Home Basic Skills Photo Tips: Photo Composition

Photo Tips: Photo Composition

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By Don Costanza, October 2017 

Welcome back everyone and thanks for joining us.  Last month we began our photographic journey together talking about becoming a better photographer by improving your buoyancy as a diver.  This month we are going to touch on an idea you can use the very next time you are looking through the view finder—what I am referring to is a concept called “composition.”

What makes us stop and look at an image and take it all in?  Could it be that the image draws you in or you feel as if you are guided to various parts of it?  If an image draws you into the shot, the odds are the photographer has a good overall composition and a well- balanced or “composed” shot.

Composition means you have put the items in your shot together in such as way as to help guide the viewers eyes to the story you want to tell.  It is a way to create a balance in your image and you are able to have the viewer focus on something specific.  It eliminates clutter by framing your shot in such a way as to place a specific focus on your chosen subject.  Composing an image often takes some pre-dive planning when you first start out, but as with any skill properly practiced, you will become much more adept at quickly putting together your shot.

Let’s talk briefly about the “how.”  A good way to start thinking about how to put together a shot or also known as “composition of an image” is to use the commonly referenced approach called the “Rule of Thirds.”  Before we get too far into this, my personal belief is we live in a world where there are few absolutes and I’m generally not a fan of hard rules.  If you think something looks good to you, who is to say it isn’t a good image?  You are shooting images that you find interesting.  Don’t sell out your vision or what you find interesting for anyone else, (unless of course you are on assignment and that is another article). With that being said, I share the “rule of thirds” approach as a mere starting point.  While this is a good rule to start with and perhaps continue to follow, there are times where that rule can be bent…or perhaps disregarded all together.

The “rule of thirds” is a simple guideline to put together an image to improve the composition of your shot.  The way to calculate “rule of thirds” is to divide your image into a grid made up of two equal vertical and two equal horizontal lines, giving you nine equal segments.  Where the grid lines intersect, that point is generally where you should have your subject for the most powerful part of the image.  You may not always be able to achieve this, but if you get it close, that will help balance the image.

Most DSLR cameras allow the user to overlay a grid view to help in this regard.  For point and shoot users, you will have to visualize the grid as you look through your camera’s viewfinder.

In the examples I share here, I’ve created an overlay with intersecting points to better convey this idea. You can see the one point lined up on Peter’s drysuit inflator valve and that created the overall image we wanted. This is exactly what we discussed before either of us got in the water.  Our goal was to put primary focus on Peter with the DPV being secondary. Had I placed Peter in the center, I don’t believe it would have been as nice an image.

The “rule of thirds” is based on numerous studies showing that when we view images, our eyes naturally go to one of the intersection points first.  We as photographers are merely tapping into something that has been hardwired into our brains since the beginning of time…or at least since the first photograph was shared.

Here is another example where I wanted the shipwreck (Thomas Hume) as the primary focus.  Even with the limited visibility, which in this case helped create a ghostly image, the diver (Chris), the anchor and the rigging are seen as secondary items by the viewer.  The viewer looks at the bowsprit of the wreck, which guides the eyes to the hull then follows the rigging out to the lower right where the diver is also located.

With this “rule” in mind, remember I also mentioned we don’t live in a world of “absolutes.”  This next image goes against that “rule” as my subject is in the lower center.

In this image I wanted to convey the topside landscape as well as what we divers get to enjoy once we put our heads underwater.  My primary emphasis was to showcase Xenia with a popular technique called and “over/under” shot.  Had I gone with the typical “rule of thirds”, I would have included two families with huge inflatable rafts just outside of frame on my left.  That would have created quite the distraction in this image, regardless of how nice their rafts were.  To overcome those distracting elements in the image, I merely moved slightly to the right and re-composed the shot.  You will notice that while Xenia doesn’t fall on one of the intersecting points she is on one of the grid lines so in my opinion, it still works very well.  The trees on each side also help guide the eyes to the center.  If all else fails, you can always re-compose the image in post-processing by cropping and make your image still adhere to the basic “rule of thirds” concept.

Here is another example where I put the focus and Matt right in the center.  Does it go against the “rule of thirds” we have been discussing?  Somewhat, although you will notice with the subject centered, all four intersecting points are on the diver thus there is no question where I wanted the viewer to focus. Had there have been other objects in the image, then that would have created a poorly composed image by creating a distraction to the viewer on what and where I wanted the focus to be. Again, there are times when you should follow rules and other times they can be discarded.

As with any of the skills we develop as a diver, it takes time and lots of practice.  We are our own worst critics, so please be patient with yourself.  Study what other people are doing and why certain images appeal to you and then develop your own style.  The nice thing about underwater photography is that the only way you are going to get better at it is if you go diving.  Much like becoming a proficient diver didn’t happen overnight, becoming a proficient underwater photographer also won’t happen overnight.  I look forward to seeing your images.

About Don Costanza:

Don Costanza is a professional photographer, graphic designer and renaissance guy who’s passion is sharing the underwater realm with friends and family. Find him online at Don Constanza – Facebook