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When you are on location and trying to pick a spot to start shooting, you have to decide what you want in the photo and what you don’t. Composition basically comes down to deciding what to keep in and out of the photograph. The vibe or look you’re going for can help start making these decisions. If you want a more minimal photo, you might want to keep a lot of things out of the frame. If you want to create layers or lots of visual interest, maybe you want to keep a lot of things in the frame. As always, it is a balancing act. Sometimes a photo with too little in it robs it of the emotional impact, but photos that are so busy that your eye can’t focus also run the risk of having no impact.
When you are posing your subject, think about what features of the location help to tell the story. Why did you pick that location? What does it add to your photo? Look at the photos of Ange below. We picked a cemetery as the location for the shoot because she obviously wanted a spooky, Halloween shoot. There are different ways to use the headstones within the photo. In the horizontal photo below, you can see a bunch of the headstones. Some are closer, some are farther away. They give the photo depth.
In the portrait of Ange below, you can still see the headstones, although they are far less prominent. And they aren’t in focus. (We will cover that in another lesson, but it has to do with aperture settings.) You still get the idea that Ange is standing in a cemetery, but it isn’t as clear. Ange is clearly the focus of the photo and the headstones just give a bit of context, whereas they are almost competing with Ange as the subject of the photo above.
In this photo below, the headstones are even more out of focus. You can maybe tell that those are what the greyish blobs are, but maybe not. Ange is completely the star of the photo. The context isn’t that important, except for that fact that it fades into the background. However, if you had a mismatch between the background and the vibe of the photo, it probably would go from being unnoticeable to being confusing.
Before you start working on getting more complicated with composition, the first thing you need to train yourself to look for are distractions. What counts as a distraction? Anything that looks out of place. Some of the more obvious ones are garbage, traffic cones, something that ruins the illusion you are trying to create. Air grates seem to cause me an unreasonable amount of issues. A distraction could even be a tree that has branching sticking out in odd directions. A brown patch within a field of green grass.
Not only are these things distracting for the eye, but those are the things that can cause you a headache in post processing. What’s the easiest way to deal with them? Get them out of your frame before you’re faced with trying to erase them.
If you can move the distracting item, that is always the best (and easiest) place to start. Garbage. Cones – depending on what they’re for. If you can’t move the distracting item, your next step is move your own feet. A few steps one way or the other might be enough to get that pesky thing out of your frame. If you’re stuck in one spot, then try having the subject move. Maybe they can block the thing with their body or they can move far enough away that the object is then out of frame.
Am I saying that you can’t deal with things in post? Of course not. Sometimes you get stuck with something that just has to be in the frame. Sometimes you didn’t notice something on location that is blatantly obvious once you are looking through the images. (Don’t feel bad – we have all done this so many times.) But it is far, far easier to troubleshoot on site and get it out of the photo than worrying about it after. This photo of Z had a bunch of power lines running in the background that I simply didn’t notice on location. If you look behind her, you can see the whispers of where they used to be.
Choosing what to keep in and what to keep out is also just about aesthetics. Said in other words – does it add something to the photo? Does it make the photo look prettier? Take the photo of Z below. It is pretty clear that she is on some sort of stone portico,so you don’t necessarily need the pot with the mini bush or the statue to tell you that. But think if I’d cropped the photo in more. The photo would be ok, but it has more personality and interest with them in it. Having one on either side also makes the photo feel balanced.
When all else fails and you feel totally overwhelmed, just remember that the crop tool exists. Does the photo feel cluttered? Too busy? Off balance? (That could also be a horizon lines issue – check out my post here.) If something feels off about the photo, hit that crop tool and make some magic. It is amazing what that tool can do and it takes very little time.
When you are on location, there will be a million things vying for your attention. Training your eye to start noticing small details is going to feel overwhelming at first and take time. And, honestly, there are still times when it feels overwhelming to me and I miss something in the moment that seems so obvious in retrospect. It happens. This is not meant to be a perfect standard that you expect yourself to meet every time. It is a set of skills that will continue to get better and support you as your photography gets better.
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Hi, I'm Dylan, a photographer in the Philadelphia Metro Area. I love iced coffee, red wine, and am always up for binging Gilmore Girls or Parks and Rec..