Better fishing pictures: Compose

Published Nov 30th 2012

Composition is the act of building the picture and placing its elements. Classical composition consists of considering the division of the image into parts, creating depth and perspective and utilizing subject shapes and lines.


Composing images

Composition is the act of building the picture and placing its elements deliberately and with care. Classical composition consists of considering the division of the image into parts, creating depth and perspective and using subject shapes and lines to create a compelling image.
Composing fishing pictures is of course essentially the same as composing any other type of photograph, but there might be a few tips that can help enhance the sense of fishing and convey the information that interests anglers.

Art and craft
Composition is part craft and part art.
The craft part is something you can learn. There are certain rules you can use, and when applying those to your pictures, you can get good overall results and pictures, which attract the viewer's attention and guides their eyes to the place in the picture where you want it.
But the art of composing a really good picture is something different. Some photographers have a very keen eye for composition, while others just don't see things the creative or different way that they can be seen. If your brain and eyes are not keyed in on composition, learn the rules below, and you will still be able to get decent composition.

I usually consider three important factors in the craft part of composition:

Different views of an alder fly

- the camera position and angle
- the focal length
- the position of key elements in the frame

By positioning yourself the right place in relation to your subject, you can control foreground and background, control what becomes part of the picture and what doesn't and not least control how things are placed in relation to each other.
Even the slightest move can be important. If you shift the camera a bit up, down or sideways you are often able to add or remove elements in the foreground of a picture, and foreground elements are very important in creating perspective. You can also line up elements or remove them from a common line or just rearrange things in relation to each other.

You can separate elements. Think of lamps growing out of people's heads in Uncle Harry pictures, which can be likened to trees growing out of angler's heads or rods crossing important details such as faces or fish. A slight move might fix that. You can also hide things or melt them together. My favorite example is hiding or showing other anglers. If you have two or three anglers fishing in a row, you can choose to hide them behind the fisherman in focus and in this way depict him in solitude, but you can also decide to reveal them, and make it obvious to the viewer that the angler was not alone on the water.
This is all very easy and is probably one of the single most important things you can learn as a composition craft: move! Get different views and different angles. Look in your viewfinder and see what happens when you move your body or sometimes even just your head.

Lens choice
By changing the focal length of the lens (zooming or changing the lens) you can isolate or integrate elements in the picture. Zooming out and using a wide angle will let you get more of the surroundings into the image and allow you to go closer without loosing the whole subject, while using a telephoto lens or zooming in will let you isolate elements from the background and of course get details from further distances.
In fishing the water can make do as foreground. Bring the camera down or tilt it to get the surface of the water into the picture when you have the option. As mentioned several times this will show viewers important information about the water: current, clarity, bottom conditions and much more.
Varying the focal length creates different moods. Going close and using a wide angle will give the viewer a sense of being there while using a telephoto lens from a distance will give the viewer the observer's role - even though the subject might be the exact same size in the final picture.

One other significant change that happens when you change focal length is the way lines behave in your image. Wideangle lenses often lead to converging lines because of the change in perspective while a telephoto lens will bring more parallel lines. The parallel lines are often less disturbing and less leading to the eye, while the extreme wideangle can radically affect the way the viewer's eyes move in the picture.


Placing elements

Placing elements
Placing the key elements is the most difficult of the craft part of the composition rules. I usually stick to one very firm rule: never place a central element in the center of the picture! This is a rule, which I break myself every time I go shooting, but if you constantly keep it in the back of your head, you can count on getting some decent compositions and some images, which will appear much more exciting than the average point-and-shoot image.

Images where the central element is not in the geometric center are generally much more interesting than images with the important part of the subject in the dead center. If you look a little ahead, you can also make the life of a layouter easier, because space is always welcome as a place to put text or simply to create balance or direction in a page.

Be it a fly reel, a fish's eye, an anglers head, hands, a coastal point, a lighthouse or whatever is central as a subject that draws attention in your picture, simply keep it away from the middle part of the frame, and your image is almost certainly going to become more exiting than if you put it smack dab in the middle.



Rule of thirds, golden section
There's a couple of classic compositional rules that you will hear mentioned many times, when people are talking images and that's the rule of thirds and the golden section or golden ratio. Although related and to some extent very similar, they are still based on two different geometrical principles.
The rule of thirds simply prescribe you to divide the image into nine equal parts by drawing or imagining four lines on it. Two vertical and two horizontal, equally spaced in both directions. You then compose your image in such a way that important vertical or horizontal lines follow one of these lines, or you place important objects in one of the four intersections between these lines. That will create a "balanced imbalance" in your images, which will contain more tension and dynamics than images with symmetrical compositions, but at the same time be generally more pleasing to the eye.

The obvious example is a landscape or a picture with a water surface, where the horizon or the horizontal surface is placed on one of the horizontal lines in the picture. It will easily make most land and seascapes more interesting, and if in doubt, always tip your camera to create a bit of asymmetry. But on the other hand there can be a fascinating effect in the completely symmetrical image where there's a distinct separation into two equal parts made by a line dead through the center.
The golden section is a bit more complex and built on more intricate mathematical principles. Superficially it looks as if the points of interest are in the same place as the intersections mentioned above, but if you look closer, there's a subtle - but according to some - important difference.

Test your own
Test the compositional rules on your own images by superimposing the different grids over an image you link to on the web or upload from your own computer.

Test your pictures here.
The golden section or the golden ratio is in essence mathematics. It's a formula describing the relation between length and width of a rectangle, but also a formula that can be applied on a description of the division of a picture into sections.

The Italian mathematician Fibonacci found a series of numbers back in the 12th century. When these numbers are plotted as a curve, you get something which almost fits a golden section.
I will not explain the mathematics in detail, but just show you how it can be used to find the "hot spots" and "hot lines" in a picture frame and how you can create good composition by using such a division into sections.
The catch is that the golden section is a harmonic section and a ratio between width and height, which is pleasing to the eye and in balance without being symmetric. Don't ask me why this is so. I can just see that it's true. Pictures, which fit into a golden section grid are generally nice to look at.

Side and center



Diagonal lines and vanishing point
Another way of composing is to use diagonal lines - either visible or suggested.
Straight elements in the image, a road, rods, a bridge or other elements create lines in the image. These can transect the image completely or they can go partly through the image. They can also come together in what is known as a vanishing point, most obvious if you imagine an image of a road disappearing in the horizon.
You can use lines to frame elements in various ways or to create direction in the image, leading the viewer's eye towards a certain point.

You can also use lines to create structure, like riffles on a sandy bottom, trees on a bank or similar naturally occurring elements that can be incorporated into the image. If you angle your camera carefully you can get such lines to create beautiful structure in your images.
In general parallel lines will become less parallel and more skewed the wider your focal length is.

Parts of an image
Another compositional tool is to have several sections in the image, where each part plays its role. These sections can be separated by space, focus, distance or elements that cut in between them. Parts can be active or passive, meaning that they can be elements that play an active role in the image, showing people, interesting objects or some kind of action, or they can be surfaces or uniform, repetitive objects that fill the image, but doesn't attract attention.

Breaking rules
Of course these rules are all made for breaking, and some of the best images ever shot don't follow them at all. So don't be afraid to go against the grain and do something different.
But if you're in doubt, a simple set of rules can help you create more interesting photos.

Plain, not plain

Rods, flies - lines, points

A fish, a reel, a rod - three views

A series
These are all the articles in our series about better fly fishing photography. Read this series and you will learn a lot ebout getting better pictures while fishing. General outdoors pohotographers may also pick up a thing or two...
Better fly-fishing pictures

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