Reviewing Photo Composition

Tonight on the train ride home from San Francisco, I was working on a some photos from my recent trip to the Redwoods. The first day of that trip found me in Eureka where I was able to get up early to catch sunrise over Humboldt Bay. Tonight, I was focused on four photos that I took from the same spot, just composed differently. It struck me as I worked on these photos how each one has a different feel due to it’s composition. I thought it might be fun to walk through how I look at the composition of each of these images. (click on each image to open up a larger version)

Composition I is the widest view of the scene. This was the first photo that I composed, noticing the rower coming across the bay my instincts kicked in and I knew I would have to act fast to place him in as many of my shots as I could. In general, I think this image is a bit too busy: with the row boat in lower center, and the sailboat on the right, and power plant in the distance the photo feels out of balance to me.

Composition II is more balanced and stronger. With the seaweed floating in the water in the foreground, your eye is lead into the the scene. The row boat on the left in the lower left corner and the horizon with the power plant on the lower third, this image feels more balanced. The empty space at the top helps the image to breath. Following the golden triangles, the rower is near the cradle with the power plant landing in the second largest triangle and the wind blowing the steam toward the empty space of the largest triangle. Or flipping your golden triangles, the seaweed is in the smallest triangle leading your eye toward the rower in the second largest triangle. And the the wind is blowing the steam along the long edge of the largest triangle.

Composition III is also well balanced and stronger than I. With the rower out of frame, your eye is focusing on just the sailboat with the power plant in the background. Using a golden spiral, the spiral ends right on the sailboat with the sweeping arch passing over the power plant. Also, the fact that the wind is blowing the steam from the power plant away from the sail boat helps to reduce and conflict in the image, it flows better from foreground to background.

Composition IV is the weakest of the tighter variations of I. With just the power plant in the image, there is nothing to lead you into the photo. Using golden triangles again, the steam is still following the longest diagonal line and the the large smoke stack falls just outside the cradle. However, the single layer of depth of this image weakens it overall.

If your new to the concepts of the rule of thirds, golden triangles, and the golden spiral and your a Lightroom user there is good news. When you activate the Crop and Straighten tool in Lightroom’s Develop module, you get all of these tools to help with your composition. Under the View menu you have the Overlay Tools option…I always leave this turned on. When you activate the Crop tool, you will see a Crop Grid Overlay displayed on top of the photo, most likely the Rule of Thirds overlay. The trick is you can use the “O” key to cycle through the other overlay grids. If the overlay isn’t lining up correctly with your photo, you can hold down the shift key and press “O” again to adjust the orientation of the overlay. Great way to learn composition rules by doing.

Here are screenshots from Lightroom 2 of each composition with the grid overlay tools visible:


If your looking for more information on these composition rules, check out these other resources online:

Hopefully this self exploring lesson in composition has opened your eyes up to a new way to look at your own work.

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