While most of us recognise good composition when we see it, good composition is not something that comes naturally to many people. Like anything in photography, it is a skill that needs to be practised and learned. On a recent trip to Jigokudani Yaenkoen National Park, Japan, where he photographed the remarkable hot-spring loving snow monkeys (Japanese Macaque), Alfonso Calero outlined his approach to composition, and set out five valuable tips for anyone looking to improve their own composition skills.
01 LOOK FOR JUXTAPOSITION Finding different camera angles to convey your message visually can help clarify what you are trying to communicate. In the case of this lady squatting on the rock with her designer bag and point-and-shoot camera, I was intrigued by her boldness in getting so close to the wild monkeys. This is not a zoo, these monkeys are in a national park. The constant invasion of their private space and the photographer's determination to document her interpretation of her experience became part of the focus of my time at Jigokudani Yaenkoen National Park, Japan.
02 THE ART OF SUBTRACTION Photography is the art of subtraction. Countless photography books on composition refer to this in different ways. What it means is that photography is as much about what you leave out as what you leave in. Personally, I try to limit the number of elements in a photo to three. The first element is generally your subject – the point you want viewers to look at first. The second and third elements are often also referred to as the space around, above, below or behind our main subject. Try not to exceed three points. When you do exceed three points be sure to subtract points or areas that are not needed by simply changing your camera angle or getting in closer. Another way to balance your photo is to place your main subject in the middle (symmetrical) or off centre (asymmetrical), as in the rule of thirds. Always look at the space behind. Consider the distance from subject to background to choose a depth of field that suits your message best. In this case I used a shallow depth of field with an aperture of around f/2.8.
03 EXPOSURE After you have worked out your composition and are happy with the position of your main subject in the frame, the next thing to consider is exposure. Try to avoid overexposed highlights and underexposed shadows. Most cameras can be set up to show a warning if there are any underexposed or overexposed areas of the image. Use the exposure compensation control (most conventional cameras can go +/- 2 stops either way) to compensate as required. If the light is bright and there are plenty of hard shadows, you may need to return to the area when the light is more favourable – early morning and later afternoon provide the softest lighting conditions. If you shoot in Raw mode you will have more options to manage tone and colour in post-production.
04 LIGHT AND DARK Be aware that our eyes tend to gravitate towards the brightest area of an image. Generally speaking it's a good idea to avoid bright tones near the edge of the frame as they will distract from the subject and lead people's eyes out of the picture. Be aware of the tonal range on your three key compositional elements. Does the light detract from the subject or draw our eyes towards it? Darker tones near the border of the image will help draw the viewers eyes to the main subject and keep our eyes from venturing out of the frame.
05 CHECK THE EDGES Finally, it's a good idea to scan the edges of your photos before you press the shutter. Putting the subject too close to an edge, and not creating enough space, can sometimes create a feeling of being cluttered. If there are distracting elements in the background or foreground consider using a shallow depth of field to blur the offending elements. A shallow depth of field might be an aperture setting of f/2.8, f/4, or even f/5.6, whilst an extended depth of field could be f/11, f/16 or f/22. Remember we are making not taking photos!
Born and raised in the Philippines, Alfonso Calero moved to Australia at the age of 15. He graduated from the Sydney Institute of Technology with an Associate Diploma in Photography in 2001 and has been professionally photographing food, portraits, landscapes and travel subjects ever since. He started a travel education and tours company four years ago delivering workshops every Saturday morning in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Fremantle. He also takes groups of four people to Japan, Philippines, Spain and Tasmania once a year for 10-14 day photography workshops.