Digital Focus: Photo Composition Tips

Feature: Thinking in Thirds

Pictures are windows into a virtual world. And windows, when you think about it, are frames with contents that can change depending upon how you look. When you gaze out of out a window, your view of the outdoors is framed by your position in the room. If you don't like what you see, move to a different place in the room--you'll get a different view.

Photography is a lot like that. It is up to us as photographers to decide how to frame our pictures. The only difference is that our decisions are permanent, so it pays to put some thought into composition.

Photography's Most Important Rule

When we take ordinary snapshots, we rarely plan ahead. The snapshot process is fast and casual: See something interesting; put camera to eye; put subject in frame; press shutter release. In fact, that's what often distinguishes a picture as a snapshot: The subject usually ends up smack in the middle of the frame.

If you thumb through magazines and look at professional photos, or even watch the way scenes are framed on TV and in the movies, you'll find that the subject is rarely dead center in the frame. Instead, photographers rely on what is probably the single most important rule in composing pictures: the Rule of Thirds.

The Rule of Thirds divides the frame into a grid that resembles a tic-tac-toe board. The idea is that the four points in the frame where the lines intersect are areas of natural interest. Placing the subject at one of these points usually creates a pleasing image. And sure enough, you'll find that a staggering number of professional photos follow this rule.

Don't feel shackled to the Rule of Thirds, though. It's just a guide to taking more interesting pictures. Rules are meant to be broken--or, at the very least, bent. Certain subjects benefit from a slightly different treatment. For instance, you can align your subject not with one of the four points, but instead lay it along one of the lines. Or your subject might be so large that it takes up a lot of the frame; it doesn't really fit in one of the four spots. When that happens, I pick an interesting element and focus on that. If you're shooting a person or an animal, eyes make a great focal point.

Watch Your Focus

Of course, if you're shooting pictures with the subject off-center, your camera may not be able to focus properly. For example, it might deliver a sharp background, but the subject itself will be out of focus because it wasn't in the middle.

This is an ideal time to use your digital camera's exposure lock. Most cameras have a "two step" shutter release button. Apply slight pressure to the button, and the focus locks on whatever is centered in the frame. Press a little harder, and the camera takes the picture. The trick, then, is to center the subject and lock the exposure. Then recompose the shot with the subject in a "third" position while holding slight pressure on the shutter release. Finally, press down the rest of the way to take the picture.

For more cool things you can do with your camera's exposure lock, read "More Exposure Tricks."

Recompose on the PC

It's worth remembering that the Crop tool in your favorite image editor can help you turn almost any boring snapshot into a more compelling composition. In Jasc's Paint Shop Pro, click the Crop tool (third from the top in the toolbar on the left side of the screen). Then click and drag within the picture to reframe your photo. When you like your crop, double-click inside the crop frame to recompose the shot. Save the picture with a different name so you don't lose the original version.

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