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How to Make Brilliant Black and White Photos with Dramatic Composition

Filed Under Composition Tips, Digital Photography School, Photography Tips and Tutorials

It’s hard to beat the power and drama of good black and white photography. There’s a reason that monochrome has survived and prospered as an artistic medium despite the arrival of color photos. But how do you harness the power of black and white for yourself? The key is in your composition.

The problem with composition is that it’s such a vast topic it’s easy to lose track of the various principles and the ways you can put them into the practice. So let’s keep it simple – I’m going to give you three things you can concentrate on. Put these into practice and you’ll see a dramatic improvement in the composition of your black and white photos!

#1 – Simplicity

Simplified composition helps give your black and white photos more power by focusing attention on the main subject.

How to Make Brilliant Black and White Photos with Dramatic Composition

The above landscape photo is a great example. The composition is about as simple as you can get. It works because I used a neutral density filter and a long shutter speed of 90 seconds to blur the water and clouds. The result is a black and white landscape photo with a minimalist style composition.

This principle also applies to portraiture. Keep the composition simple to focus attention on your model. An easy way to do this is to use a short telephoto lens with an aperture of around f/2.8. Get in close and make sure there are no distractions in the background to pull attention away from the person you’re photographing.

How to Make Brilliant Black and White Photos with Dramatic Composition

#2 – Texture

One of the interesting things about black and white is that it brings out the interesting textures in your subject. You can use this characteristic to make your black and white photos more interesting.

This photo of some old wooden boxes is a good example.

How to Make Brilliant Black and White Photos with Dramatic Composition

There are two interesting things about the composition of this image. First is the pattern created by the repeating shapes of the boxes. Second is the texture of the wood.

The absence of color in black and white helps emphasize texture. You can take it further in post-processing by applying Clarity or other tools designed to bring out texture (such as the Structure sliders in Silver Efex Pro 2).

Texture and contrast

You can take this idea further by using the contrast between smooth and rough surfaces. Some objects are more tactile than others and have lots of texture. Others have very little.

You’ll see this technique used a lot in long exposure photography, where you can take advantage of the juxtaposition between a subject with lots of texture, such as a concrete jetty, and one that has very little, like water blurred by using a neutral density filter and a long exposure. The earlier photo of two rocks is a good example.

Here’s another. I used a shutter speed of 3-minutes to blur the clouds and the water. As a result, there’s a strong contrast between the concrete in the foreground, the jetty in the distance, and the surrounding water and clouds.

How to Make Brilliant Black and White Photos with Dramatic Composition

#3 – Tonal Contrast

Tonal contrast is where you have light tones and dark tones next to each other. Now we’re getting to the heart of black and white photography! This technique is not nearly as effective in color because of the way that colors that are similar in tone, such as red and green, still create a powerful contrast. Tonal contrast is the main factor that separates black and white photography from color.

The easiest way to explain how tonal contrast works is with some examples.

In the first (below) there’s a strong tonal contrast between the white and black stones. Your eyes go to the white stones because they are in the center of the frame and because they provide a strong contrast against the black stones underneath them.

How to Make Brilliant Black and White Photos with Dramatic Composition

Another subject where tonal contrast is used to good effect is portraiture. In the portrait below the model’s light-toned skin contrasts with the dark background. The key to making this technique work is to make sure the background is in shade and that it contains no distracting highlights.

How to Make Brilliant Black and White Photos with Dramatic Composition

So far both examples have shown a light toned subject against a dark background. But you can turn it around by placing a dark subject against a white background.

That’s the technique I used in the following portrait. I photographed the man during carnival in Spain. He was dressed for the occasion and had even painted his face. I placed him against a bright, sunlit building to take advantage of the tonal contrast between his dark skin and the white wall.

How to Make Brilliant Black and White Photos with Dramatic Composition


There are many factors that make up a good black and white photo, but the composition is one of the most important. If you want to make a strong black and white photo, then focusing on these three key factors – simplicity, texture, and tonal contrast – is a great place to start.

Mastering Composition Book Two

Want to learn more about composition? Then check out my wildly popular ebook Mastering Composition Book Two. It contains 20 lessons that will help you get better at composition, no matter what your skill level!

The post How to Make Brilliant Black and White Photos with Dramatic Composition by Andrew S. Gibson appeared first on Digital Photography School.


How to Show More with Your Photographs by Thinking Outside the Frame

Filed Under Composition Tips, Digital Photography School, Photography Tips and Tutorials

In its simplest form, a photograph is a representation of a very limited part of space at a very limited point in time. This article is about choosing which tiny bit of reality to represent and how that choice can make a photograph into much more than just a record of time.

01 photography tips thinking outside the frame

The most obvious elements of any photograph are the subject, the foreground, and the background. The light and the time it takes to create the photo are equally essential. In this article, I’ll be focusing on an ingredient which may be less obvious, sometimes even overlooked, but never absent: the frame.

What is the frame?

By frame, I don’t mean a picture frame, but the edges of the photo.

02 photography tips thinking outside the frame

Take a look at the photo above. What’s going on? There’s the subject (a cat) the foreground, a bench, the background (a pink wall) and a branch of some kind. So what does the frame have to do with all this?

The frame of a photograph is what separates the obvious from the inferred. It’s part of why a good photograph means different things to different people because that which is inferred is subjective.

Consider the photograph of the cat again. The cat is about to pounce, which means that there’s something going on outside the frame. Maybe another cat is walking by, or maybe there’s a delicious-looking bird on the ground.

What’s outside the frame is just as important

03 photography tips thinking outside the frame

What is left outside the frame can tell a story of its own or be an essential part of the subject of the photo? By creating tension between the obvious and the inferred you wield a powerful tool to make even better photographs. Every image has a relation to the rest of the world, even though the immediate surroundings aren’t obvious or don’t seem to add anything.

04 photography tips thinking outside the frame

So how do you start thinking outside the frame?

