Urban composition tips
Paula Stopka's guide to composing standout shots of buildings and cityscapes.
One of the beautiful things about photography is the scope it offers for creative freedom and emotional expression. So it may seem slightly constrictive to talk about the rules of composition. But knowing some simple composition principles can help make your images more pleasing to the eye.
Here we discuss how composition can help you order the way things are arranged in your images – and how using the rules can help you control them.
When away on holiday or a weekend break, you’ll naturally want to take great photos that show the places you’re visiting in the best way. So, rather than simply snapping away, take a slight pause before you press the shutter to think about what’s framed in your viewfinder or LCD screen.
A moment’s thought and a quick consideration of your frame will help you to see parts of the picture that are not necessary. A slight move of your camera or a change of your zoom will eliminate them from the frame to give you a stronger, more pleasing image.
The next time you’re holidaying in a town or city, keep an eye on the windows of the buildings around you. They’re a great aid to composition and can help you capture a unique view. The challenge is positioning yourself to maximise the reflection of the scene in the window with the composition of elements in the reflection.
Compose a scene to have three relevant subjects: one in the foreground, one in the middle and one in the background. The three objects will create a visual lead through the picture.
When capturing landscapes and cityscapes while you’re away, try to include strong compositional lines that will lead the viewer through the picture from the foreground to the background. Examples include paths, rivers, train lines or road markings. You'll need to position your camera in a suitable vantage point to capture the natural lines in a photo, and that may mean getting up high or down low to maximise the effect.
Cameras typically have a marker or AF frame at the centre of the picture, but composing your subjects right in the middle only works effectively for some pictures.
For simple subjects such as a brightly coloured flower in a sea of dark green leaves, a central composition works well. The central part of a photo needs to be strong enough to hold the viewer's attention, so a portrait will also work well where just the face is lit and the background is much darker.
Try composing your image with a natural frame. When you take a photo, consider how the edges of the picture frame your main subject. Using a doorway or window to frame the scene is a good choice, as the darker edge helps to focus attention to the lighter elements elsewhere in the frame. You could use the doorway of a hotel or apartment to frame your view of a city, for example. It’s best if the window or door is open to avoid reflections on the glass.
All too often, photographs are taken at a person’s eye level. Yet more creative viewpoints are available by positioning your camera either lower or higher.
When children take pictures, the results show adults a different view of the world – buildings, trees, plants and adults look much larger from a lower camera position. If your camera has a Vari-angle LCD display or can connect to your smartphone with Wi-Fi, you can put your camera on the floor to frame your shots.
In a city full of tall buildings, try using a wide-angle lens or standard lens and look up towards the sky. Use Aperture Priority mode (Av) and select an aperture of around f/8 or f/11. Then, with the camera pointed towards the sky, frame the scene so that the buildings converge. Since these pictures often have a large range of shadows and highlights, you may need to adjust the brightness in your photo using exposure compensation. It may also help to use the in-camera HDR function.
Similarly, the higher viewpoint from the top of buildings, or with the camera held above your head, works well too.
Visually interesting pictures often have a clear composition that gives space for the main subject. Simply placing your main subject slightly off-centre helps the composition of most photographs.
To do this, imagine that your viewfinder or LCD screen is divided in to a 3 x 3 grid arrangement, divided by four lines. Position your subject at the right or left third of your frame rather than directly in the middle. This will usually make a more interesting and attractive image than putting the subject bang in the middle.
Once you’re familiar with the rule of thirds, try using gridlines to compose better photos. Many EOS cameras have the option to display a grid – either in the viewfinder or on the rear LCD screen. Turn the gridlines on to help you compose pictures more effectively. If you are capturing a view with a horizon line, place it along one of the lines at one-third from the top or bottom of the frame instead of splitting the picture in half by placing the horizon line at the mid-point of the picture.
When you’re shooting movie footage outdoors, you will be able to improve your framing and keep the horizon level by switching on the gridlines.
It’s hard to watch videos where the horizon line is just slightly tilted. It feels like the picture is falling or sliding to one side. However, you can intentionally move the camera off to a steeper angle for interesting compositions. This intentional tilt is often called a Dutch or German angle, and is used in many feature films to create tension or disorientation – so use the tilt sparingly on your family videos. If you tilt one shot to the left, then try to capture the next one with a tilt to the right.
You can use it to convey the tension and fun of exploring a new city, but don’t turn the camera too far – and be sure to mix the tilt with more regular level footage.
A compositional technique known as the Golden Ratio (sometimes known as a Fibonacci Spiral) is a natural compositional approach that creates strong, powerful photos. Around 1200AD, Italian mathematician Fibonacci first noticed that there was a ratio that commonly appears throughout nature which is pleasing to the human eye. It’s often simplified as the rule of thirds, but a true ratio is 1 to 0.618 to 1.
The idea is that you can make a composition stronger if you can compose the frame to include a line that guides the viewer along a spiral path to the main subject. The theory can work across lots of different images – from landscapes to portraits and more.
Composing your scene with triangles in mind can improve your photos. Try shooting the lines of the street disappearing into the distance, and the resulting triangular sections in the side of the frame.
Even with a portrait of a person at a table, try asking the subject to move their arms to create a triangular shape – the elbows wider spread, and the hands supporting the chin. The composition will look much more aesthetically pleasing.
When you print images using your PIXMA printer, you have the choice to crop your photos using Canon’s My Image Garden software, to enhance the composition. Take some time to experiment with different crops. For landscape images, choose a panoramic crop to create a wide image. Even printing multiple images in a line will give the panoramic effect if you’ve captured them well.
Get Inspired is your key source of useful photography tips, buyer’s guides and insightful interviews – everything you need to find the best camera or the best printer, and make your next creative idea come to life.Back to all Tips & Techniques
Paula Stopka's guide to composing standout shots of buildings and cityscapes.
Follow these tips and tricks to give your backgrounds a beautiful blur.
Master aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings.