9 Composition Techniques to Improve your Film Photos

By Kushal Karki


written by Kush Karki

Please note... Techniques - and not Rules!

This article will give you some simple tips that will help you understand photography a little better and give you an idea of what looks pleasing to the human eye. These are techniques that the author Kush uses doing Family Photography & numerous other types of commercial photography with his business WeShootYou.

Why should you use composition? Composition is simply the way you position items in your frame - and it is an easy way to bring attention to your subject, and from then on, will allow you to be more experimental with your photography whilst also understanding what is more likely to appeal to the human brain.

So, what exactly is composition? Composition refers to the arrangement of the subject(s) and various elements of a scene, within a frame. I will repeat: these are not rules that you should be forced to adhere to, but these are techniques that have been used for many years not just in photography, but also in painting, sculpture, fine art, and movie-making as well. Every visual art!

In this tutorial, I have listed 10 of these tips that you can follow, with examples to align with each. Try experimenting with these techniques and see where it takes you within your photography journey, whether you are a beginner or an experienced photographer looking for a refresher, this will be a simple guideline to get you into shape to get snapping.

Let's start with a famous phrase: the Rule of Thirds.

What is the Rule of Thirds?

Rule of thirds is an understanding that that you divide the frame into 9 equal rectangles, 3 across and 3 down. In fact, this is where film photography gets so interesting, unlike with digital cameras, you don’t have the option to add a grid on the view finder. So, you will have to use a big ol’ imagination here, and divide your frame up mentally.

This is a very frequently used technique (see the series Mr Robot), used by photographers, cinematographers and artists, and probably the first one professional photographer will teach you about.

It’s both natural and common for beginner photographers to try and place the subject in the centre. This technique allows the observer to focus attention on the subject without getting distracted by the background, this is done by placing your subject in the middle or even where the view finder lines intersect.

A perfect example of this is the image below where the subject is placed on the rightmost intersect, thus making a more dynamic image, where there is a clear focus on the subject within the frame.

Centred Composition & Symmetry

Now here is the part where I tell you to do exactly the opposite of the previous point! The human eye is naturally drawn to symmetry, think Wes Anderson movies, or even the Taj Mahal. Symmetry can be found in nature or be created artificially. If placing objects off-centre is an example of how you can create drama and tension, symmetry is a way of creating order and familiarity which our brain perceives as normal.

You can have symmetry in multiple ways, you can do it by placing your object in the middle of the frame, and capturing symmetry in multiple directions; vertically, horizontally and even diagonal planes of symmetry look appealing to the eyes!

You can even apply a combination of the rule of third and have your subject off-centre displaying symmetry in one way or another! One great way to do this is placing your subject against a mirror, capturing shadows and reflections.

What is Framing?

Framing is a widely used compositional technique, that involves having your subject being framed around multiple elements in a scene. This is a great technique for storytelling and providing context of a frame.

You can do this by natural frames, such as people, plants or leaves, existing frames such as a bedroom window or a doorway, or you can even create your own frame, for example creating shapes with hands, and centring your subject within the frame.

This is a great way of drawing the attention to the subject, as the frame allows a strong focus on the subject, and takes away any distracting elements within the scene

How to use Leading Lines

Leading lines are a great way of drawing attention to your subject, as they are a great way of creating a sense of depth, which lead the viewer’s eye within a frame.

Leading lines can be horizontal, vertical, diagonal or curved. They can be obvious, such as a road traffic marking, staircases, windowpanes etc. Or they can be slightly less obvious, such as lines across a wall, or lines converging from railings. In each case, this another great way of storytelling within a frame, as it leads the viewer into a journey, with the destination being your subject.

Fill the Frame

We love using this technique at WeShootYou, especially for new-born shots. This gives you the licence to get as close to your subject as possible and filling the frame, either within the shot or you can also achieve this post-production (although as film photographers, we know to do it within the frame).

Reason why we like to use this for new-borns is that this blocks out any distractions (as if it’s difficult not to look at a cute baby), it really allows you to zone into the distinct features of your subject and does not hide any details. It’s especially great for portraits, as we can zone in on the important details such as the facial features and expressions (make sure to ensure the subject’s eyes are in focus!). This is always a popular choice for our clients looking for new-born photos, a great present to embarrass your child when they get older!

Here are few good examples of filling the frame used to capture facial expression and detail.

What is Negative Space?

This is another technique where you do exactly the opposite of what we instructed! (Well, almost opposite). This is a great technique to create a beautiful, minimalist photograph that holds a lot of dramatic impact.

Negative space provides the viewer with a sense of space in relation to the subject and the landscape. This is great if you want to convey how grandiose your surroundings are, or if you want to isolate the subject and create a bit of depth and mystery. In Layman’s terms, this technique gives your subject a bit of breathing space, giving your eye a little bit of rest before reaching the subject, making for a more appealing frame.

Contrast and Juxtaposition

Contrasting elements in a frame have a strong visual impact. The most used or obvious form of contrast is through tonal and colour contrast (100% do further reading on colour theory and the colour wheel, however contrast can also be added in the form of shapes and textures as well.

Not all contrast has to be nonabstract, artists and photographers have used juxtaposition and contrast in photography to tell memorable visual stories these ideas can be conceptual and subjective ideas such as war and peace, old and young, dark and light etc.

What is Depth of Field?

Depth of field is where you get to be a bit more creative with your lens by allowing you to change how much of the image is in focus!

It can turn an average scene into something that’s more artistic and eye-catching. Playing around with the depth of field will allow you to tell a story with the foreground and background, by dictating what the observer will focus on.

For example, if you are in a cluttered and messy environment, but you can’t stop and admire at how good your subject looks, you can use a shallow depth of field by staying at the lowest f-stop possible to blur the background and focus attention on the subject. If, however, you’re interested in cooperating the environment, you can raise the f-stop for a clearer and crisper background, which might be useful if your subject’s style goes well with the cluttered background for example.

Experimentation, Rule Breaking & A Mixture of Everything

Now ignore everything I said, and completely bend the rules, or add rules together. There is no reason not to mix-up these rules, and create beautiful photographs, or completely ignore the rules and create some of your own.

Photography is very subjective, and whilst it’s nice to follow some simple composition tools, in the end, you are the curator of your images, you design your own story, and bring your vision to life.

Create something abstract or something documentary like, it does not matter, photography is about experimentation an looking for something that tells a striking visual story.

Have a look at Richard Mosse use of infrared photography to capture the Civil War in the Republic of Congo as an example. His pictures are something that completely abandons composition rules yet tells a strong and poignant story of a brutal war.

So here are some tips you can use to improve your photography game. Get your cameras out and get snapping!

About the author

My name is Kush, and along with Adam, we are WeShootYou. We both met through our mutual bond of photography and also our interest in film photography.

I grew up with a film camera in my hand, when I was living in Nepal, I loved capturing intimate family moments and enjoyed the process of helping my dad develop the film. I love the slow and meticulous process of film photography, which I believe really helps you develop your skills as a photographer. Unlike with a digital camera, you are doing most of the work, and you are the brains behind the whole operation. And even as a young kid, I always understood that.

A similar story is true with Adam, growing up living in Greece and the UK, Adam loved capturing the best of both worlds, from the sunny shores of the Greek Islands to the hustle and bustle of London life, film photography for him was a great way to keep memories of both worlds.

And as friends, with a strong passion for photography, we decided to create WeShootYou, to give documentary-style photography, which allows us to execute our creativity and also help our clients etch memories for a lifetime.

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