I will show you a few examples so you get the idea.

1 – Make it obvious

The obvious way is to make it clear that there is something outside the frame that isn’t being shown. The easiest way to do this is to capture an interesting gaze or photograph a detail.

05 photography tips thinking outside the frame

In the image above, the groom is not looking at the camera, but towards something more interesting outside the frame. For those who recognize the setting, it may be obvious that he is looking towards the church door, which will soon reveal the bride; for others, the interpretation could be different.

06 photography tips thinking outside the frame

These photos show a part of something larger. The hands suggest a person, and might even reveal something about that person. The spiraling tree creates a looping line that continues outside the frame.

2 – Tie the subject to the setting

The scene inside the frame can be tied to a larger setting without the subject directly or indirectly touching the frame. This can make the subject seem large or small, create an open or claustrophobic feeling, or give the surroundings a sense of continuity.

07 photography tips thinking outside the frame

Take a look at the photo above. By surrounding a tiny subject with a single, strong color, that color almost always feels like it continues on and on. In this picture, does it give you a sense of comfort or claustrophobia?

08 photography tips thinking outside the frame

The idea with the photo above is somewhat similar, but the feeling of it is quite different. Here is a playful animal in its seemingly limitless element, suggesting unlimited enjoyment. Or do you see something quite different?

3 – Use pattern or rhythm

By using a pattern or rhythm in the photo, you can create an effect that allows the viewer to imagine infinity. The idea is the same as in the example above, but the execution and effect are different. Here, the pattern or rhythm itself can be the subject, and it’s that subject that leads the viewer outside the frame.

09 photography tips thinking outside the frame

The pattern of cracked sea ice works like a block of color. But since it’s more interesting than just a single color, it can stand by itself and let the eye wander through the details in the photo and the mind continue beyond.

10 photography tips thinking outside the frame

A seascape like the one in the image above can suggest an infinitely large ocean just by showing an unbroken horizon. The ocean doesn’t only continue into the photo, though, it also continues sideways and beyond the edges of the photo. The rhythm of the clouds emphasizes this illusion.

4 – Reflections

Reflections are also an effective way of suggesting a wider world outside the constraints of the photograph. It’s a more direct way of pointing to the wider context.

11 photography tips thinking outside the frame

Concrete walls can suggest many things, but thanks to the reflection in the window it becomes quite clear that the photo is not taken in a concrete jungle, but in a verdant and sunny place. Reading the expression on the subject’s face becomes quite different thanks to the wider context.


Photography is always about choices, conscious or not. The more photography you do, the more deliberate your choices will become. Being aware of this gives you more control over your creative process. The creative decisions you can make based on those choices is what makes photography art.

How you frame your photographs is just one of the things to keep in mind when you photograph.

Do you pay attention to what you leave out when you take a photo? Do you have any examples or thoughts you’d like to share about how you’ve used the frame and what’s beyond as an element in your photography? I’d love to hear about it and see your photos in the comments below.

The post How to Show More with Your Photographs by Thinking Outside the Frame by Hannele Luhtasela-el Showk appeared first on Digital Photography School.


How to Create a Center of Attention for Better Storytelling Images

Filed Under Composition Tips, Digital Photography School, Photography Tips and Tutorials

Drawing the viewer’s attention to the main subject in your photographs will help them understand your story more clearly. If you have a busy scene with no clear focus point it will possibly give your viewers an overall idea of what you were photographing, but they may not scrutinize it for long. Adding a clear center of attention will help you create better storytelling images.

How to Create a Center of Attention for Better Storytelling Images

Particularly when you are photographing a locality with a lot going on you can seek to isolate or draw the viewer’s eye to one main subject within your composition. By using this technique, you can develop a style which may become easily recognizable in your photographs.

Lessons from documentary photography

I first learned to make photographs like this while working as a newspaper photographer. My task was to illustrate and support the journalist’s story with my pictures. Making photos that compelled people to stop and look was always my priority. We wanted people to take notice, look at the photo, and read the story.

Photos of broad, general scenes will not achieve this so well as people will typically just flick past them.

How to Create a Center of Attention for Better Storytelling Images

Creating a photo essay to tell of your travel experience, an event you attended, a parade, etc., you will be aiming to convey what you saw and how you felt to best engage your audience. By creating a series of images where you have focused in on one main subject in each image you can build an overall illustration communicating to the viewer what it was like to be there. That is storytelling at its best.

How to Create a Center of Attention for Better Storytelling Images


There are various techniques you can use to draw attention to one part of your composition. Using a shallow depth of field to isolate is one method. Using the contrast in light between your subject and the background, and various composition methods you can obtain pleasing results.

Play with the background

All of the photos I am using to illustrate this article are from a street parade in Chiang Mai, Thailand. With a lot of people, often cluttered backgrounds, and no real control or means of setting up photos, it’s a challenging situation in which to shoot.

How to Create a Center of Attention for Better Storytelling Images

Finding a dark background to help isolate your subject is not always so easy, but when you can it will produce some great photos. In this photo of the boy playing a large drum, I positioned myself so the background was totally in shadow and therefore underexposed.

This has achieved isolation of my main subject and you easily focus your attention on him. My timing to capture a smile and interesting positioning of his drumstick also helped. On its own though, this photograph does not do much to illustrate the parade and environment.

How to Create a Center of Attention for Better Storytelling Images

Coming in close to the French horn player (with a 35mm lens on a full frame camera and a wide aperture) I was able to isolate him and at the same time convey more information about his activity and location. Making him the center of attention and at the same time leaving him in context helps tell the story.

Had I used a longer lens it would have included less background and it may have been even more blurred, further distorting the detail and therefore the context of the story would be lost.

Using compositional elements

How to Create a Center of Attention for Better Storytelling Images

Using different composition methods such as framing or converging lines you can help draw your viewer’s attention to your chosen subject.

Often during our workshops, I find people want to include too much in their photos. I encourage them to include less and take more photos build up a story that way.

