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Tips and techniques

Keeping Your Composure: Creative Ways to Compose Your Photographs, Part 2

By March 19, 2021No Comments
A fence leads viewers’ eyes down the path of a forest trail. © F.M. Kearney
A fence leads viewers’ eyes down the path of a forest trail. © F.M. Kearney

By F.M. Kearney

Last month in part one of this series, I discussed some of the most commonly used compositional techniques in nature photography. In Part 2 I’ll be highlighting a few more popular methods, but some might not be used that frequently.

Leading Lines & Paths

Last year, I wrote The Pathway to Leading Lines, about using leading lines and paths to direct a viewer’s eyes to an important element in the photo or to guide them on a journey through the scene. Typically, leading lines lead your eye to a specific point of interest, whereas, paths take you to a faraway vanishing point. In the image above, I used the wooden fence as a path – transporting the viewer down the disappearing trail into the forest. It’s a great technique to really put the viewer into the scene. It’s easy to find leading lines and paths in an urban environment, but they may not be as obvious in the natural world. However, once you begin studying the scene, you will soon begin seeing them almost everywhere you look.

A curving path leads the viewer’s eyes into forest. © F.M. Kearney
A curving path leads the viewer’s eyes into forest. © F.M. Kearney

Curves

Leading lines and paths don’t always have to be straight to lead one’s eye. A curved line can work just as well. In the image above, I included a portion of the winding footpath to lead the viewer into the colorful forest area. Had I pulled back a bit on the focal length I would have gotten the classic “S-curve,” but it didn’t quite work within the composition. Unlike straight lines, which are best emphasized by wide-angle focal lengths, curved lines look best when shot with longer lenses. The resulting compressed perspective accentuates the curve very well.

Two photos: A high horizon line (left) emphasizes the lower portion of an image while a low horizon line (right) emphasizes the upper portion. © F.M. Kearney
A high horizon line (left) emphasizes the lower portion of an image while a low horizon line (right) emphasizes the upper portion. © F.M. Kearney

Hi & Lo Horizon Lines

While I’m on the subject of lines, this might be a good time to discuss horizon lines. In the first installment of this series, I talked about the “Rule of Thirds,” where the subject is slightly offset from the center of the frame. Well, just like some subjects, a horizon line doesn’t always have to be in the center either. Depending on the scene, the horizon line can be placed high or low to emphasize or de-emphasize various areas of the photo. In the sunrise image above on the left, I placed the horizon line higher in the frame to show more of the fallen trees in the water. Incidentally, the large tree on the right of the image works well as a leading line toward the rising sun. In the image on the left, the water was the least interesting thing about the photo. I placed the horizon line extremely low in order to emphasize the pine needle branches and the dramatic clouds. Even though only a sliver of the water is showing, it still gives the scene a sense of place. But wherever the horizon line is placed, great care should be taken to make sure it’s perfectly straight. Nothing can ruin a good photo faster than a horizon line that’s slightly askew. Thankfully, unlike in the days of film, this problem can easily be fixed in post.

Giving this shrub rose a little room to the left is important. © F.M. Kearney
Giving this shrub rose a little room to the left is important. © F.M. Kearney

Leave Breathing Room

It’s common in action and sports photography to include space for the action to go. In a photo of a group of runners moving from left to right, extra space is usually added to the right side of the frame to show where the runners are going. This technique also applies to nature. Since the shrub rose was facing left, I included more space on that side to allow it to “breathe.”

Garden chrysanthemums occupy the entire frame. © F.M. Kearney
Garden chrysanthemums occupy the entire frame. © F.M. Kearney

Fill the Frame

Many compositional techniques are the complete opposite of others. I left breathing room for the rose because there was room to give – it was sticking out on a wayward branch far apart from the others. On the other hand, the chrysanthemums above were growing in a tight cluster. Filling the frame with them was an obvious choice, and it gives the illusion that they go on forever. It’s hard to use the frame-filling technique with other types of flowers, unless, of course, you purchase them from a florist and arrange them in such fashion. The point is that your subject will usually dictate which technique will work best.

Nearby objects can be used to frame a scene. © F.M. Kearney
Nearby objects can be used to frame a scene. © F.M. Kearney

Framing

Another common compositional technique is to frame the subject with nearby objects. Most often used to convey depth, or perhaps even a sense of place, the frame can be natural or man-made. It doesn’t even have to completely encircle the subject. In the photo above, I used the tree and bush on the left and the rock and bushes on the right to frame the colorful foliage and its reflection on the water. This particular frame is somewhat subtle and works seamlessly within the overall scene. If, however, your frame is very dominant and differs drastically in tone from the subject it is surrounding, an exposure adjustment will have to be made. Imagine shooting a seascape through the small opening of a darkened cave. Such a situation would require spot metering the seascape to avoid an overexposure.

Frames are much easier to use with smaller subjects as seen in the image below. By shooting directly into an azalea bush, I could easily use the surrounding foliage as a natural framing element. Of course, a long focal length and a wide aperture are needed to produce a limited depth of field in order to help the subject stand out.

An azalea bloom is framed by leaves and twigs. © F.M. Kearney
An azalea bloom is framed by leaves and twigs. © F.M. Kearney

Including a Person

The deliberate inclusion of a person is usually done to show scale. If the size of any of the elements in your photo is not evident, adding a person will immediately solve that problem. While shooting during a major snowstorm in New York’s Central Park years ago, I waited for a lone passerby to enter the scene above. I wasn’t too concerned about scaling issues, but his bright red pants brought some much-needed color to this predominately monochrome scene. Also, it just adds more interest. I shot this scene without a person, but this image, which I titled, “Journeys,” was my favorite.

Add a person… add more interest. © F.M. Kearney
Add a person… add more interest. © F.M. Kearney

In the next and final installment of this series, I will discuss some of the more obscure and unusual compositional techniques.

Photo of F.M. Kearney F.M. Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for a variety of local New York City newspapers. It was an exciting profession, which allowed him to cover everything from famous celebrities to ride-alongs with NYPD and FDNY. He now specializes in nature and urban landscapes. To view more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com. He can be contacted at starcollec@aol.com, or followed on Facebook (@fmkearneyphotos) and/or Twitter (@fmkearneyphoto).