3 Important Elements of Composition No One’s Talking About

This is a Guest Post by Darlene Hildebrandt

There are many articles that talk about how to use compositional elements to create dynamic images with more impact, but very few ever talk about what not to do. In some cases it is just as, or even more important, so we’re going to look at three elements of composition that you want to watch out for, particularly in your backgrounds and how they can make or break your image.

First What Are the 3 Important Elements of Composition No One’s Talking About?

Simple – they are as follows:

  • Contrast –  The difference in color and brightness of one object to another.
  • Brightness – The amount of luminance of an object where white is maximum brightness and black is minimum brightness.
  • Sharpness – The amount of clarity of detail in an image or particular area.
Each of these three elements can play off one another, in the next few paragraphs I’ll show you how to use them properly, while giving some examples that will demonstrate how and why improper use can make your photographs less pleasing.

Now, Let’s Examine How They Can Make or Break Our Photos

Each of those elements, when used expertly, allow you to guide the viewers eye where you want, ideally directly to your subject. But if you do not pay attention to these elements they can control the eye and make the viewer look where you do not want, such as the background, or all over the place. Here’s a few examples of both good and poor use of one or more of these elements:

Bright Background Distract from the Subject
Bright background distracts from the subject

The image above has a shallow depth of field so the viewer is first drawn towards the sharpest area, the leaves in the foreground. However, the background has a lot of contrast, vibrant colours, and is much brighter than the subject – so the eye is torn between looking at the sharp leaves and those things in the background. If you are not sure if you have a problem with bright spots in your background, a little trick you can try is turning the image (or your camera even) upside down. Then your eye will go where it wants to naturally, in this case right to the background. (see image below)

Inverting the above image further illustrates this point
Inverting the above image further illustrates this point

Here’s another image of virtually the same subject matter (the green leaves and flower bud) taken from another angle so that the background is not so distracting. Notice how the background being darker, and out of focus just fades away and you see the ones in the foreground more clearly. So simply by adjusting my camera position, and taking a close look at what is in the background I’ve got a much more successful image.

By finding a dark background the subject is isolated and the image is more pleasing
By finding a dark background the subject is isolated and the image is more pleasing

Okay so what about sharpness? As I mentioned above the eye is naturally drawn to those things that are sharp in the image, which is why you see so many images with very blurry backgrounds and why lenses like the 85mm f1.2 are so popular. But you don’t need a big, fancy expensive f1.2 lens to create nice “bokeh” (fancy word for blurry stuff in background). I’ve written a post about controlling your depth of field which can give you more information on how to create bokeh. Lens selection and proximity of the subject to the background also make a huge difference in the final image.

In the example below, the image was created with a 35mm lens (on a Canon 5D full frame camera) at f20. So there is a lot of depth of field and the background shrubs behind him are relatively sharp. The image appears very busy and the man is almost lost in all of it, save for the fact he has a brightly coloured shirt on he’d all but disappear.

In much the same way, busy, sharp backgrounds distract your viewer’s focus

By simply choosing a longer lens, moving him further away from the background, and selecting a wider aperture we can create a completely different looking image using the same background. Below you see the resulting image, shot with an 80mm lens at f2.8. He has also moved forward towards the camera a few feet, allowing for the background to be more out of focus. No matter what aperture you use, if your subject is close to the background you will never get the nice soft bokeh in the background you may desire. That can be achieved even with a lens whose maximum aperture is f4 or even f5.6. You’ll be amazed at how this little tip will change your images. Zoom in to a longer focal length (80mm or longer for people), back up, and have them step away from the background. Try it and post your results here for us to see!

By positioning the subject further from the background and using a wide aperture the background melts away and focus on the subject is restored.

Let’s look at another example. You will find the brightness and contrast tend to go together, where there is one you also find the other. That’s usually because brightness means that it is in the bright sunlight which inherently is a contrasty light source. So watch for bright areas in your background when you’re out shooting and try and get another angle that eliminates the bright hot spots that are so distracting. See below for two examples. You tell me which image features the fountain better? Which one has a simpler background? Which one has a distracting one that takes your eye away from the fountain?

Harsh light will create overpowering backgrounds that distract from the focal point.
By removing the contrasting white building in the background the image instantly becomes more pleasing.

Last example, two images from a wedding. Notice the first one has some very bright areas in the background. This is a common mistake that’s easy to fix. But please do it in camera, not in Photoshop or Lightroom. Endeavouring to get the image right as you take it is the road to better photography. The attitude of “I’ll fix it later” is in my opinion lazy and careless, when a few small adjustments will make a much stronger image. The couple is already in the shade, which is good for people photography, but the background is too busy, bright and takes your eye away from the couple.

Yes, this is a “good” photo, but it could be better. The harsh light in the background takes focus away from the couple.

By once again changing the camera angle and position of the subjects a much more pleasing, simple background is achieved. The higher camera angle helps eliminate the bright areas further in the distance and a higher angle is more flattering for most people anyway. Remember the KISS principal too, it works! Simplify, simplify, simplify!

Once again, by paying attention to the background and removing the contrast and brightness the couple instantly becomes the main focus of the photo.

I hope you find these tips helpful. Please add your comments and if you find value in this article please share it!

Find out more about Darlene Hildebrandt who is both a professional photographer and an educator. She sells her fine art images at art galleries and online, teaches aspiring amateurs, hobbyists and pros how to improve their photography skills through private tutoring, photo tours, and photography classes in Edmonton, AB, Canada. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook!

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  1. says

    excellent information and advice. your photos illustrating your point is very helpful to me. love the way you explain … great article for shutterbugs wanting to improve overall esthetics of their shots

  2. says

    Hi Lynda and Jim – thanks for the comments! Glad you found it useful! There’s also a related post about depth of field on my site if you wanna read more. The link is in the article above!

  3. Vicky Hildebrandt says

    Even a non-professional, like me, can benefit from a great article like this. I actually understand what you mean and hopefully will make proper use of your tips and information. The comparison photos you show are amazing; I can definitely see exactly what the different results are. Thank you.

  4. says

    Darlen, you truly always have the greatest tips to share. I love your teaching methods! The information is easy to understand, the illustrations are clear and overall so helpful in every way. Always look forwards to the next lesson! Carmen

  5. Margaret Abraham says

    Great tips and info Darlene. I just got back from Costa Rica [2am today 90degrees to zero] and have been dealing with difficult lighting conditions especially with wildlife. Always enjoy your writings and facebook comments.

  6. John Minser says

    really enjoyed the lesson and need it as well. I do think the first image of the young couple was set up to fail. Between the “tilt” and the tree growing out of the young mans head, its tack sharp but just not a good photo, IMHO. I did download it and mess with it some and I can make better, at least to my eye, but its for far tilted and so close a crop I cant straighten it without cutting his head off.

    Not being a critic I hope, just sharing my view.

    • says

      Glad to hear you enjoyed the lesson. Darlene did a great job with this article!

      I think we’d all agree with you about that photo and it’s problems, after all, Darlene had used that photo as an example of a shot that some people might have seen as ‘good enough’ where as the second photograph of the couple she went ahead and fixed a lot of the issues you talk about.

      I think your comment basically proves her point that just because you think you can fix an okay shot in photoshop doesn’t necessarily mean that you actually can fix it without ruining some of the things that made it okay in the first place.

      Thanks for the comment and I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the tips :).

  7. Ditty says

    Just tuned into your tutorials and I love the way you explain and give examples. You have made it all come together. Can’t wait to try my hand and eye at it.THANK YOU!

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