While it is good practice to create a photo essay which has a varied selection of wide, medium and close-up photos, trying to capture too much of what’s in front of you can often produce rather uninteresting photographs. Bringing one part of your composition to the foreground as the center of attention is a more effective means of holding a viewer’s focus.

How to Create a Center of Attention for Better Storytelling Images

Single or multiple photos

At the newspaper most often each story was accompanied by a single photograph. So the challenge was to produce one image supporting the narrative of the story. Not always so easy, especially with an event like a parade.

I often encourage people to photograph as if they are shooting to cover a story for a magazine. The aim being to come away with a series of photographs that together will tell the story of their experience. To finish up with 6-10 photos having a clear center of interest in each one and conveying the overall experience of the day.

How to Create a Center of Attention for Better Storytelling Images

If you produce a small collection of photos most social media and photo sharing sites have means to display them together in an album or gallery so it’s a great way for you to share your stories and your experiences.

Your turn

You can see some of these tips in action in the video below. Please share your tips and thoughs on creating more storytelling images by having a center of attention in the comments below.

The post How to Create a Center of Attention for Better Storytelling Images by Kevin Landwer-Johan appeared first on Digital Photography School.


A Fresh Look at Learning Photographic Composition

Filed Under Composition Tips, Digital Photography School, Photography Tips and Tutorials

Popular teaching about photographic composition says to learn the rules and then break them. I prefer to encourage the people who join our photography workshops to learn the rules, understand them well and put them into practice so frequently they become second nature.

If you can apply the rules without even consciously thinking about them you will create more dynamic, interesting photographs which convey more feeling.

A Fresh Look at Learning Photographic Composition

Why do we have rules?

Rules are important as they are the underlying structure of composition. Much like scales are to musicians. Much like grammar is to language.

Successful musicians have typically spent long hours going over and over the same scales until they know them so well they do not need to think about them. When we learned our first language, our “mother tongue”, we never consulted the textbooks to study the grammatical structure of the language, we just absorbed it, (most frequently from our mothers.)

A Fresh Look at Learning Photographic Composition

Some people will have more difficulty learning the rules of composition and applying them effectively than others. Very much like some people can learn to play musical instruments or learn new languages easier.

I think it is because we are all creatively gifted in different ways. If you are gifted with a visual creativity you may find it easier to compose photographs than say someone who is gifted with a musical creativity and finds it easy to play the guitar or trumpet for example.

A Fresh Look at Learning Photographic Composition

I do like what the famous American photographer Edward Weston had to say about learning and implementing the rules of composition:

“Now to consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravity before going for a walk.”

I doubt any of us can recall studying the law of gravity before we learned to walk. But we certainly knew about it.

A Fresh Look at Learning Photographic Composition

Know them at a subconscious level

Knowing the rules is important as they will help guide our creative thinking, but applying these rules rigidly will generally lead towards making rather static and lifeless photographs. As you learn the rules and know them so well you can incorporate them into your photographs intuitively you will find your images may take on a whole new dynamic. Very much like walking and talking, it’s good to be subconsciously aware of the rules and laws as they are there for good reason.

A Fresh Look at Learning Photographic Composition

Practice constantly

Reading about and studying the rules of composition will help you gain a good understanding of them. Practicing them frequently is the most effective means of consistently integrating them into your photographs. Practice them even when you don’t have your camera with you.

Begin to see in the rule of thirds, discover leading lines and strong diagonals, look for frames and how you can use symmetry. One side effect of seeing like this will likely be that you start taking your camera everywhere with you.

Fill the frame

When I first started working in the photography department of a newspaper it was impressed upon me to “fill the frame”. This encouragement has stuck with me and I am aware, consciously or subconsciously, of wanting to effectively achieve this with every photograph I make. This was important in the newspaper in order to convey the story effectively, (and so sub-editors had less flexibility to horribly crop your photos).

A Fresh Look at Learning Photographic Composition

Filling your frame does not mean that in every photo your subject must be pressed out to the edges of your viewfinder. It means however you are choosing to compose your photograph, make sure whatever is within the four corners and edges is relevant to the picture you are making.

A Fresh Look at Learning Photographic Composition

If empty space is relevant and adds to your composition, use it well. If cropping in so tight that part of your subject is cut off makes a stronger image, then crop tight.

However you decide to compose your image, be happy with it. Don’t get hung up on the rules. But do have a solid understanding of them and explore how you like to incorporate them into the creative photographs you are making. And, if you so come up with any new rules, please do let me know!

Here’s a little video talking about this concept of composition.

The post A Fresh Look at Learning Photographic Composition by Kevin Landwer-Johan appeared first on Digital Photography School.


Video Tips: Composition Dos and Don’ts For Creating Better Images

Filed Under Composition Tips, Digital Photography School, Photography Tips and Tutorials

How you compose or arrange your frame is one of the keys to creating interesting and compelling images. So learning some composition rules, and when to break them is essential.

Here are three short videos to help you see what to do and what to avoid in your composition.

Composition Mistakes to Avoid

Learn what not to do in this video including:

  • Double subjects
  • Looking out of the frame
  • Tangents (lines cutting through the subject)
  • Lazy composition

Beginner’s guide to composition

In this second video, Jordan from Sleeklens gives you four tips you can use to help elevate your photography composition.

The four tips covered include:

  1. Rule of thirds
  2. Balance
  3. Symmetry
  4. Leading Lines

9 Composition Tips

Finally, in this last video from COOPH you will see nine more composition tips based on the images of master photographer, Steve McCurry.

Do you have any other composition tips you would like to share? Please do so in the comments section below.

The post Video Tips: Composition Dos and Don’ts For Creating Better Images by Darlene Hildebrandt appeared first on Digital Photography School.


