The Basics of Composition
There are really only a few rules in composition, and even those rules are malleable.
I tried to distill the basics down to three easily-remembered rules, but it's not
quite that easy. However, I did manage to get it down to three basics and a few
assorted small suggestions/recommendations. Here goes.
1. Feature the subject.
Every picture has to have a subject--the subject is what makes the picture interesting.
If your viewers can't figure out what the subject is, your picture has basically
failed. The subject should, in most cases, just about grab the viewer's eyeballs and
shout into their ears "I'm the subject! Look at me!" You, as the
photographer, have the job of making sure the subject does that. Sometimes that's an easy
task; a whale shark in blue water is hard to miss. Other times, it's more difficult;
a camouflaged creature can be difficult to pick out from a busy background.
The peppermint goby is too small to make an effective subject. Can you even
Now we're talking! There's no question what the subject is.
There are several parts to featuring the subject. First off, when you're framing
up a picture, make sure that the subject is a sizable portion of the frame.
I'd say that one quarter to one-third of the frame is sort of bare minimum.
There are exceptions, of course, but 1/4 to 1/3 is a good rule of thumb. Next, be
wary of coral or sand backgrounds for your subject. Blue water is much better.
That's not to say that you can't have coral in the picture, but it's generally better to
have your subject above or next to the coral, with blue water behind it. A very easy
way to avoid cluttered backgrounds is an often-repeated rule for underwater photography: shoot
from below your subject, aiming up towards the surface. Of course I'm not
suggesting you take pictures of fish bellies, so don't over-emphasize this rule.
Just a few degrees of incline below your subject is all it takes. There are other
reasons for shooting upwards, including getting brighter water for a background, taking
advantage of surface effects, and the observation that it's easier to approach fish from
Lighting is also an important part of featuring the subject, but the details of
lighting are another subject for another section. Just remember to light your
Finally, there's a very important rule for featuring the subject: make sure
that you can see the subject's eye, and that it is in focus. "Eye
contact" with the viewer is essential. Whether shooting fish, octopus, turtles,
or people, the eyes have it. If your viewers can't see the subject's eye, they won't
have good contact with it. Just having the eye visible is not good enough; you must
ensure that the eye is in sharp focus. There's only one reliable way to do this: focus
on the eye, every picture, every time. If you can focus on it, you can see
it. You've killed two birds with one stone by remembering that rule.
Aim down, and you get a subject that blends in to the background.
Get down, aim up, and you get a distinct subject.
|2. Don't Center
This is the most common compositional mistake made
by new photographers, and one I make myself even now. Centering a subject seems like
a good thing to do, but it's not. Unless you're shooting portraits, centering is
bad. Why? Because the viewer's eye gets stuck "on center," and the
rest of the frame may as well be wasted. For portraits, that's just what you want.
But for most photographic work, the rest of the frame is important to the overall
experience. The material around the subject sets the scene for the subject, so the
viewer has a chance to place the subject in an environment, which in turn lets the viewer
imagine the gestalt experience of being there when the picture was taken.
If you're not going to center the subject in the frame,
where do you put it? Now is the time to introduce the Rule Of Thirds.
Imagine a tic-tac-toe grid drawn on your camera's viewfinder, splitting the frame into
thirds both horizontally and vertically. What you want to do is place your subject on one
of the four points where the lines intersect. It usually doesn't matter strongly which
of the four intersection points you choose, although there are exceptions. You generally
want the subject to be moving into the frame, towards the center, so if your subject is a
fish you'll usually want to place the fish on the point that has it swimming into the
frame. If you're trying to photograph the fish fleeing from the frame, then put in
on a point that has it swimming out of the frame.
It's worth mentioning that exact placement
on a rule-of-thirds point is not critical; just somewhere "near" the desired
point is good enough.
If you're doing fish portraits, there's a slight
modification to the rule of thirds. Obviously, if you want to fill the frame with
your subject, which is the right thing to do with portraits, you can't exactly put the
subject on a rule-of-thirds point. In this case, putting the eye of the fish on a
rule-of-thirds point often works pretty well.
The Rule Of Thirds grid
The blenny's eye is in just the right spot.
The rule of thirds applied to "vertical" pictures
3. Beware of Lines
Lines are a powerful feature in any photograph. They draw the viewer's eye along
the line, and then the eye keeps travelling past the end of the line. But lines can
be a bad thing, too. Specifically, vertical and horizontal lines often add an
element of symmetry that is comnpletely undesired. Unless you're photographing a
man-made object or the horizon, you probably want to avoid horizontal lines.
If there's a line of some sort in the photograph, you're probably best off arranging it
to be diagonal. Here are some examples of good and bad use of lines.
The vertical positioning of the moray looks really unnatural.
The diagonal line frames up the triggerfish and suggests a swimming direction.
The parallel diagonal lines of the wreck and the barracuda are super dynamic.
One of my favorite composition jobs. Diagonal line from the reef, a good
silhouette, and the diver is on the thirds.
Could this one be worse? Probably not.
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