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by Linda Pitkin

Reproduced from in focus 29 (Aug/Nov. 1988)

A resumé of the BASIC COURSE talk given at the July meeting of the Society.


Most of us know what we like when we look at photographs (or paintings for that matter) but it's not so easy to define why we prefer one picture to another. It's not necessarily the choice of subject. It can be very exciting underwater to meet a big predator such as a shark or barracuda but the image captured on film may be disappointing. On the other hand an ordinary commonplace subject seen on any dive, seaweed perhaps or anemones can make a terrific picture. So what is it that gives a photo appeal? Once the basics of focusing and exposure have been sorted out the all-important factor is the arrangement and portrayal of whatever goes into the frame. Composition can make or break a picture.

Composition is something that maybe we would rather leave to the artist who paints a picture. But whether we like it or not we are all artists every time we press the shutter. Whether the composition is chosen deliberately or left to chance a design is created in every photograph. You can't avoid it so you might as well make it work for you. Think about the composition you want before you press the shutter not just when you choose what to keep and what to throw out when the processed film comes back.

Making an effort to look critically at the shot you are lining up is certainly a good idea but what should you be looking for - some people have a natural eye for a. good composition and practice can help to develop this. If you want rules to follow you are going to be unlucky because unlike techniques of exposure and focus which are straightforward to learn there are no absolute rules of composition. There are certain guidelines though and I can give you some examples of these to think about next time you want to compose a picture. These guidelines are no substitute for your own judgement and you must always look for what will work for yourself because every picture is a different set of shapes and colours that all affect each other in making up the whole design.


Struggling with problems of moving subjects and parallax viewfinders our first attempts at underwater photography involve getting the subject in the frame without losing any important bits. After mastering this we continue to work at composition. A subject stuck to one edge of the frame looks obviously wrong in most cases, as if it's about to fall out, so rather then risk this it's tempting to go to the other extreme and stick the subject in the centre. Keep doing this and you will end up with a lot of very dull pictures. Composition means more then getting the subject inside the frame. It may not be so easy to see what is wrong with a subject dead centre but it Is often just as bad a mistake, The symmetrical arrangement can look boring; placing the subject off centre is usually more interesting.

The 'Rule of Thirds' (or Golden Mean') is a principle which recommends dividing the frame into thirds and positioning the main subject exactly a third of the way into the frame. Don't follow this slavishly but do try moving the subject around each time until you get the most pleasing effect. If a vertical or horizontal line divides areas of the picture position it in the same way as you would the main subject, away from the centre. Pictures split into two equal rectangles rarely look good. Unless you are making a feature of vertical or horizontal lines they can give a flat deadening effect and are best broken up.

There are occasions when the symmetry of a central subject can be made into a successful feature, for instance if the subject has a symmetrical or radial form which makes an interesting pattern.

When you position the subject to one side make sure that It faces into the frame rather than towards the nearest edge. Even a stationary fish or diver conveys an intention of movement by the direction they face and if this is the edge of the frame it gives the disconcerting impression that they are about to disappear out of the picture.


It may seem obvious that a picture needs a main subject because it's usually easy to see that it lacks interest without something to catch the eye. Don't go to the other extreme though and cram the frame with subjects that vie with each other for attention or the result will be a mess. A simple strong composition is impressive; avoid overkill. There are many ways to make a subject stand out as the focus for attention. Size of course is one way. If those huge fish always end up as tiddlers in the frame you need to get in close to make them look large. Try filling the frame with the subject for impact (you can put it in the centre for this). Shots that fill the frame can stand tight cropping of the subject. It's not always necessary to include the whole thing so long as the result is balanced and conveys the interest that led you to photograph it.

If the main subject Is smaller and part of a wider view you must remember that the arrangement of everything in the picture is important, The surrounding area can sometimes benefit from tidying up to remove extraneous clutter such as empty cans, drifting weed and unwanted divers or it is often possible to coax the subject to sit in more attractive surroundings. Don't overdo it by upsetting wildlife and damaging habitats, Avoid large meaningless or empty areas. You can control this by selecting the angle of view that works best. Try framing a scene from different angles to see how different parts of the picture change in size and position.

Contrast is an invaluable means of emphasising a subject and making the whole picture interesting. Contrasting colours work well: the contrast of brilliant shades against murky ones, complementary colours such as red against green or the contrast of warm and cold colours such as red against blue. Bright red is a particularly strong eye-catching colour even if it only occupies a small area so this is a good choice for emphasising a feature in the picture. On the other hand beware of letting an unimportant area of red become an unwanted distraction.

You don't have to go for vivid colours though; sombre hues or black and white can be just as arresting if there Is plenty of contrast between the light and dark tones. It doesn't matter whether the main subject is light or dark so long as its immediate background is the reverse. Silhouettes against the sun are dramatic in wide-angle shots. So too are flash-lit close-ups outlined against a dark see backdrop.

Many marine animals blend in too well with their surroundings. A low viewpoint is a good device to show subjects in profile, isolating them from distracting background, and it gives dominance to subjects. Another way to play down a messy background is by making It completely out of focus so that the sharp subject stands out from the blur. You need to to use a wide which gives little depth of field for this purpose and get in very close to the subject. Make use of contrasts in texture as well as colour and tone: rough forms against smooth ones or detailed pa t terns against plain surrounds.

Contrasts and vivid colours can make a picture dynamic and exciting. But there may be times when you went to express a different mood. Then avoid the temptation of immediate impact and go for a subtle gradation in muted shades for a feeling of tranquillity, delicacy or mystery; use of light is all-important.


When we look at a scene we see it as it exists in three dimensions but the camera records it in two dimensions on film. Pictures can look very flat unless an impression of depth is put back into them. Underwater conditions often force us to work within short distances which doesn't help but there are several ways of suggesting depth in a photo. Straight lines appearing to converge into the distance lead the eye into the picture. On land there are plenty of regular man-made lines in roads and walls but not so many underwater. Try though looking along a wreck instead of side on and try the same with straight reef edges. Subjects such as fish and divers don't have such straight lines but they too look flat in side view and have more depth and interest if they are angled towards the camera. Fish swimming away from the lens, the tail view, are rarely appealing as the main subject but can be used to lead the eye into the picture towards a more important feature, A range of objects at different distances can be made to look behind each other if they overlap. particularly If strong shadows are produced by side-lightIng.

Scale changes from large in the foreground to small in the background help to create perspective. This works best if we can see similar subjects such as fish In a shoal diminishing into the background. It also works if a subject that we expect to feature prominently in a photo, a person for instance, is kept small in the background compared with objects in the foreground. Such effects are emphasised by using wide-angle lenses because these distort scale changes. Looking through a 'wIndow' in a wreck, a hole in the reef or a cave entrance towards a subject can give a feeling of distance too so look for natural frames. Avoid foreground detail so that your eye looks through the window rather than at the frame.

Water causes endless problems for our photography but it does give advantages occasionally. Distant views are bluer and softer than nearby scenery. Underwater this is obvious over very short distances even in clear water and It's another useful way to suggest depth. You can emphasise the rapid fall off in colour by choosing bright foreground subjects and lighting them with flash; leave the background naturally lit and It will automatically tend towards blues and blacks.

Selective focusing on parts of a picture can be used to provide contrast but it can also help to give an effect of distance. The familiar way is to have a well defined foreground with a hazy background. The other way round, a sharp main subject well back from a fuzzy foreground, works too because the eye is drawn past the foreground into the picture to focus on the sharp subject, You don't want a great depth of field for this purpose so use the wider apertures.

Depth is not the only feature that may be difficult to capture. Movement that gives a subject life and interest is lost when it is frozen in a picture. You can create the illusion of motion by panning, that Is by swinging the camera to follow a fast moving subject. The subject will be sharp but the blurred streaks of the background suggest movement. In a more general way a feeling of movement can be generated by aligning objects within the frame so that their lines follow on in the same direction. This works particularly well if the direction is diagonal to the frame.


You can choose any shape for a print but if you stick to 35 mm transparencies the format is rather longer and narrower than ideal, difficult to fill with a balanced arrangement. Even with transparencies you need not be stuck with the result after processing. It may be enhanced by cropping to remove unwanted areas, enlarge others and improve the balance. There are limits to the success of this so think about how shapes appear in the picture before you press the shutter. It's worth bearing in mind too that vertical pictures tend to look more powerful than horizontals so don't miss opportunities to turn your camera on its side.

Many compositions have a dominant overall shape and while some shapes fit pleasingly into the frame others look awkward. Circles or squares make an unbalanced picture by leaving too much of the frame empty and oblongs can fill it too predictably. Oval shapes are fairly interesting and balanced but the most effective shapes tend to be triangles and diamonds. The diagonal lines that these are made up of give a picture a dynamic and exciting quality. Even if perspective doesn't play a part in the composition diagonal lines give it depth by leading the eye into the picture and they can also can unify a picture by linking separate objects, in the foreground and background for instance. The diagonal theme provides overriding impact and interest even to commonplace subjects so use it for dramatic effect.


Repetition of elements within a picture adds emphasis. Shapes and lines of the same motif repeated to fill the frame can make pleasing abstract patterns as in the regular arrangement of polyps that make up a clump of coral. Breaking the pattern with a well-positioned contrasting subject can be very effective even though it may then lose the abstract feel. Repeating a shape with a similar one reinforces the image. Several uprights can be powerful but their stability (being parallel with the frame) may be dull unless offset by some other feature. Parallel diagonals though will strengthen the lively impact of a single diagonal. Apart from emphasising a theme repetition helps to balance and unify the picture by linking objects within it and as already mentioned can help to give an impression of depth or motion, Repetition is perhaps more interesting still when it is less obvious. Different objects adopting the same posture, such as a fish aligned with a frond of weed, echo the theme rather than copy it exactly.

If a diagonal is too strident for the mood of the picture you can soften the effect by transforming diagonals into curves. An arc sweeping across the frame (Snell's window for instance) has the interest, life and motion of a diagonal without the harshness.


The camera doesn't lie but does it tell the truth? How can a photograph fail to reproduce the scene faithfully? A scene that appeals to the eye may be disappointing on film because our view, unlike the camera's, is selective. Without being aware of it we fail to notice unimportant items like the telegraph pole growing out of someone's head (on land not underwater of course!) and emphasise other things that attract us. In addition the way we see a subject is coloured by all the other things we know and feel about it, I've shown a few examples of how you can use visual cues and signals. You can choose from these but don't be ruled bv other people's ideas, Look for more ways to compose pictures that capture the interest and appeal of a subject and express your individual impressions of what you see.

Reproduced from in focus 29 (Aug/Nov. 1988)

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