How to Use the Background to Create More Storytelling Images

Filed Under Composition Tips, Digital Photography School, Photography Tips and Tutorials

Sometimes you’re so focused on capturing the moment that you forget to pay attention to what’s in the background of your photo. When you look at your photos later, you realize that there are all sorts of distractions in the background. One way to overcome these distractions is to use the background to help with storytelling in your photo.

Even though “the moment” is likely the most important part of your photo, good moments always happen in a place. Use the background to show where your moment or story takes place.

Think of People as Characters

The first thing I recommend is thinking of the people in your photo as characters. When you’re going to take a picture of somebody ask, “Who is this character and what are they doing?” When you answer these questions you’ll be able to choose a good background to help tell that story.

Storytelling background 15

This is a photo of my son. I wasn’t thinking of him merely as my son, but rather as a “hiker.” Thinking of him as a hiker helped me choose a background that portrayed the story of a hiker.

Two Ways to Choose a Background

There are two ways to choose a background for your photo.

  1. You can begin with your character and then choose the right background for them.
  2. Or, you can begin with a good background and then look for a character to put into the scene.

Finding a Background that Matches Your Character

Keep in mind the two questions to ask yourself; “Who is this character and what are they doing?”

In this photo, the character is my infant son and he is sleeping in a carrier on my wife’s back. It’s a cute picture, but there is no way to tell from the background where we were when this took place.

Storytelling background 01

This is a nice photo, but the background doesn’t add to the story.

We were on a camping trip and I knew I wanted a collection of photos that would show that. So I repositioned myself to find a better perspective and show the camp trailer in the background. This added a sense of place to the photo.

Storytelling background 02

The camp trailer in the background adds context to the photo of the sleeping infant.

Later on that summer it came time to chop wood for the winter. My little guy wanted to help daddy!

Naturally, I wanted a photo of him trying to chop wood. Depending on the perspective I chose there could have been trees, water, or a wood pile in the background. Since this is a photo about chopping wood, I chose to have the woodpile in the background.

There is even some wood in the foreground, reminding me of what a big job we had that summer!

Storytelling background 03

The huge pile of wood is a natural background for the little wood chopper. Plus it emphasizes how small he is comparatively.

Next time you’re about to snap a photo of somebody, stop and consider your background. Can you move around in order to get a good background to help with storytelling?

Finding a Character to Fit the Background

There may be times when you want to photograph an interesting scene but feel that there is something missing. Perhaps it is the character that is missing. When you come across an interesting scene, go ahead and photograph it. But also wait and allow that scene to become a background for some interesting characters.

When we visited Halls Harbour in Nova Scotia, the rugged shoreline was an obvious feature to photograph. I experimented with different angles and perspectives, but I knew I needed some good characters in the scene. Finally, a couple with their dog came walking down the shoreline. When the man began skipping stones out into the water I knew that these were the characters I was awaiting.

Storytelling background 04

These people and their dog were the perfect additions to the rugged shoreline.

Instead of just a photo of a beautiful landscape, this has become a story about a family on an adventure. To me, skipping stones into the water is a nostalgic sort of moment, so I decided this story looked best in black and white.

Make a story

When the tide was low we could walk out into the harbor amongst the ships that were now resting on the ground. Again, this was an interesting scene that just seemed to be missing a character. Then my son came tip-toeing through the mud and became the perfect character to fit the scene.

Storytelling background 05

When I let my imagination carry me away, I pretend that my son has pulled the plug in the harbor and all the water has drained out. He better sneak away before he gets caught!

Using framing

On a trip to Niagara Falls, we ducked into a building to get some relief from the cold wind and mist from the falls. Through the windows, we could see the falls and a rainbow that was produced through the mist. I wanted to take a photo but waited until my kids went and stood in the window. This allows the falls and rainbow to make up the background while my kids are the characters in the scene.

Storytelling background 06

The characters in the foreground allow the viewer’s attention to be drawn to the falls and rainbow in the background.

Plan ahead

In these next two examples, I used our house as a background for the photo. We were getting ready to move in the spring and I knew we needed a few more photos, by which to remember this old house. So I was determined to use our house as a setting and photograph more scenes with it in the background.

That winter, we built a snow hill nearly as tall as the house itself. That was a perfect opportunity to photograph an exciting event with our home in the background.

Storytelling background 07

A low angle helped to capture this epic moment right in our front yard. The snow hill towers in front of the house in the background.

Storytelling background 08

Our kids will always remember their first childhood home (and the fun they had there) when they look back on these photos.

Next time you come across a nice scene, go ahead and photograph the scene by itself. Once you have done this, you can look for a character to add to the scene, allowing it to become a background for their story. This is a perfect approach for both landscape and street photography. Choose the background and then wait for the character to come along.

Symbolic Backgrounds

So far, all of the backgrounds in these photos have been literal scenes. But you can use a background to give your story some symbolic meaning as well. You do this by finding a background that makes you think deeper than the literal object itself. For example, a sunset in the background isn’t just about the sun, perhaps it’s about “romance” or “a happy ending.”

In this example, my wife is tying up vines in a vineyard. This is a job that needs to be done in the spring before any green actually appears on the vines. There really wasn’t anything nice near her to use as a background, except golden light from the setting sun.

To me, vineyards are about long days of outdoor work, and the romance of shared wine. The warm setting sun was the perfect symbolic background to express these feelings.

Storytelling background 09

The golden sun in the background of this photo is symbolic of the day’s end, and the romance of wine and vineyards.

When you’re photographing a character doing something interesting, ask yourself if there is anything in the background that adds symbolic meaning to what they’re doing.

I have lots of photos of my kids reading books. The following photo is an example of a very boring background that does not help to tell a story.

Storytelling background 10

This background is distracting. The bed leg is growing out of their shoulders and pulls our attention away from what the kids are doing.

You can come up with some great backgrounds for people reading books. A library or a coffee shop would be two good choices for your background. But these are obvious choices and perhaps you could choose a symbolic background instead. Think about the nature of reading and how a person grows as they learn.

