Choosing a Camera Position and Focal Length

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Once you've spotted a subject and decided to start working it, you're ready to begin composing your shot. All composition begins with a choice about where to stand.

"But why do I need to think about where to stand?" you may be saying. After all, you've spotted the image; shouldn't you just take the picture? Not necessarily. The odds that you happen to have recognized a shot from the absolute best position in the world for shooting it are pretty small, and camera position can have a huge bearing on what your final image looks like.

Obviously, standing closer or farther, or off to one side or the other, can make a big difference in your shot. But camera position also affects your choice of focal length, and focal length can have a huge impact on the sense of space in your scene.

Understanding how focal length choice affects your image

While a zoom lens is a great convenience that keeps you from having to move around so much when you're shooting—rather than walk across the street, for example, you can just zoom in—it also tends to make for lazy photographers and to keep shooters from thinking about the right focal length for their scene.

Zooming a lens does much more than simply make a far subject appear closer. When you change focal lengths, a lot of things in your image change. Consequently, it's important to understand what a longer or shorter focal length does to your image.

These two images are framed the same way, but the camera position and focal length changed, resulting in dramatic differences in the composition of the image.

My goal in both shots was to have my subject as large as possible. In the left image, I was standing farther away and so had to zoom in to get her to fill the frame. In the second image, I moved very close and so had to zoom out to a shorter focal length. While both strategies fill the frame with my subject, look at the huge differences in the background of the image.

In the left image, the background is filled with plants; in the right image, we can see some architecture and a fair amount of sky. Note, too, the difference in the sense of space in the image. In the left image, the plants in the background appear closer, whereas in the right image they look farther away and shorter.

When you zoom in (or, if you're using prime lenses, when you choose a lens with a longer focal length), the sense of depth in your scene gets compressed. Objects in the background will appear closer, and the overall composition of shapes, as well as sense of space, can be very different.

So, rather than standing in one place and zooming around to get your shot, it's important to pay attention to how different focal lengths affect the sense of space in your image. By choosing a different camera position and focal length, you can choose to make a space seem more spacious or more intimate (or, depending on the subject matter, more desolate or cramped).

Note that the compositional differences shown in those two images are all visible through the viewfinder, so you don't even need to take a shot to experiment with focal length changes.

Focal length and portraits

When shooting a portrait, it's also very important to pay attention to focal length because, just as the sense of space in a large scene changes dramatically depending on your focal length choice, people's faces can be similarly distorted. Again, here are two images framed with the subject taking up the same amount of space:

Focal length choice and camera position are also critical when shooting portraits.

The left image was shot with a slightly telephoto lens. For the image on the right, I switched to a wide-angle lens and moved in closer. Obviously, the wide-angle lens has greatly distorted the man's face. Note, too, the change in background. In the left image, the oven in the background looks very close, whereas in the right image it appears farther away. The wide angle lens has stretched the distance between his nose and ear and between his head and the background.

Portrait photographers typically use a focal length that's a little longer than a normal lens. On the T1i, 50mm is just about perfect for flattering portraiture. When combined with a large aperture, you'll get nice portraits with a soft background.

Composing Your Shot

Composition is the process of arranging the elements in your scene—the shapes and objects that comprise your foreground and background—to create a pleasing image.

Earlier we looked at some simple composition rules: fill the frame, lead your subject, don't be afraid to get in tight. These guidelines can greatly improve your snapshots and are relevant to all kinds of shooting. For more complex subjects and to produce more compelling images, though, you'll want to think about some additional compositional ideas.

There's no right or wrong to composition, but some compositions are definitely better than others. Rules are made to be broken, of course, and many compositions won't ascribe to any particular compositional theory or set of rules. However, when trying to make a photo—that is, when you've found an interesting subject and you're trying to figure out how to shoot it—remembering these compositional ideas will help you explore and experiment, and will probably lead you to better results.

Balance

One of the simplest compositional ideas is balance. Balance in a photo works just like balance in the real world. Different elements in your photo have compositional "weight," and you need to balance those against each other.

The contrail in the left image serves to balance the compositional "weight" of the cliff. If we remove the contrail, the image falls a bit out of balance.

Compositional balance is a tricky thing because you don't need elements of equal size to create balance. Just as a small piece of lead on a scale can balance a tremendous number of marshmallows, some small graphic elements can balance elements that are much larger. This is almost always true with people. We put a lot of import on people, and a single person in a frame can balance a huge amount of other compositional elements.

Humans carry a lot of compositional weight. Even a small figure can balance a very large element.

Humans carry a lot of compositional weight. Even a small figure can balance a very large element.

You won't always balance shapes in a composition. Sometimes you will find balance by putting tones—light and dark—against each other.

Here, the light line at the top of the image balances the dark shape at the bottom.

Sometimes, even empty space can create a balance. Consider this image:

Sometimes, even empty space can create a balance. Consider this image:

Sometimes you can balance an element in a scene using empty space.

This image is a good example of breaking a rule, because we're plainly breaking the "lead your subject" rule. In this image, though, it works. The woman's pensive, reflective expression makes the empty space behind her more powerful. That space is evocative of emotional weight that is bearing down on her, or of her past. Graphically, the mostly empty space on the left balances out her presence on the right.

Geometry

Geometric shapes make great compositional elements and almost always make an image more interesting. Geometry can be anything from a strong line to a repeating pattern. You can see examples of geometry in some of the balance images we already looked at. The strong line of the airplane contrail makes for compelling compositions and packs a lot of compositional weight.

Circles, lines, patterns—all of these geometric shapes make great compositional elements that you can use to create more interesting images.

