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Photography Composition II

How balancing foreground and background can help you take better pictures


The 'rules' of photography composition aren't meant to be studiously dwelt on every time you take a picture. But every now and again thinking about what actually makes a good shot can help to cement a few visual principles in your mind.

So here are some tips on balance and weight to help improve your digital photography composition.


Quotable Quote:

The camera, you know, will never capture you. Photography, in my experience, has the miraculous power of transferring wine into water
- Oscar Wilde

Ouch! Not if you read this book Oscar...
The Photographer's Eye, by Brian Peterson


Balance and Weight in Photography Composition


We all have a fairly instinctive impression of balance. Photographs with one half empty and one half full of action look awkward. So how to ensure consistently good balance in our photos...?

One helpful approach is to think about the visual weight of the objects in the scene you are looking at. Imagine them on a set of weighing scales or a seesaw. The centre mark in the viewfinder is the hinge point around which the rest of the image balances.

So let's say we're taking a shot of 2 people. One of them is well over to the right and one is just to the left of the centre in the viewfinder. The guy on the right is dragging the balance of the picture over in his direction - just as though they were on a seesaw, where the further someone is from the centre the more leverage they have.

Moving the person on the right towards the centre would produce a more pleasing, balanced image. Equally, moving the person on the left further out to the edge, leaving the two focal points at opposite sides of the picture, would achieve the same.

It''s tougher to get the compositional balance right when capturing lots of moving objects than a few static ones, which is why someone like Henri Cartier Bresson was so clever. But I think you just develop a feel for it over time - and thinking about component parts of a picture as 'weighted' definitely helps.


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Foreground and Background - Common mistakes of composition in photography

Balancing the foreground and background is an important part of achieving pleasing images. There seem to be two common mistakes here:

The first simply involves giving too much space over to either the foreground or background. For example a picture of mountains with only a thin strip of land in the foreground - producing a lop-sided effect.

The second mistake is to cramp everything up. Imagine a shot with boats in the foreground, water in the middle and tall trees behind. If the tops of the boats stray into the water section, which in turn fights for room with the trees and they then are cramped up at the top edge of the picture, the whole thing is crashing into itself and very unsatisfying to look at. Give the main areas of your shots plenty of breathing space and room to balance each other out.


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Good Uses of Foreground and Background


The content and visual qualitities of the foreground and background are important too:

Empty background: A plain, uninteresting background forces the viewer to focus only on whatever is in the foreground, often a portrait.


(This is not my picture, but clearly illustrates the value of a plain background for certain portraits)

Empty foreground: Images with no particular foreground detail draw attention to the shapes and colours of, often slightly geometric or abstract, objects behind.

Geese over mill

(I didn't want any foreground detail here because the landscape is reduced to stark shapes and objects)

Detailed Background: The details contained in a background inform how the foreground elements are seen. Certain portrait photos only make sense due to a deliberate association the photographer is making between the subject and their surroundings.

not funny anymore

(I wanted to draw the eye in to the background here to contextualise the portrait)


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Detailed Foreground: Foreground details help provide a sense of scale, texture and perspective. Foregrounds are important in landscape photos in off-setting and complementing wide open vistas with smaller, tangible details.

snowy mountains

(I liked the way the rocks and snow in the foreground echoed the contrasts of the mountain behind)

I hope some of that proves useful for you. Here are some tips on using the golden mean in your digital photography composition.

Here's my review of a fantastic book on composition in photography that I've found really helpful - The Photographer's Eye, by Michael Freeman.

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What do you like most about your camera? Why not give it a little review on here on Photography Art Cafe!? How long have you been a photographer? What are your thoughts on photography composition? Share your, knowledge, ideas, stories and photos!

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