Storytelling background 11

This is exactly the sort of place that many people would sit and read a book. There is something about old leather chairs that invite you to nestle in and read. Behind the chair is a wood grain wall. Wood is something that grows. Wood is symbolic of the “growth” that happens when a child learns and reads.

Keep your eye open for backgrounds that are symbolic of the story you want to tell.

Using the Background to Tell a Story in Multiple Photos

When you find a good background, go ahead and use it in different ways to expand on your story.

The following photos are all from Hopewell Rocks in New Brunswick. Every tourist who has ever been there, walks away with the same photos from the same perspectives, so I challenged myself to come away with something different. I wanted photos of the rocks, so I used them as the background for the scene and then waited for interesting characters to come along.

The first thing I noticed was lots of tourists rushing around snapping pictures of the rocks. They were always getting in the way of the photo I was taking, so I gave up and took pictures of them instead.

Storytelling background 12

I like how this tourist blends into the rocks. As they reached out their arms to take a photo, their arms mimicked the circle shapes in the rocks.

Two-year-olds are notoriously difficult to photograph. I wanted to take a photo of my daughter with the rocks in the background. But all she wanted to do was chew on saltwater stones. She had been doing this on our entire trip. We were constantly telling her to get the rocks out of her mouth.

Storytelling background 13

If you’re going to photograph a two-year-old, you might just as well photograph her doing what she loves. And what better background for her photo than the massive rocks?

The tide was rising quickly and would soon cover the massive rock formations. In our last moments there something spectacular happened. A park ranger made his own rock formation by balancing several odd shaped rocks on each other.

Storytelling background 14

What a contrast between the massive Hopewell Rocks and the man-made formation. The force of the tide eroded one set of rocks over a long period of time and will quickly topple the rocks that have been so carefully balanced by the ranger.

When you stick with a scene long enough wonderful things happen and your mind will find symbolic meaning that you otherwise might have missed.

You’ll Enjoy Your Photos More When Your Background Adds to the Story

Don’t let your backgrounds be a disappointing afterthought. Instead, consider how the background in your photo can add storytelling elements to your character.

Remember the steps:

  • When you’re going to take a picture of somebody, first ask yourself, “Who is this character and what are they doing?” When you answer these questions you’ll be able to choose a good background for storytelling.
  • You can choose a background for your character, or find a good background and wait for the perfect character to come along.
  • Try using backgrounds to give symbolic meaning to your photos.
  • Use the background in different ways over several photos.

When you pay attention to the background your photos will become less sloppy and more meaningful. Please share some of your images with storytelling backgrounds in the comments below.

The post How to Use the Background to Create More Storytelling Images by Mat Coker appeared first on Digital Photography School.


How to Use Framing in an Urban Environment

Filed Under Composition Tips, Digital Photography School, Photography Tips and Tutorials

Photographers have long developed different classifications to pair with the design and execution of a photograph – lines, shape, texture, light, framing, contrast, just to name a few. For example, leading lines appeal to a viewer’s natural tenancy to trace line into a photograph. Sharp lines are used to grab attention and organic lines create a peaceful atmosphere.

Other composition techniques like the Rule of Thirds require a photographer to mentally break down an image to evaluate balance. Low and high perspective alter the way a viewer sees the world and symmetrical/asymmetrical elements highlights the quirky beauty of life. The technique we’ll have a quick look in this article, demonstrates the power of framing, especially in an urban environment.

How to Use Framing in an Urban Environment

What is framing?

Framing in photography creates a self-contained image, like a photo-within-a-photo effect. As photographers, we are used to seeing the world through the frame of a viewfinder. We constantly evaluate what we’ll keep in an image and what we’ll exclude. We deliberately apply perspective, aim, zoom and positioning techniques to construct our photographs – sometimes without even noticing.

By cradling the subject in a balance of space and line, a frame is created, not dissimilar to the photo frames you’d find on your shelf at home.  Essentially, you are crafting a frame within a frame to deliberately bring focus to a subject, adding narrative and the unique experience of voyeurism that photography affords.

How to Use Framing in an Urban Environment

How do I frame a photograph?

For such an effective technique, framing has plenty to offer. It makes use of strong design skills, adding an extra layer to an image to create more depth.  Framing can also be used to obscure more mundane areas of a scene, boosting the efficacy of a photograph when viewed by others.

Composing an image by making use of framing is fairly straightforward. Start out searching for windows and doors as they are the most abundant frames in an urban environment. You’ll find that windows and doors, when photographed, contain their own little ecosystem within the one image. This is great for capitalizing on both content and narrative, almost like reading a window in a comic strip!

Frame shapes

Square or rectangular frames are probably the first things that leap to mind when someone considers framing. Doorways and windows are a great way for emphasizing a subject or depth, but they are not the only options and framing is not limited to squares or rectangles.

The image below proves how versatile the urban environment can be for artificial framing. The image was taken from the floor of a train station, lens pointed to the floor above. The darkness of the building structure is silhouetted against the blue sky, forming a crescent shape. The frame draws attention to the contrast of the architecture against the sky but also cradles the form of a human passing by.

How to Use Framing in an Urban Environment

How to Use Framing in an Urban Environment

This photo was taken by chance in a late night shopping district. The framing of the man emphasizes his presence but also isolates him from the rest of the landscape.

How to Use Framing in an Urban Environment

For this image, I aimed to align a gap in the cage with the cat’s face. The slight distortion caused by the lens draws the center square closer to the viewer’s eye. Framing isn’t always a split-second discovery, taking the time to assess a situation and respond creatively can be just as effective as shooting from the hip.

How to Use Framing in an Urban Environment

Shattered windows in rundown urban landscapes offer beautifully detailed landscapes complemented by an informed framing technique.

Keep it real

Framing can be really effective for highlighting specific areas of a photograph. However, it’s important to keep in mind that not every photograph needs framing. Some images are much more effective when they stand alone. Like most photography, you need to be versatile and trust your instincts.

