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Take Better Photographs: Subject, Composition, and Light!

Look Out Fareham!We all want to improve our photography, and one the three main ingredients are what the subject of your photo is, how you compose it, what the light is like and how you use it.

In this article I'll look at some of my own images and show you how I have applied the photographic guidelines to improve my photo's.

I started taking my photography a bit more seriously when I got my Fujifilm S5700 just after Christmas '07 - before that I would just take the occasional shot with my Kodak CX 4230 Point and Shoot, like this:

After I started reading Photography Magazines, Books, and Websites, I learnt about the three main guidelines that are the foundations for most good photos, and they are:

Subject. All good photographs have an identifiable subject, and the clearer it is, and / or closer you are the better.

Composition. How we choose to arrange our subject in the frame - rule of thirds, lines, balance,foreground, middle, background, framing, avoiding distractions, portrait / landscape, etc.

Light. The most important factor. A poor subject and composition can be redeemed if taken in the most beautiful light (eg dusk / dawn), but even the most well composed and chosen subject can be ruined if the light is bad (eg bright sunny day at mid-day).

I'm not saying you can't take a great Photo by not following the guidelines, it's just that as you're learning (as I am), it's great to have points of reference that you can check off as you're lining up a shot to help you take nice pics.

So as I'm looking through the viewfinder I'm thinking,

"What's my subject, am I close enough, would this look better from another location?"

"What's my composition? Is my horizon straight? Is my horizon on one of the thirds? Is my subject on one of the intersections? Where's my foreground interest? Is there a nice tree / doorway where I can frame this image? Are there any lines like paths, shadows, fences, that can lead the viewer into the picture? Are there any distractions at the edge of the frame, creeping in to spoil it? Why is that telephone pole growing out of that persons head? How would this look if I get down low? I need to take a portrait image right after this landscape one."

"Is this the best time of day to be taking this Photo? Should I wait for the clouds to clear / go overcast? Should I expose for the sky or the land? Should I exposure bracket to make sure I get the right shot? Should I use a Polarizer / Grad to improve the light and help the camera? Where's the Sun, would the subject be better off back-lit, front-lit or from the side?"

All this might seem a little complicated, but if, as your using your camera, you remember "Subject, Composition, Light" as a short mantra, it'll help, and things will start to come naturally.

Lets look in a little more detail, starting with Subject.

Subject: Every Photo Needs One!
Mini Marina

What's the subject of the above picture? Maybe the sky reflecting in the water, but it's a bit of a mess. I've done a HDR treatment, but to be honest the photo suffers because I didn't choose a specific subject and get close enough!

Getting Ready For Summer!

This is a bit better. You can clearly work out that the boat is the main subject, but maybe I should have zoomed in a bit closer. With digital being free, one option is to start "wide" where you get too much in the image, then zoom in, or walk closer, and take shots along the way, getting right into the detail.

How about this one:
Look Out Fareham!

No confusion about the subject!

Here's an OK photo of a tree:
Don't Strike Twice

But how about a bit closer?

Or even closer?

If your camera has got a macro function, or you've got a macro lens for your dSLR, flowers and plants can be great subjects.

The above picture is OK, but lets start getting in even closer, with pics like this:



Wild Lilly

So as you can see, it doesn't always matter which subject you choose, just as long as you get close enough to make it striking.

Composition: Laying Out Your Photos Like You Would A Painting

Someone once described Photography as "Fast Painting", and I think that's true. If you were to paint a nice landscape, you'd spend hours working out where you were going to place the subject, the horizon, the perspective, etc, whereas I almost always fall into the trap of snapping away without too much thought.

I'm getting better, and this has mainly been due to studying, and applying, simple rules of composition; the Rule of Thirds, Leading Lines and avoiding distractions.

Remember that picture of the Warship at the top of the page that I took with my old Point and Shoot?
Here's a different version of the same subject, but where some rules of composition have been applied:
Ship Graveyard

Lets start with the Rule of Thirds. You just divide you photo into nine boxes. Where the horizontal lines are, is where you horizon should be, top or bottom, (if there is one). The main subject should be on one of the intersections of the lines.

The horizon is near the top horizontal, the warship is near the left-top intersection, the wreck sorta near the bottom right intersection.

How about this?

In this image, the horizon is on the bottom horizontal, the main body of the bridge near the bottom right intersection.

With the Rule of Thirds, you can also get a bit abstract:
In Blue

or apply it to macro shots:
One Small Step...

Use the Rule of Thirds in your Photographs, and it'll give them a certain ballance and look. The RoT's has been developed over hundreds of years, and reflects the way that our world is not often symetrical, we like looking at pictures with these traits.

However, there are times when you'll want to go symetrical, and the rule there is that if you're going symetrical, make sure you're very accurate, not "just off", because that'll look odd.
Brick Church Black & White

Foreground, middle and background. For the perfect landcape, you also need something near to catch the eye, then something a little further away, and finally an interesting background.

I find this really challenging. Most great landscapes follow this format, and I guess this photo is the closest I've got:
Gosport Marina

Now its time to look at Leading Lines. Leading lines help to guide the viewers eyes through the picture. Examples could be paths, roads, fences, shadows, rivers, etc. Horizontals and verticals are ok, diagonals are better, and curves can be brilliant.

Lets look at some examples.

