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DSLR’s and Composition

The difference between amateurs and professionals is the way they approach photography. The shooting technique followed by most amateurs is to bring the camera to their eye, compose the frame in a split second, relying mostly on instinct and press the shutter. With the advancements in digital technology it is quite possible to get perfectly exposed pictures quite this way. And believe me Some great pictures, including more than a few Pulitzer Prize winners, were taken on the spur of the moment without a great deal of planning using this shooting method which is not far removed from a point and shoot impulse shot.

But if you enjoy photography you’d want to make pictures not take pictures and to make it happen, you need to spend a few seconds, contemplating your picture before you actually press the shutter. This distinguishes a professional photographer from an amateur and is the secret why professionals end up with better results from both a technical and compositional standpoint. Here in this article we will discuss some of the basics of composition which every person using a DSLR should have a fair idea of.

Understanding the Viewfinder

What you see is NOT What You Get

We all are under the impression that our DSLR cameras are in line with the WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) concept. But it is not so there are certain things that you need to be aware of how the view in the viewfinder and the picture could differ by a huge margin.

Viewfinder Coverage

Not every DSLR’s out there have viewfinders that give a 100% coverage of the scene. In fact most cameras except the top of the line models give a slightly cropped view of the scene. Meaning the picture you capture will be slightly wider than what you saw through the viewfinder. So you should not be surprised if the borders of your picture show up areas that you took so much care to leave out. Generally, you’ll get more image area, rather than less, so this should not be a problem. If you find extraneous image area that detracts from your composition, you can always crop it out.

Depth of Field

large depth of field
Photo By Trey Ratcliff

It should be always born in mind that the view through the viewfinder is shown at the lens’ maximum aperture, which has the least depth-of-field. So, it’s more likely that areas of the image not in the primary plane of focus will appear less sharp and more blurry in this view. But when you actually press the shutter the aperture stops down to the set value and take the picture which could look much different than what you intended. Depth-of-field can be important in applying selective focus as a creative tool (making parts of the image blurry to isolate the main subject in the image), so the difference between what you saw and what you got can be crucial.

For example if one is shooting a portrait with a 50mm f/1.8 lens, and the set aperture is f/16 the view through the viewfinder will always show the scene at f/1.8 which has only the eyes and a small portion of the person’s face in focus. If you press the shutter hoping to capture the scene you will end up with a picture that has a huge depth of field where everything from the foreground to infinity will be in sharp focus.

Depth of Field Preview Button

Depth of field preview button is usually located near the lens mount. The purpose of this button is to give the photographer an accurate representation of the depth of field with the current aperture setting. If in the above example had the photographer cared to press the depth of field preview button he would have immediately known that using the current settings the picture will not be captured as he wished and could have made changes before he actually pressed the shutter. 

Certain things that you need to know about depth of field preview.

The accuracy of this view can be affected by the type of focusing screen used in your camera.

How well you can see the image (which will be darker and less easy to view when the lens aperture is partially closed) will depend on how bright conditions are. It is difficult to use depth of field preview when shooting in dimly lit conditions.

You need to adjust the diopter setting of your eyepiece to provide a sharp, clear view of the focusing screen.

Compositional Aids

There are different compositional aids to help you better compose your photo. Some are built in like the rule of third grid which you can activate by going in to the menu. And then there are different types of focusing screens with grids, cross hairs, framing marks etc. you will find them helpful to place your subjects in the frame, to line up the horizons etc.

Aspect Ratios

photography composition tips
Photo By Garry

Different cameras have different aspect ratios, point and shoots, mirrorless, four thirds, DSLR’s all have different aspect ratio. The viewfinder will match the aspect ratio of that of your cameras sensor. But depending on the intended final use of the picture you might have to crop the image so compose a little bit wider in order to be able to crop the image to fit a particular format later.

For example the aspect ratio of DSLR camera sensors are 1.5 : 1 (more commonly referred to as 3:2) and print sizes are like 4 × 5 or 8 × 10 and so on. So if you intend to print your images then they will have to be cropped at either or both ends or else you’ll need to leave a wide white border at top and bottom, wasting paper. You need to keep this disparity in mind when composing your photos

Basics of Composition

Even before you bring your camera to your eye, think of ways to compose the scene, compare all your options and determine the best way to compose your shots. Listed below are your options to achieve different compositions.

1. you can move around
2. change your angles
3. get closer or farther away (within practical constraints)
4. alter your perspective
5. ask your subjects to shift
6. physically relocate objects that are movable
7. remove plastic or debris or such other undesired objects
8. use lenses of different focal lengths to include more or less of the scene
9. use focus and depth of field to create various effects

Though there will be some limitations, in most cases though, you’ll have enough leeway to compose your shots the way you want them. Here are some tips to help you compose your photos effectively.

Understanding your Intent? 

Before you click for the picture, you need to know what your intent is. Are you telling a story? Making a statement? Trying for humor? Capturing a warm, emotional moment?

