About Composition and Framing


This is less of a classic disposition on composition rules, but more a note to myself on how I frame shots and in which direction I want to move in that regard.

Classic Composition is a Two-Handed Sword

I have my doubts with classical composition rules as tools for getting better at photography. The reason for that is a little complicated, but its core is stated rather quickly: If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Especially as a beginner, I forced myself unconsciously to apply certain rules to my frames, despite that they did not work for the scene. You cannot always frame something for the rule of thirds to make sense. Sometimes, a foreground does more harm to the scene because it generates distraction.

Yet, composition rules such as the rule of thirds help people to sort their frame. They can be useful guidelines, they try to formalize what we perceive as "looking good" or "looking meh". In particular in the beginning, this is essential because all someone thinks is that someting looks good or bad, without knowing what actually makes you think so.

But that should actually be it. All these rules should do is help you find what works for you. I found that I predominantly use leading lines in my pictures. It just comes naturally. I found that I crave depth and 3-dimensionality in my pictures. Composition-wise, leading lines help a lot with that. They can retain something that is easily lost when you project a room onto a plane, which is essentially what taking a photo is. Capturing as much of a scene, and retaining "space" is appealing to me.

The rest is providing context, and I don't limit myself by composition rules to achieve such. All I ask is: Does this work?

An Observer is the best Composer

In fact, composing is entriely about making a frame work. How you achieve it is way less relevant than you think. The longer you watch a scene and develop an idea of what could work, the better your photo will probably turn out. Perhaps that is why lots of people say that analog photography makes them better, because they force themselves to spend more time composing a shot. Once you take that time with digital photography as well, also your digital photos will get better. If that is all you want, you should stick to digital photography, but consciously give yourself more time.

Train your Inner Viewfinder

Giving yourself time with composing photos starts with training your eye, i.e. getting a notion of how much would be in your picture when you use a 35mm or a 50mm. Sure, you can vary the frame on a zoom lens and not have to walk around, but that won't get you far. You'd just use the zoom to compensate for an incorrectly estimated frame. Instead, life as a photographer gets way easier once you have an idea what will be in your photo. Don't get frustrated, this is a continuous process. I am continuously surprised by how wide a 35mm actually is.

Also, if you don't use a full frame camera, read about crop factors, and what e.g. a 35mm is on your system. It will help you when you change gear.

Vignetting as Framing

There is one cheap trick I use. I almost feel ashamed because of it. In the old days, and with old lenses, you got it "for free", and that is Vignetting. Whenever a shot has what I call "open corners", i.e. the sky, or a wall or something at the corner of the frame, the scene looks unfinished to me. I don't know why. It just screams "there is more (around the corner)". To counteract that, I use vignetting to fade these corners just like at the end of a movie to tell the viewer: there is nothing of interest there. That gives the notion, or the conformation that what we are looking at is in fact all I want to show.

I also think that vignetting helps to create 3-dimensionality, because it draws the viewer in more. This can be all personal preference, but I noticed that the way I look at images is more guided to the center when I use vignetting. The viewer "gravitates" from the dark corners into the bright center of a frame, and that works well for supporting a flatter scene. The depth is augmented by a brightness gradient, instead of e.g. leading line. This might be complete nonsense in your eyes, but for me, it works.

Here's an example:

Left, the picture has no vignetting. Notice how unfinished the bottom right corner looks. The footsteps come from the left and the "leading line" - if any - is very weak because of the bright corner. With vignetting applied, the whole shot looks way more engaging/appealing to me, because it suggests that there is nothing of importance left out, and the footsteps are pronounced. Without the A/B comparison, one would probably not even notice. The trick is to not overdo it, it has to be subtle.


This might get boring over time, but I write it nonetheless: Again, find what is working for you. Composition rules might be helpful to finding your style, but you should not hold onto them too tightly, as they may limit you from doing your own thing.

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