So we've got the fence, the concrete, the line of the trees and the shoreline drawing your eye.

Nice curved leading lines in this one.

Traditional path shot:
Follow Distilled?

Tractor tracks:
Tractor Tracks

How about a spiral leading line?
The Evil, Twisted, Wicked Corkscrew Tree

Leading lines are everywhere - the challenge is to find them where they lead towards subjects (as often they don't in my pictures!). Next time you're shooting, have a look around and see what you can find.

Framing. This is where you try and get something to surrond the edge of your photograph - it often lends a sense of place, size, claustrophobia or focus. Here's some examples:
Abandon Hope...

The trick with framing is just to have a real good scout of your location, you'll be surprised at what you can use, and how it can improve a photograph.

The frame doesn't have to completely surround the image, expieriment with different things and its another case of where you can shoot multiple takes of the same subject. Tree branches are good, walls, any type of overhang.


By blurring the frame, you can really give the viewer the feeling that they're "peering" into the shot, a hidden onlooker. (Use a large aperture such as F3.5 and below).


As you can see, frames can be incredibly powerful in adding a sense of depth to your photographs, next time you're out, just have a good look around and see what comes up.

Avoiding Distractions.
These can ruin a good shot. You'll avoid most distractions be getting in close - but watch out for rubbish, poles growing out of peoples heads, wonky horizons or buildings, a bright reflection off a window, etc. Some can be sorted out in post processing with cloning or cropping, but if you take that extra minute or so before you take the picture to peer around the view-finder, you'll end up with a better shot. Normally a step to one side, or by dropping down onto your knees, you'll sort out the problem.

Viewing Angles. A good tip is to never take your photographs at your eye-level. Thats what everyone does. Drop down on one knee. Find a high vantage point. Lie on the ground, anything that will make the picture unusual (but probably give you a bad back!).

Don't use the common vantage point for a particular landscape. Find somewhere different, off the beaten path, and often that can just be a few feet away from where you're first standing. Its worth it.


For this shot I had to wait for the tide to go out a bit, then climb along a sea wall, trying to take the shot while I was hanging onto some old fencing, but it worked.

Light. The most important factor, but for me, the hardest. I take a lot of landscape shots, and despite my best efforts with filters and editing afterwards, no amount of work can really impove a photo taken in the wrong light.

The best time to take outside shots is around dawn and dusk. The light is a lot softer, and there's less of a difference between the brightness of the ground and the sky, so your camera can handle it better.

Shadows look better, tones are warmer, people aren't squinting. You can have the Sun behind your subject, for backlighting, or behind the camera for front-lighting. Everything just looks so much better.

You can get similair results on overcast days, or where there's sunshine but also clouds to make the Sun more difuse, but the best advice is to shoot during the "Golden Hours" - dusk and dawn.

During the day we can still play with light. Look at how the shadows fall off your subject. Try walking around the subject for different shadows that will give a better sense of depth. See how different angles produce shadows that emphasise texture on walls, trees and floors.

I'm struggling with taking pictures in the best light (I can't always get out of the house at 6.00am or 9.00 pm - kids!), but here's some examples of images taken in the morning / evening:
What's In The Water?


Taking shots in the morning can give your photographs a "colder" blue look, but you do get the benefit of any water normally being incredibly still:

Light, the most important thing to get right, but the hardest. Don't be put off taking photo's just because the light is wrong - it gives you chance to practice your subject and composition skills, just revisit those location when the light is perfect, and you'll end up with some wonderful captures,

Conclusion - Bringing It All Together!

Still here? Well done! I know this has been a long piece, but I didn't want to split up the three issues of Subject, Composition and Light. They're inter-related. A great image will be strong in all three departments - but that's the art of photography.

Think about your subject - are you close enough - is there a better view?

Think about your composition - use the rule of thirds, leading lines, fore, middle, background, and try different perspectives.

Think about the light - is it the best time of day? Can you get a better shot by moving a little so the shadows help you with depth and texture?

I hope this piece has helped you think a little more about your photography and maybe how it can be improved. The difference between a beginner and a master is 10,000 mistakes, so lets get shooting! (While chanting - Subject, Composition, Light!)

Thanks, Rob.

Reader Comments (2)


Excellent work. I have been working my way through your website, and I have listened to the first 7 of your podcasts as I work my way through them. I have trouble believing you are just an amateur given the amount of knowledge you bring forward. I feel that I am learning alot, and on a level at which I can comprehend it. I found alot of useful information on your 'Subject, Composition, and Light' course page. Good work, and I look forward to participating in your Flickr forums as well (I also have a family with young children, and find it difficult to get out and shoot at the times which I would sometimes like, but I make the best of it, and sometimes it pushes me to try other things which I otherwise might not have.)

Thank you, and keep up the good work!
Scott Van't Land
Coalhurst, Alberta, Canada

October 21, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterScott Van't Land

Hi Scott,

Glad you're enjoying the site, it's great to get feedback, it spurs me on to add more stuff.

I got my Fuji S5700 Xmas '07, and thats when I started to take my photography a bit more seriously, before that I used a 2mp Kodak Compact for familly snaps, but that was about it.

The forum is a bit quiet at the moment - but I'll set a new assignment for November to get things moving again.

Thanks again, Rob.

October 21, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRob_Nunn

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