You have to compose the image depending upon what kind of photograph you’re taking. 
The kind of picture you want to take can have a dramatic effect on your composition. There are as many different motives for a photograph as there are photographs to be taken. Once you understand the intent of your photo, you’re in a better position to understand the needs of your composition.


Photo by Skoeber

 Most effective compositions call for including only the elements that are needed to illustrate your idea. By avoiding extraneous subject matter, you can eliminate confusion and draw attention to the most important part of your picture. Exclude everything that doesn’t belong to your picture like cluttered backgrounds, extra people, or extraneous objects. You might want to stick with a plain or neutral background, or one that helps to tell the story.

To make your composing simple; cropping out unimportant objects can be done by moving closer; stepping back or using a longer focal length lens. Remember that a wide-angle look emphasizes the foreground, adding sky area in outdoor pictures increases the feeling of depth and space. Moving closer adds a feeling of intimacy while emphasizing the texture and details of your subject. A step back might be a good move for a scenic photo; a step forward; a good move for a photograph that includes a person.

Choosing a Center

photography composition
Photo By Eric

Find a single center of interest. It doesn’t have to be in the center of your photograph (and in most cases shouldn’t be) but it should be the most important subject in your picture. The viewer’s eye shouldn’t have to wander through your picture trying to locate something to look at. The center of interest should be the most eye-catching object in the photograph; it may be the largest, the brightest, or most unusual item within your frame.

Avoid having more than one main center of attention. You can have several centers of interest to add richness to encourage exploration of your image. But there should be only one main center that immediately attracts the eye. Include other interesting but subordinate things in your photograph, but they should be subordinate to the main subject.

Selecting an Orientation

long composition
Photo By Rémi Bridot

Photographs can be composed using a tall, vertical, portrait orientation, or a wide, horizontal or landscape orientation. The biggest mistake beginners make (aside from not getting close enough) is to shoot everything horizontally.

The rule of thirds

rule of thirds
Photo By Mcmamauri

It derives from the idea that placing subject matter off-center is usually a good idea. Things that are centered in the frame tend to look fixed and static, while objects located to one side or the other imply movement because they have somewhere in the frame to go.

You can use these grid lines in many ways besides locating a center of interest. For example, in landscape photos you might want to place the horizon at the lower-third grid line to emphasize the sky. If important subjects of your composition are in the foreground at a distance leave the line to the upper third grid (Horizon is rarely placed in the exact middle.)


Photo By Hakahonu

 Lead your viewer to your center of interest through the use of straight or curved lines, as well as strong geometric shapes. Vertical and horizontal lines force viewers’ attention up, down, or to the sides, while diagonals lead the gaze from one bottom corner to the top opposite corner of the picture. Curved lines are most pleasing of all. Your lines can consist of parts of the image such as fences, roads, skylines, or other components. Look for natural lines in your subjects and use them in your composition.


Photo By Garry

 We enjoy looking at photographs that are evenly balanced with interesting objects on both sides; rather than everything being located on one side leaving nothing to the other. 

Images should have a balanced arrangement of shapes, colors, lightness, and darkness otherwise they wear a lopsided look. That doesn’t mean photographs must be symmetrical; a larger, brighter, or more colorful object on one side can be balanced by a smaller, less bright or less colorful object on the other.


Photo By Garry

Here framing is not the boundaries of your picture but, rather, elements in a photograph that tend to create a frame-within-the-frame to highlight the center of interest. 

Framing is a technique of using objects in the foreground to create an imaginary picture frame around the subject. A frame concentrates our gaze on the center of interest that it contains. Moreover it gives a three-dimensional feeling to the viewer. It can also be used to give additional information about the subject, such as its surroundings.

It needs creativity to find a location that can be used to frame your subject. Windows, doorways, trees, surrounding buildings, and arches are obvious frames. Frames don’t even have to be perfect or complete geometric shapes. Generally it is better to be in the foreground, but with ingenuity a background object such as the bridge, hillocks etc. can be used as good framing objects.


When taking photographs, it’s important to ensure that two unrelated objects don’t merge without your intention; as in the classic example; a group photo of persons posed before flowering plants looked as the plants growing on their heads!

Human vision is three-dimensional, but photographs are inherently flat; giving resemblance of depth is attributed to a photograph skill. While a tree that didn't seem obtrusive to the eye; appeared like growing out of the roof of a barn that stood behind in the final picture. Though that photograph was scenic and carefully composed; this tree stands out and declare something; the photographer didn’t wish to hear!

Use the viewfinder carefully to make sure that two objects that shouldn't be merged are not fused together. Examine your subject thoroughly and ensure that there is comfortable separation for the image. When encountered with such a problem, correct it by changing your viewpoint, moving your subject, or by using selective focus to blur that objectionable background.

A well composed frame is the mother of a well shot photograph; photography being more an art than mere technique; it is the artist in you who should do the work when a frame is composed.

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