the frame because I wanted the focus to be on the water as it came in and surrounded him and the rock. In the second image, I used the rule of thirds again, placing Jack along the right vertical line of my image and placing the pop color (his red boots) on the bottom horizontal line of the image, and then waited for the water to calm down so I could capture Jack gazing out into the distance. I felt as though the first image gave a feeling of excitement and movement while the second was more calm and serene.

I’ve found that properly centering and using the rule of thirds in the frame is critical because, otherwise, cropping the image after the fact can mean having to crop out some of the details of the image you would have otherwise preferred to keep.

2. Are there leading lines to consider?

The backdrop of an image can often beautifully frame your subject matter if composed intentionally. One way to create meaningful composition using your backdrop is to consider if there are leading lines that could direct the viewer’s eyes to your subject. Bridges, walkways, railings, sidewalks and railroad tracks are examples of leading lines. To position my subject, I simply draw a small “X” in the sand or place a leaf where I want my subject to stand. Other times, it’s easier for me to just align myself by taking a step or two to one side. Below are three examples of different ways leading lines can impact the composition of an image.

Leading lines that hit shoulder level.

Leading lines that reach above the subject and turn into a different direction.

Two different sets of leading lines working together.

To take leading lines one step further, in the image below, I used the gap between the two cliffs to draw the viewer’s eye to Jack as he walked toward the water. I waited for him to turn toward the water and then positioned myself so that his shoulders appeared between the cliffs and his head was just above the horizon line. This viewpoint draws the viewer’s eye to the center of the image and adds visual impact.

3. Where is my HORIZON LINE and is it straight?

I’m going to be honest with you right now, I couldn’t shoot a straight image if my life depended on it! About 90% of my images need straightening adjustments in post-processing and it’s always the first thing I do when I begin editing. But in addition to being straight, I prefer that my horizon line is not dead center across the middle of my image. To my eye, an image is more visually pleasing when the horizon line is just slightly higher or lower than the center cut.

Horizon line just slightly higher than the mid line of the image.

Horizon line just slightly lower than the mid line of the image.

4. How can I FRAME my subject or ANGLE my camera so that the image is more visually interesting?

In this image, I chose to position Jack so that he was down near the bottom of my frame. Then, I angled my camera so that I was shooting more downward. I wanted to still be able to see his face, but I also wanted to give a more dramatic feel of his positioning on the ledge near the water. I felt this angle gave the image more interest and I loved the negative space (in this case the water) surrounding him. He felt fearless out on that rock and I felt as though the image perfectly depicted both the moment as well as his adventurous spirit.

In the next image of my kids jumping the stream, I thought it would be fun to shoot the image from a low perspective. I found an area of the stream that was narrow and where there were a few larger rocks to stand on and photographed them as they hopped back and forth across the stream. I held my camera just inches from the ground and used the tilt option on my LCD screen (one of my favorite features of my Nikons) to easily capture focus, clicking as they jumped.

5. How can I use FOCUS to best tell the story behind this image?

If the backdrop is an important part of my image but my subject is closer to my camera, I may adjust my depth of field to capture the background clearly (usually bumping my f-stop up to 5.6 or higher). However, if I want the viewer’s entire focus to be on one subject matter in the forefront, I keep it down in the 1.8-2 range. Choosing a wider aperture ultimately lessens the importance of the objects in my background so that the focus is solely on my subject. Using aperture is an extremely powerful technique to composition because it allows you to control how your image is viewed.

In this image of my daughter, Maddie, jumping off the driftwood, I positioned myself so that she was slightly off to one side and then adjusted my aperture so that the lighthouse was decipherable but not in clear focus. My intention was for the viewer’s eye to be drawn to the movement and anticipation of Maddie preparing to jump, while ensuring that the landmark (the lighthouse) was present, lending to the feel of the image, without being a focal point.

6. Would the image be more pleasing to the eye if my subject was on the left side of the frame facing right or moving from left to right across the frame?

This is not something I take into consideration as much when shooting, but may be something I consider from time to time in post-processing. In some cases, an image “reads” better if the image guides the viewer’s eye to move naturally from left to right, so the human eye can read the image as it would a book. Flipping the image horizontally in Lightroom (under the Photo dropdown menu in the Development tab) so that the subject is facing or moving toward the right edge of the frame can be a simple change that has a big impact. In the flipped image, your eye is now drawn to the left side of the frame and then naturally moves with the person’s eyes or in the direction they are facing toward the right. (Note: it is important to consider if any aspect of the image will be negatively impacted by this mirroring affect before using this editorial technique. For example, text reading backward or a recognizable landmark that would be, well, less recognizable if flipped.)

There are so many different techniques and “rules” around composition that it can become quite daunting. The key is to experiment with them to find the ones that speak to you most and to narrow in a few composition rules that give your photography its own unique style. When all else fails, I rely on what looks the best to my own eye. Unless I’m particularly sleep deprived, I’ve found that my eyes rarely steer me wrong.

Over the years, composition has become a very natural part of photography for me, and I believe it is part of what makes my work recognizable to others. I’ve found that the more I consider these aspects when composing subjects and scenes behind my lens, the more finished my imagery becomes SOOC and the less work I have to do in post-processing. I can’t wait to see what magic you all make in the weeks to come with composition as your focus!

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