Sometimes, pure geometry itself can be interesting.

This fairly abstract scene is composed of pure geometry.

Repetition

Roughly akin to geometry is repetition. Repeating geometric or tonal patterns in an image are another powerful compositional device.

Repeating elements and textures almost always make for interesting compositions.

The rule of thirds

If you imagine a grid laid over your image that divides the picture into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, then the intersections of those grid lines make good places to put compositional elements. This is known as the rule of thirds, and it will often lead you to good compositions.

The rule of thirds can provide a good guideline for positioning elements in the frame.

TIP: Don't Be Afraid to Put Things in the Middle

It is possible to get too creative. When worrying about the rule of thirds, balance, and all these other things, you might be too clever and forget that, often, the best composition is to leave your subject in the dead center of the frame.

Foreground/background

If you've ever had someone stand you in front of a statue or a landmark, then you've experienced this rule: a photo needs a foreground and a background. Another way of thinking about this is as a subject and a background. What's more, the relationship between those two things is very important.

Earlier you learned about the idea of using the entire frame, or filling the frame. Choosing what to fill the frame with is an important part of good composition.

For example, here's a person standing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge:

This image shows the whole bridge and the whole person, but showing everything isn't always the best approach.

Even though we've filled the entire frame and though we can see the entire bridge and the man's whole body, the image doesn't really have a strong subject. In fact, the bridge is as much the subject as the guy, who serves little purpose other than to indicate scale.

If we want this to be a picture of a person in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, we're better off framing tighter.

Here we have a tighter shot that's easier to read.

By filling the frame with more of the person, we know they are now definitely the subject of the image. Yes, we've had to crop the bridge, but the image still plainly conveys the person in their environment. If you want a picture of the bridge, that's a different subject, and a different photo, and you probably don't need a person in there at all.

finding and composing a photo

Sometimes you'll come across a beautiful or compelling vista and it will be enough to serve as a subject all its own. You'll still want to think about framing and composition and consider some of the rules that we've discussed, but you won't have a definite foreground and background.

While this image doesn't have a definite foreground element, the scene itself is compelling enough to be a subject all on its own.

At other times you might come across a compelling vista but not be able to find a composition that feels right. This might be because the scene lacks a subject, so your eye doesn't really know how to "read" the image. If you can find something to use as a subject, you'll often find it's easier to compose.

The scene on the left is much improved by waiting for the funicular to come into the frame and serve as a subject.

Sometimes, patience is the most important photographic tool at your disposal. If you find a nice background, wait and see whether someone walks into it to complete the composition or to serve as a subject.

Composing with light and dark

Earlier, you saw an example of a light airplane contrail balancing a dark horizon. Very often, you'll build composition out of light and dark, not just out of geometry.

Light is the raw material of photography, so don't forget to pay attention to light and dark elements within an image—they can make great compositional elements.

Also, don't worry if you can't find an exposure that reveals all the detail in a dark area. Often, a completely black shadow is just what an image needs. We don't need to see detail everywhere in an image, and choosing what to show and what to hide is part of the process of making a compelling image.

You can't see any detail in the shadow area of this image, but that's okay. The dark shadow makes the pool of light more pronounced, and any detail in the shadow would simply distract us from the sleeping cat.

Less is more

The world can be annoying in many ways, but for photographers, one of the biggest annoyances (after running out of media cards in the middle of a shoot) is that there's just too much stuff in the world.

Painters have it easy; they start with nothing and add only the things that they want in their scene. Photographers, though, have to contend with power lines, street signs, people who walk into their compositions, and trees that have one branch that's pointing in the wrong direction, and so on and so forth.

One of your most important jobs as a photographer is to find compositions that reduce the clutter in a scene so that the viewer is not confused about what to look at and so that her eye finds its way through the image.

If you work to fill the frame, as discussed in Chapter 1, you'll go a long way toward reducing extraneous clutter in your scene. When you're working a subject and trying to find different ways of shooting, one of the easiest variations is simply to get closer.

Though not always the case, getting in closer to your subject often will yield a more interesting image.

Closer usually yields a less-cluttered, cleaner image. When shooting people, getting in closer can be intimidating because you must move closer to your subject. Obviously, you don't want to make them uncomfortable, but don't be afraid to entertain the idea of moving a little closer when the situation feels right.

When shooting in public, closer often means separating yourself from the crowd and moving toward a scene. This can often leave you feeling like everyone is looking at you. In reality, they probably aren't (everyone is used to seeing people with cameras these days), but more importantly, so what? They notice you for a few moments and then go on about their day, while you return home with an interesting photo.

Some, all, or none

If you look back over the images I've used as examples, you'll find a lot of overlap of compositional ideas. For example, in the funicular picture, note that the funicular is positioned according to the rule of thirds.

You'll find that you can easily mix and match these compositional ideas to build up a good image, and as we've already seen, you might occasionally throw these ideas out altogether. Sometimes you'll be conscious of these rules; sometimes you'll simply go by feeling. If you practice these techniques, you'll soon come to find that even when you review images that you shot by feel, they still conform to many of these concepts. Studying the work of other photographers is also a great way to learn how they put these ideas to use, and sometimes such study makes it easier to understand another shooter's thought process and the choices he made.

Where these rules can be especially helpful is when you come across a scene that you want to capture but don't know where to begin. Start by thinking about camera position and focal length, and look through the lens to see how the sense of depth and space in the scene changes as you adjust position and focal length. Then start thinking about subject and background, and about geometry and pattern, repetition, and the rule of thirds. These can all serve as guidelines as you explore the scene through your camera lens.

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