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You are hereHome > Tutorials > Learn > Composition


Pictures don't just come out looking right. If you look at some of the pictures you especially like, you will notice that the way the picture was composed probably has a lot to do with it. What we mean by composition is how you place your subject(s) on the blank canvas that's your 4x6 (or 5x7 or 8x10).

Rule of Thirds
If you mentally divide your screen into three horizontal and three vertical sections, where the lines intersect are focal points. Focal points are what the eyes naturally seek out when they look at a photograph. It therefore stands to reason that a focal point is a good place to position our main subject. It's not a hard and fast rule, so don't go bonkers trying to place your subject right at a focal point. As I am fond of reminding people who insist on others strictly obeying rules, "Rules are made to serve us, not the other way round."

The upper and lower horizontal lines also make for a good division of where approximately to put the horizon depending on whether you want more land (or sea) or more sky.

Portraits are a challenge, and all I can say in this regard is, The closer you get, the better. Crop tightly, remove superflous material. Avoid the "tree growing out of the head" syndrome. This is a good time to use aperture priority mode and set as large a f/stop (e.g. F2.8) as your camera allows. A large f/stop means less depth of field, which means that only the subject you focus on will be in focus, leaving all the rest blurred. This is a good thing for a portrait as it brings out your main subject and throws the background out of focus. This is easily accomplished with a 35mm film camera, but quite a challenge with digital cameras due to their lenses having such short focal lengths. If you have it, zoom in using your optical zoom (beware of using digital zoom which causes loss of picture resolution).

Some fake the background blur after the fact in an image editing software. I have yet to see a good background blur fake, and the result looks, well, fake. So use caution in this regard.

If the face is in shadow compared with the rest of the picture, you might want to use fill-in flash to properly expose the face. If you use fill-in flash, ensure your subject is not too close to the background (e.g. a wall) so as to avoid stark shadows on the background.

Recommended Camera Settings:
Focal length 100 mm
Aperture F2.8 (as large a f/stop as is available for proper exposure)
Exposure / Shooting Mode Aperture Priority / Portrait
Flash Fill-in, if face is in shadow

Landscapes are the opposite end of portraits in the sense that this time you mostly want all the picture to be in focus. To achieve this effect, use as small a f/stop as your camera allows, say f/16. The smaller the f/stop, the greater the depth of field achieved, and objects near and far will be in focus (again, with consumer digital cameras and the short focal lengths of their lenses, good depth of field is achieved even with 'large' f/stop). You could use the Law of Thirds to capture 1/3 land and 2/3 sky, or the other way round, 2/3 land and 1/3 sky. You would surely want to use a wide-angle lens setting. Adding a foreground object might help achieve a sense of three dimensionality. If water is involved, a slow shutter speed will give the impression of flowing water. If the sea is involved, a polarizing filter will cut glare and give the 'transparent' water effect.

Recommended Camera Settings:
Focal length 38 mm
Aperture F16 (as small a f/stop as is available for proper exposure)
Exposure / Shooting Mode Aperture Priority / Landscape
Tripod Yes, for long exposures

This is a new and exciting mode that is becoming more prevalent in digital cameras. Start by setting your camera on the tripod and ensure that it can only swivel left and right and not up and down. Take your first shot. Note the edges of the picture carefully and identify where you want to overlap the next picture. Choose an object where the overlap will be less apparent. Then, without moving the tripod to another spot, swivel the camera, say clockwise, and take your second shot making sure you have overlapped a part of your first shot. Continue to swivel and take shots until you have captured everything you wanted to. Then use the software provided with your camera to "stitch" the shots together to form your panoramic picture. If done properly, panoramic pictures (landscapes and group pictures) can be very impressive. Note that best alignment results are obtained from cameras with the tripod socket smack under the lens.

Recommended Camera Settings:
Focal length 38 mm
Aperture F16 (as small a f/stop as is available for proper exposure)
Exposure / Shooting Mode Aperture Priority or Manual / Panorama
Tripod Yes, essential

Why would you choose Aperture Priority for panoramic shots? Simple, by fixing the aperture, you also fix the depth of field while you take the different shots. Otherwise, changes in depth of field would result in the shots not aligning properly.

Why would you choose Manual sometimes? If your panoramic shot has too much varying lighting situation, you may be in trouble. If you leave the camera in Auto or Aperture Priority mode, the camera will constantly adjust for proper exposure and you might not be able to color align your shots correctly, e.g. sky might look different shades of blue from one shot to another. The best thing to do is to take a test shot and adjust the camera exposure settings manually. Then use the same settings for all your shots. If some of your shots have very bright areas and some very dark areas, my suggestion is to bracket the exposure for those problem areas: take one shot at your determined manual settings, then take 2 more shots, one 1/3 stop over and one 1/3 stop under. Later, you can manipulate the images to combine the best of the bracketed shots.

Up Close
Macro photography is fun but not too many photographers indulge in it. For good reasons, since most amateur cameras do not have the equipment to do it properly. Most close-up shots do not look anything like what the pros shoot because of the lighting difference. Most professional close up shots (even of insects) are done in a studio with controlled lighting. Some cameras can be attached with a special close-up flash called a ring flash or ring light. This ring flash shines a diffused light all around your subject to allow proper exposure without harsh shadows. So far, I've seen only a few digital cameras, mostly from Nikon and Canon, that have this ring flash. If you love macro photography but can't figure out why your close-up shots lack that je-ne-sais-quoi omphh, then consider a digital camera with a ring flash. Another point to consider is if it's quite windy out there, you might not be able to use a slow shutter speed for maximum depth of field (in macro mode, depth of field is already at a minimum, so you want as much as you can get just to get the whole subject in focus). SO using some kind of lighting, even if it's a white cardboard to reflect sunlight on your subject, may be a good idea.

Recommended Camera Settings:
Focal length macro setting
Aperture F16 (as small a f/stop as is available for proper exposure)
Exposure / Shooting Mode Aperture Priority / Macro
Tripod Yes, for long exposures


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