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This section contains just some basic guidelines on composition and visual design. More can be found in the Aesthetics section.


Remember, these are guidelines, not 'rules'. They are intended to help you avoid basic 'mistakes'. They will make sense most of the time, but if you have a sound reason to do things differently, by all means follow your instincts.


The viewfinders or LCD screens of most cameras provide a reasonably accurate preview of the picture you are about to take, so you should take care to ensure that what you see is what you want, as it is going to be very similar to what you get!


I shall gradually add some photographs to illustrate many of the points made here, when the site is up and running.


Fill the image with your subject

At least, have the subject big enough so that it can be clearly seen. This is especially critical when you plan to only make small prints of your images. If Aunt Edna is just a tiny speck on the horizon, that may be a great landscape, but it's not a portrait of Aunt Edna. Robert Capa (1913-1954, perhaps the greatest war photographer of all time) said "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough".


Check the space around your subject

So far as possible, arrange your shot so that the background and other space around your subject is free of distracting irrelevant details. Take special care with the edges of the frame. The classic example of not watching this issue is the telegraph pole growing out of young Harry's head.


Framing the subject

Centering the subject within the frame makes for a static composition. This may be what you want, but overdoing it can become tedious. Consider other placements: nearer a side, nearer the top or bottom, etc. The 'rule of thirds' (that the centre of interest should be located one third of the width from a side and/or one third of the height from the top or bottom edge) often works well, but don't bother too much about getting the measurement exact. Try to develop a feel for what looks good. Subjects in motion should normally appear to be moving into the picture, with space in front of them, rather than facing out of the frame, as if they are about to leave.


Horizontal and vertical lines

Unless you are aiming for something rather unusual, hold your camera level so that horizontal lines remain horizontal. Don't tilt your camera up or down, or vertical lines will converge. If you actually want this effect, then tilt your camera decisively to make sure it looks intentional and cannot be mistaken for an accident.


Avoid tangents

It is usually distracting when tangencies occur between lines in different planes. For example, if a distant line touches the curved border of a foreground object, this can cause visual confusion between the two components of your image. Move the camera position in order to break the tangency.


Avoid amputations

Be careful when composing shots of people to avoid cutting off extremities in ways that look like amputations. This does not mean you must always have the whole body in frame. It does mean that the parts included should look like a coherent composition. You can have a close-up of the face, for example, which does not show all the hair or even the ears or much of the neck. In general, don't cut at joints. A three-quarter shot cut off between the hips and the knees will often work OK. A full-length shot cut off at the ankles probably won't.


Visual design

The elements of visual design are shape, line and texture. They are created by light through tonality (shades of light and dark) and color (hue). Striking images exhibit proportion, rhythm and balance, or perhaps a subtle dose of imbalance. Learn to look for these elements in your images and consider how they work together.


The best way to develop a sense of visual design and a feeling for good composition is to study pictures by the great masters of photography, and also painting. The best introduction to visual design I have ever read is a book called "Photography and the Art of Seeing" by Freeman Patterson.


More on this topic in the Aesthetics section.