While lining up a perfect shot through a fence can be effective, make sure to be aware of your surroundings too. Don’t focus so heavily on framing that you sacrifice other photographic opportunities. You don’t need to force a frame on an image, so don’t overthink it. You want natural images that are enhanced by a frame, not poor images that require a frame to garner interest.

Just stay open to the idea of framing and gather enough experience to recognize a framing opportunity when one presents itself. This way, opportunities tend to reveal themselves rather than you having to force them out of hiding.

How to Use Framing in an Urban Environment

How to Use Framing in an Urban Environment

The branches of these trees act as a natural frame, sectioning up the image to draw attraction to the cute little bunnies within.

The post How to Use Framing in an Urban Environment by Megan Kennedy appeared first on Digital Photography School.


How to Break the Rules with a Central Composition

Filed Under Composition Tips, Digital Photography School, Photography Tips and Tutorials

When you started your journey to become a photographer, it’s likely you quickly encountered the famous Rule of Thirds. This rule is a fantastic guide for how to achieve a balanced and visually-pleasing composition, which is why most photographers use it – from newspaper editorial images to action shots to portraits.

It’s also a very safe way to take photos. However, a central composition has a fascinating way of catching the viewer a little off-guard.

Portrait of man sitting at a bench, photographed with center composition and off-camera flash - How to Break the Rules with a central composition

At its core, photography is about boldly pushing limits and demanding attention. And the centrally composed image is one that definitely demands attention – although not always necessarily for the right reasons.

Give a camera to someone unfamiliar with photography and they tend to put the subject right in the exact middle of their picture. Interestingly enough, it’s almost our default position. But over time we learn to compose according to the “rules” and a central composition then becomes a “mistake”.

A shot showing the rule of thirds - How to Break the Rules with a central composition

A clear example of the rule of thirds being followed to a “T”

But why is it that the same style of composition can look so amateurish sometimes, and then so dramatic or fascinating at other times? Let’s take a closer look at some of the challenges – and benefits – of breaking all the rules and giving a central composition a shot.

A portrait of a man walking through the woods - How to Break the Rules with a central composition

Using Symmetry

One of the strongest reasons to use center composed images is to exaggerate or make use of the symmetry in a setting. Symmetry is when both sides of a picture look like a mirror image of each other – or at least very similar.

A man walked on a trail in the forest in a center composed image - How to Break the Rules with a central composition

Humans are naturally drawn to patterns – and the art of photography is a way to capture or display a pattern. Showing symmetry requires a bit more thought when choosing your camera angle so that the different elements of the picture function together as one.

One thing about using symmetry in photos is that it quickly creates a very distinct style. Filmmaker Wes Anderson is famous for his use of center-composed, wide angle, symmetrical shots. It’s a distinct flavor that makes his movies instantly recognizable and adds a charm that his audiences love.

Square Shoulders

An interesting quirk of using central composition for your image is that you can more easily get away with portraits where the subject’s shoulders are square to the camera – in other words, their body is facing the camera directly.

A portrait of a man in the woods - How to Break the Rules with a central composition

The model is square to the camera, but it isn’t distracting as it matches with the central composition and vertical lines of the trees.

Typically, a model can slightly turn their body or drop one shoulder to appear more flattering in the image. Because center composed images accentuate lines so strongly, your model can be completely square to the camera without it detracting from the picture.

Lines That are Lines

Center composed images benefit from having strong lines. These can be either strong horizontal, vertical, or leading lines that pull towards the center of the image.

Recognizing the natural lines in a setting and using them to your advantage is important for keeping your center composed shot from looking unintentionally amateurish.

How to Break the Rules with a central composition

The lantern is in the center of the image, but the lines of the steps aren’t horizontal. As a result, the image looks unbalanced.

How to Break the Rules with a central composition

The lantern is still in the center of the image, but this time the lines are horizontal and work to support the style of the shot, rather than to detract from it.

Paying attention to the lines isn’t important only for a central composition. Generally speaking, it’s a good rule in photography to make sure lines that are horizontal in real life are horizontal in your pictures.

A Touch of Minimalism

The center composed image thrives on being simple, clean and clear. Your subject is the singular focus in the shot. Cluttered backgrounds or distracting foregrounds may often hurt your image.

A lantern on a forest path How to Break the Rules with a central composition

With a wide aperture, the background turns into smooth out-of-focus bokeh, eliminating any distracting details.

Using a wide aperture to achieve a narrow depth-of-field goes a long way to decluttering an image. By letting the background fall into soft and creamy bokeh, it pulls more attention visually to your subject.

busy background - How to Break the Rules with a central composition

This shot shows the messy and distracting background that the previous effectively removes with selective use of aperture.

Trying out Different Subjects

A central composition isn’t just for portrait shots. You can try it out in nature photography, car photography, detail shots or whatever your heart desires. All of the same rules apply.

Hunting out interesting symmetrical patterns in nature, whether they are in the veins of a leaf or a straight forest path through a tunnel of trees, can make for a very satisfactory center composed shot.

Editing a Central Composition

Trying to figure out if your subject is smack dab in the center of your frame? This is a good time to break out the cropping tool in your photo editor. Your preferred photo editor will come equipped with a grid that will let you carefully ensure that your subject is in the right spot.

LR showing how to crop an image - How to Break the Rules with a central composition

This is the interface in Lightroom for cropping an image. Notice the grid lines which give a clear indication of when the subject is centered.

Having your subject just a hair off of the center line could be an irritating little distraction for your audience. So it’s best to get it right!

To Each Their Own

Photography is heavily subjective – it depends on personal taste. A picture that doesn’t earn a second look from one person could be another person’s favorite shot.

A nighttime portrait of a man on a dock, photographed with central composition

The key for becoming the best photographer you can be is to continuously learn and explore. Discover new methods, tools, and skills that give you the creative freedom to approach a familiar subject from an unfamiliar direction or a new perspective.

