Keeping Your Composure: Creative Ways to Compose Your Photographs, Part 1

Daffodil Hill in the New York Botanical Garden. This is a typical composition of foreground, middle ground and background. © F.M. Kearney
Daffodil Hill in the New York Botanical Garden. This is a typical composition of foreground, middle ground and background. © F.M. Kearney

Story & photos by F. M. Kearney

Well, 2020 is finally in the rear-view mirror. Assaulted by a non-stop barrage of civil unrest, lifestyle changes, political uncertainty, economic hardships, and devastating heartaches, it was year none of us will soon forget – no matter how hard we may try! It was a struggle just to maintain one’s sanity in the midst of such utter chaos. The toilet paper shortage alone could easily have caused even the calmest of individuals to lose their composure. As a photographer, that got me thinking. Although, at times, certain situations may make it hard for you to properly compose yourself, you always have total control over how you compose your photographs.

Before I began my research for this article, I used to think that the totality of image composition merely involved the Rule of Thirds and/or the inclusion of a foreground, middle ground, and background. While these elements are probably the most common ways to compose a photograph, they are by no means the only ways. Numerous techniques (some very subtle in nature) can be employed in the creation of a creative composition. So many, in fact, that this article will be the first in a series of three, which I will be releasing in the coming months. In this first installment, I’ll be discussing some of the more common methods. Actually, you may be using many of these techniques without even knowing it. In the past, I’ve often composed a photo in a certain way simply because it looked good, only to discover later that it’s an actual technique.

Foreground, middle ground and background

One of the most common types of photo compositions is the inclusion of a foreground (sometimes middle ground) and a background. The opening photo of a sunrise in the New York Botanical Garden is a prime example. The cherry trees, flowers and rock make up the foreground, followed by the three individuals on the winding pathway in the middle ground – leading your eye to the sun rising in the rear. With three distinct areas of interest, a two-dimensional photograph exhibits an almost three-dimensional quality.

Simplified backgrounds

These tulips have a plain background. © F.M. Kearney
These tulips have a plain background. © F.M. Kearney

The background is one of the things that can make or break a photo. Just like a good supporting cast, a good background should not overshadow or distract from it. Imagine watching a movie scene where the main character is delivering a pivotal line of dialog and a totally unrelated fight breaks out in the background. The only thing you’ll remember about that scene will be the fight. Shot against a darkened background, the white tulips above take center-stage with zero distractions. 

Backgrounds with relevant content

Single late tulips appear amid a cluttered, but not overly distracting background. © F.M. Kearney
Single late tulips appear amid a cluttered, but not overly distracting background. © F.M. Kearney

However, a background doesn’t always have to be overly dark (or black) to allow the subject to shine. If it contains relevant content it can provide a “sense of place” for the subject. This type of composition works best when shot with a long lens set to a wide aperture. There was no way to physically separate the two purple tulips above from their surroundings. But shot at 200mm and f/3.3, the limited depth of field easily pulls them out of the clutter.

Whether a simplified background or one with content, I always look for one or the other when shooting flowers. I’ll often forego taking the photo I can’t find either. A pretty flower can always be enhanced by a complimentary background.

The “Rule of Thirds”

This shrub rose was purposefully placed in lower third portion of frame. © F.M. Kearney
This shrub rose was purposefully placed in lower third portion of frame. © F.M. Kearney

I’d like to close out this first installment with a technique I mentioned in the beginning: The Rule of Thirds. If you’re like me, and not very good in math… don’t panic, because it’s quite simple. Imagine placing a tic-tac-toe grid on top of the scene – dividing it into nine equal rectangles, 3 across and 3 down. Some camera manufacturers allow you to view this grid in Live View mode.  The aim is to place important elements of the scene in a spot where some of the lines intersect. If you can visualize that, you will see that the center of the rose is approximately where the lines would intersect in the bottom-right portion of the grid. Some photographers have a tendency to place the subject smack dab in the middle of the frame. However, a slight off-center placement will usually lead to a more interesting composition.

Center the subject

A decorative dahlia placed center-frame can be a compelling composition. © F.M. Kearney
A decorative dahlia placed center-frame can be a compelling composition. © F.M. Kearney

This technique may seem like a complete contradiction to he Rule of Thirds. But, like all rules, it was meant to be broken. This is especially true if your subject exhibits a distinct, symmetrical shape or pattern. The circular design of the decorative dahlia above was the perfect candidate for a direct, head-on type of composition.

These are just a few of the most common compositional techniques. Next month, I will be discussing more ways to creatively showcase your subjects.

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).