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Composition: Equipment Notes

Photographers must rely on their equipment in order to capture their compositional vision. It stands to reason therefore that knowing how to use your camera, lenses and tripod effectively will help greatly in capturing satisfying compositions.

Camera Controls

Let's look briefly at the basic photographic controls of focal length, aperture and shutter speed and how you can use them to aid in composition. 

Focal Length - Normal lenses are those that see roughly the way the human eye does. Focal lengths in the range of around 40mm to 85mm are generally considered "normal." Composition with a normal lens is often fairly straightforward because of the similarity to our everyday way of seeing. They tend to produce a fairly "documentary" style of image.

Wide Angle lenses are generally considered to be those with focal lengths under about 35mm to 40mm. They take in huge angles of view and can be a challenge to use effectively. The usual formula involves looking for both a good foreground and a good background. The foreground can be nearly anything of possible interest — a single flower or clump of flowers, even an interesting rock or stick — just about anything. You will need to get right up on top of your foreground to record it large enough to anchor the image. Finding a good background can be harder. You need to look for something that is vast in size since the lens sees such a large angle of view. Ideally, your chosen background should be representative of the foreground subject's surroundings such that you can show it in context. Wide angle lenses have an increased depth of field so they work quite well for this sort of "subject in its environment" shot.

Telephoto lenses are those with focal lengths over around 85mm. They are used to pull in far away objects and photograph subjects you can't physically get close to, whether that is a wild animal or the top of a mountain. They can be very useful for photographing small details in an otherwise vast landscape.

Aperture - Compositionally, aperture lets you control depth of field, which lets you determine the extent to which your background will be in focus. Sometimes you want to record landscapes with vast depths; other times you want to isolate your subject against a clean out-of-focus background in a technique known as "selective focus."

Shutter Speed - Shutter speed controls the degree to which motion is either frozen or allowed to blur. A fast shutter speed lets you stop action and record an instant in time. Longer shutter speeds let you record motion itself as your subject as in the classic shot of a blurred waterfall.

The Tripod

Nothing can both help and hurt composition as much as a tripod. Don't just jump out of the car and setup the camera on the tripod at eyelevel and fire away. Take some time first to explore.

When you first get to somewhere that seems like a good location, set your gear down including your tripod and walk around, looking at the possibilities in detail. Look at things from all angles until you are satisfied you know where you want to start shooting from. You can always move later, but you need to know where to start.

Then go and get your camera with whatever lens seems like the right one to use. Re-evaluate your original ideas and make sure you are comfortable with them. Determine where and how high your tripod should be, then go and get it. Set it up where you have worked out to be the right place and attach your camera.

After getting your camera all set up and the tripod locked down, inspect the contents of the viewfinder carefully. Look for intrusions and hotspots, check depth of field, and make sure your background looks good. Does your composition really work? And have you checked all these details? If so, you are ready to shoot, confident in knowing you've done a lot to get shots you will be pleased with.

Date posted: January 11, 2004


Copyright © 2004 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
Permanent link for this article

Previous tip: Composition: Some Thoughts on Subject Matter Return to archives menu Next tip: Composition: Pre-visualization

Related articles:
Know Your Camera
Depth of Field, Part 1
More on Composing With a Tripod
Composition: What Do You Want To Say?
Composition: Thinking Graphically
Composition: A Look at Color
Composition: Putting Things in Perspective
Composition: Some Thoughts on Subject Matter
Composition: Pre-visualization
Composition: Putting it All Together
Iterative Composition

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