That’s why it’s a great idea to keep central composition handy in your photography toolbag, for those moments when you can use it to demand your viewer’s attention.

Who knows? Maybe it will even become your distinctive style as a photographer!

The post How to Break the Rules with a Central Composition by Frank Myrland appeared first on Digital Photography School.


Tips for Framing your Images to Tell a More Compelling Story

Filed Under Composition Tips, Digital Photography School, Photography Tips and Tutorials

I honestly can’t remember which brilliant and knowledgeable photographer told me the insightful little tidbit of information below, it was years ago. At any rate, I wish to thank them for the advice. It has helped me to concentrate on my composition and framing my images for storytelling. This little piece of advice has been invaluable. I want to share this knowledge with you.

“What you leave out of the frame is just as important what you include in your photograph.”

Framing and storytelling

It’s so important to consider how you frame your images and the message you wish to convey. The story can change so quickly just by considering which items to keep within the frame and which you choose to exclude.

Tips for Framing your Images to Tell a More Compelling Story

Although I applied different post-processing treatments. These two images were shot during the exact same session. This image shows a tighter view of the vulture and the landscape.

Tips for Framing your Images to Tell a More Compelling Story

This image shot from the same location was framed to include the small town and the wider landscape. It’s a different story from the first image.

Let’s be clear I’m not talking about Photoshopping all kinds of items out of an image I’m talking about how you frame your photograph. Where you stand and the focal length you use can make all the difference in the message your image conveys to the viewer. Let’s take a look at a few examples and discuss.

Excluding elements changes the story

In this series of images my son and his friend are playing at “parkour” during a forest hike. They repeatedly jumped over this log for a good 15 minutes. They were laughing and loving each moment as they performed for my camera.

Tips for Framing your Images to Tell a More Compelling Story

Here the boys chose to jump from the downed tree in unison.

In the first shot above, both boys are jumping from the log in unison. The image suggests themes of friendship, fun together, youthful exuberance in nature and physical activity. I’ve included it to give you a sense of context and a feel for the actual atmosphere during these series of images.

In this second image below, one boy sits in the background waiting his turn to jump the log. The image still conveys the idea of friendship and youth within nature, but the story is a little different. Now we have boys taking turns to jump the log, and the message conveyed is different.

Tips for Framing your Images to Tell a More Compelling Story

In this shot, my son is waiting his turn in the background.

Finally, compare these images to this final shot of just the one lone boy jumping over the log. Now it’s a story about being alone. There’s still the feeling of youthful exuberance, but now it’s a story of solitude as well. The feel of the image changed because I asked one of the boys to step to the side and remain out of the frame. There’s no Photoshop involved. All that was required was that I removed one small element from the image.

Here there’s only the boy included in the image. I purposely shot this image with just the one child.

The story changes subtly in this example, but it’s still an important difference. My intention for this particular shot was much different from the previous shots. I wanted to use this image in my stock library whereas the other images were shared with my friend and serve as memories of our two boys.

Tighter framing changes the story

So the first lesson is that removing one small item can completely change the purposes for which you use a photograph. In this second example, you will see that using a tighter framing and leaving out details once again changes the story of the image.

Tips for Framing your Images to Tell a More Compelling Story

I zoomed in close and focused on her eyes.

In this case, one is a very tightly framed shot of the older sister. Then in other shots, I included both girls. The images were taken just moments apart. I wanted a candid headshot of the older sister, but I also wanted to capture the two girls playing together. Getting these two stories was all about framing the image correctly. In the end here’s the final shot of the girls playing. Their mom purchased this image as a large canvas that now hangs in the girls’ bedroom.

Tips for Framing your Images to Tell a More Compelling Story

I zoomed out and included both girls in this shot.

Camera angle and framing

It’s now time to consider framing an image from different angles so that you can tell a different story. So let’s take a look at this landscape shot. Blown up, printed, and framed, this makes for a beautiful art print hung above the fireplace – this image speaks of the Canadian wilderness.

Tips for Framing your Images to Tell a More Compelling Story

This image was shot from a canoe and I purposely framed the image to leave out certain details.

Take a look at the reality of the location. I used my phone to snap this quick documentary photograph. The reality is we were sitting in a canoe just a few hundred meters from the local marina. We were not really in the wilderness, rather just enjoying being on the water in cottage country.

Tips for Framing your Images to Tell a More Compelling Story

Here’s a quick documentary shot of the scene taken with my phone. You’ll notice the marina on the right-hand side.


Of course leaving items out of a frame can also be achieved by adjusting your exposure. Consider these two shots of the same scene. I purposely exposed the one scene to create deep shadows as I wanted to black out the small building. Because I wasn’t able to completely blacken it out, I had to add some black during post-processing (yes, I cheated a little).

I knew I wanted the image to be about the silhouette, not the building. So, I eliminated the shed using  Lightroom. I deepened shadows using the adjustment brush and few quick spot removals. Take a moment and consider the effect.  What do you think? Do the images tell different stories?

Tips for Framing your Images to Tell a More Compelling Story

I purposely underexposed this image to create dark shadows that help hide the shed.

Tips for Framing your Images to Tell a More Compelling Story

Here the exposure allows us to see the shed. This is another example of how the story changes by leaving out just one element.

Framing with a purpose

Purposeful framing is so important to conveying stories within your images. Scan the scene carefully and consider each element. How might that huge decrepit building in the background affect the atmosphere of your portrait? How does garbage on the street change the feel of your idyllic shot of a park? Consider leaving extraneous information out of your shots. If you want to tell the story of an isolated urban scene, then think about extra details you may not need to include.


Give it a try and show us some of the ways you’ve framed your images to convey a story. Show us a comparison of what you’ve left out of the frame and what you’ve included. We want to see how you manage to tell photographic stories.

In closing here are just a few more examples of how the story conveyed by a photo can change when you adjust your framing and leave out certain details.

Tips for Framing your Images to Tell a More Compelling Story

I zoomed in closely to focus on just the guitarist’s hands.

Tips for Framing your Images to Tell a More Compelling Story

In this shot, I focused on the beautiful singer and her joy as she performed.

Tips for Framing your Images to Tell a More Compelling Story

Finally, in this image, I included several members of the band together. Again the story changes.

The post Tips for Framing your Images to Tell a More Compelling Story by Erin Fitzgibbon appeared first on Digital Photography School.


4 Key Elements to Help You Create Stronger Landscape Photography

Filed Under Composition Tips, Digital Photography School, Photography Tips and Tutorials

If you’re like me and love great landscape photography, then you’ve probably wondered how the same photographers seem to be able to pull off beautiful shots of sweeping mountain vistas or incredible black and white images of rolling hills and valleys. It’s as if they have some secret formula for “getting lucky” time and time again. Have you ever thought about what goes into making a strong landscape photograph? The techniques, the composition, the timing, the tools?

4 Key Elements to Help You Create Stronger Landscape Photography

The fact is, there is no secret formula for making better photos of landscapes. There’s almost always much more that goes into the task than simply snapping a picture of a pretty place. Most great landscape photos are made in beautiful places but that doesn’t mean that every picture of beautiful scenery is a great landscape. While there are no concrete “rules” for doing solid landscape photography there are a few ways to strengthen your landscape work and make those “awesome shots” happen more frequently.

#1 – Construct Interesting Elements

I once had a professor of photography tell me that any photograph could be judged by how much information it contained. It’s easy to say that a successful landscape photo shows the beauty and majesty of a place, but the truth is there is so much more. When setting up for your photo, pay attention to everything that falls within the frame. Look for interesting foreground elements such as trees or rocks, water, even people or animals.

4 Key Elements to Help You Create Stronger Landscape Photography

Look for ways to add more information to the photograph. Generally, the more you fill the frame with interesting elements the more interesting and appealing the overall photograph will be. But there is also a flip side to this concept as sometimes less is more. There are times when you must know what to NOT include in order to give a better feel to the photo. Look at this photo from a blustery winter morning.

4 Key Elements to Help You Create Stronger Landscape Photography

The feelings of solitude and isolation are brought about by the use of empty space. More on composing your landscape photos a little later.

#2 – Lighting

Yes, yes…I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “chasing the light” when it comes to making good photos. This is especially true when it comes to landscape photography. There’s a reason why photographers love to shoot in the early morning hours (ugh) or in the waning light of the afternoon or late evening.

4 Key Elements to Help You Create Stronger Landscape Photography

It comes down to the quality of light which again, adds more interest to a landscape. When you have beautiful light, the entire landscape is transformed into something different. It becomes less ordinary and more extraordinary.

4 Key Elements to Help You Create Stronger Landscape Photography

As much as it pains me, getting up early and staying out late is virtually a necessity for landscape photographers. The reason being is that some of the most gorgeous golden light comes in the late afternoon as the sun gives way to night. Just as true, the early morning “Blue Hour” as the first glimpses light begin to appear, is another prime time for shooting landscapes.

Even locations that seem somewhat lackluster at midday can take on an entirely new feel in the late or early hours of the day. So be sure to try out different spots at daybreak and sundown. There’s a good reason why we landscape junkies really do chase the light.

#3 – Composition

The very word “composition” describes the nature of how something’s parts are constructed or arranged together. Having all the best ingredients doesn’t help you much if you don’t know how to put them all together into an awesome cake, a beautiful symphony, or in your case…a strong landscape photograph. The way you compose the elements in your landscapes can often make or break the photograph. Again, there are no actual rules to composing your photo but there are some tried and true practices.

4 Key Elements to Help You Create Stronger Landscape Photography

Adjust the horizon so that it isn’t exactly in the middle of the frame and place foreground or background elements off-center to add interest and make stronger images.

4 Key Elements to Help You Create Stronger Landscape Photography

It helps to use imaginary lines such as the Rule of Thirds (again, not exactly a rule) to help compose your image.

4 Key Elements to Help You Create Stronger Landscape Photography

Just as importantly, always remember to shoot your landscapes in accordance with how they “feel”. Composition in landscape photography is about conveying a feeling, not just how the scene looks. Shoot different compositions of the same location until you find one that works best for that particular landscape.

#4 – Gear and Technical Considerations

While a successful landscape photo doesn’t rely on having the latest or greatest gear, there are a few gear and technical aspects that make for better photos. Here are a few tips.

Use a wider lens

Even though many solid landscape photos can be shot at long focal lengths using zoom lenses, generally short focal length (wider angle) lenses work best. Wide angle lenses allow you to include more into the frame of your photo.

4 Key Elements to Help You Create Stronger Landscape Photography

Use smaller apertures

Continuing on from lenses, using a smaller aperture increases the depth of field and brings more elements into focus. Remember, the larger the F-Number the smaller the physical aperture of the lens becomes.

….and wait for it…..

Use a tripod

If you’ve read any of my other articles, you’ll know that when it comes to landscape photography I believe a sturdy tripod is worth its weight in gold. Reducing motion as much as possible is key for obtaining sharper landscape photographs. Using a tripod helps to eliminate as much camera shake as possible. This becomes important because generally the smaller apertures used in landscape photography call for longer shutter speeds which make hand holding the camera less desirable.

Final Thoughts

A successful landscape photo is a careful construction of multiple ingredients. Knowing what to include (or exclude from your photo) and understanding when the best light happens, go a long way to making a better image.

4 Key Elements to Help You Create Stronger Landscape Photography

Just as importantly, knowledge of how to compose the elements in the frame and what techniques or gear will be needed are both essential to “getting lucky” time and time again. Producing stronger landscapes takes patience and a little planning but it is well worth the effort.

The post 4 Key Elements to Help You Create Stronger Landscape Photography by Adam Welch appeared first on Digital Photography School.