Have you ever been so captivated by a photo, not because of the moment or light, but because of the perspective? It felt like, “HOW did they do that?!” as you reflect on your own photos feeling kind of blah?
Let’s breakthrough that feeling with some composition techniques specifically for us storytelling, documentary photographers.
I’ve noticed some photographers are deeply hung up on finding the moment when shooting. Moment, moment, moment. Yes, moment is important. It’s the heart of the photo after all, right?
The problem is, being so focused on the MOMENT can cause blind spots: over-clicking + under-thinking about the composition + light.
So let’s work towards creating a harmony between your use of light, composition, and heart of the story with some easy-to-implement composition techniques!
All photos by Marie Masse
Placing your subject in the center of your frame is a classic, go-to composition. This particular photo below works, because I got down on Kendall’s level. There is also some added balance and dimension to the photo, because she was standing in the center of our trail in our backyard.
You can see the tiny flowers in the foreground, on the same plane as her, and all the bokeh in the background.
And yes, this was a purely documented moment as we were stopped during our walk and she was watching her brother run ahead.
If you imagine a grid of 9 squares in your frame (4 lines) and place your subject on the intersections of these lines, as described here on the Digital Photography School blog, this is rule of thirds.
This is one of the first compositions photographers learn and keep in their toolbox throughout the years.
HINT: this is kinda long, so grab the cheatsheet to print + glance when it’s time to practice:
You may not be able to create a photo for each of these compositions in every scene, but they’re a menu of options beyond the rule of thirds or centered compositions 🙂
Consider those viewing your photo as you’re shooting:
That’s your moment, right?
Now, how can you lure your viewer into the photo and navigate them to the heart of the moment using composition?
Shoot from above. You’ll notice all of these images still implement the rule of thirds or center positioning my subject, but there’s a totally different perspective here.
This is one of my favorite ways to add some serious dimension and draw the viewer’s eye straight to the subject. Light can get a little tricky here.
A little side tip: Typically, when I apply this technique, my subject is in the light and I’m in shooting from the shadows.
I have a tendency to love my prints large. My favorite canvas size is a 24×36. When you include an entire scene with your subject in your frame, it’s like stepping into another world when you look at the photo on your wall.
Including the whole scene allows you to set the mood for your one image or even for the rest of your photo story if shooting a series of images.
You can see the perspective of how small we are, especially children, in our big world. You can feel the season. You can almost hear the crickets chirping, for the big country scenes, or feel the quiet moment stolen for the couple alone on the golf course.
If you like negative space, this is the composition for you! It’s like extreme rule of thirds (because I’m not great at math and have no idea how to describe what I’m talking about mathematically).
You’ll see in some cases, my subject is even cropped (and by cropped, I mean excluded from my view finder, as it’s rare that I actually crop in post-processing to maintain the quality of the photo).
I’ve heard photographers sometimes refer to this as layering. Essentially, you are using multiple planes to create dimension inside of your image. Here, there are 2 layers of depth and an excellent starting point if you are just starting out with working on dimension. Typically, there is one focal point and a very obvious second layer to the image with an out-of-focus foreground object.
Technically speaking, there is a background to layers making a third plane. Below, you’ll see this is usually a wall. However, it’s the first two planes (like the sweet boy and his toy snakes or my two cousins with the restaurant’s table items – ketchup and napkins) that are the important elements of the story.
With all of the pieces of the photo, there are often sub-stories to your main story here. My secret to making this work is to position yourself so there is balance in the photo – you’ll watch for diamonds (four points), lines, or triangles.
It may sound hard, but with practice, you’ll start to gravitate to your composition without really thinking about it… kind of like driving somewhere and then not recalling the drive (ever done that?).
This is probably not the type of composition you’d see in classic documentary photography, but whatever. I love the idea of mixing artistry and different genres if it enhances YOUR unique voice as a photographer. Much like using multiple planes or shooting from the outside in, you’re doing essentially the same thing to create dimension.
Create a frame around the subject that covers most of your image (like shooting through the hole on the back of our mailbox to photograph Kendall) or just a part of the image (like the tree in the last photo in this section).
You can use this technique to eliminate any kind of scene noise (unwanted things in your photo that likely would distract your viewer from the heart of the moment) or to add something unexpected to your gallery.
As I talked about before with details, a detail can be an object (a thing), a person, an emotion, or something sensory. Getting close can be an excellent way to draw that detail out in your photo.
Does it feel weird to chop off body parts in your photos? This technique can only work if you are applying it in harmony with killer light and moment and/or dimension (layers).
I think when some photographers hear the term “leading lines” they take it quite literally. If you have awesome literal lines in your scene, that’s awesome. However, you can use lines from the environment and your subject to create a line.
Take this first image below, there is a diagonal line from the top left corner to the bottom right using the tree branches and my subject (mom’s face) below. Then, the photo of my parents and Kendall walking down the street. The position of my parents and the line of the road creates a line of depth.
Super similar to framing and adding multiple layers to a photo, here you an object that is not really important to the story in the photo. It does not have to frame your subject entirely. It can be a subtle addition or maybe very obvious, but regardless, it doesn’t distract the viewer.
In the first photo below, I was shooting into a small mirror in a bridal suite. In the last photo in this section, I used a tree to add a little something in the foreground, which caused the green spots on the left side of my frame – this helped to eliminate the black truck in the background.
You can do this in two ways: put a part of your body in the frame or make the focal point be a part of your body as if you’re looking at yourself.
That was a long one.
Start working these techniques into your shooting by picking ONE to practice each week over the next 12 weeks.
Hey Storyteller... Pick one and pass this onto a friend: