Basic composition is probably the most important aspect of an image and can make or break your picture, yet for some reason many people don’t pay much attention to it when shooting underwater photography. This is maybe due to the fact there are so many other things to think about, ie buoyancy, air consumption, bottom time etc. It can also be down to the fact that there are so many exciting things to see, its easy just to take a quick snap and move onto the next subject, but it doesn’t usually lead to making great images.
Ok, so lets start with what composition actually means. Basically it is the action of putting things together or what something is made from. In artistic terms it’s the arrangement of the parts of a picture. So in photography it means the basis of the image, what the viewer is looking at.
There are many different ways to compose a picture, but as people have differing opinions as to what looks good, there is no set rule to the composition, just what is pleasing to the individual photographers eye.
There are however some tips to help you make the most of your subject and produce a picture that you are happy with.
Each picture should have a main focus or point of interest, without which the image can become confused and lack any wow-factor or interest. This can mean the viewer is not ‘drawn into’ the picture and will skip past it to the next image . Usually, it’s good to have only one idea or subject as the focus. This doesn’t mean you can’t have more than one object, just that there should be only one that is the emphasis of the picture.
This image would have looked better if the photographer had been closer and had made the Lionfish fill more of the frame, therefore making it the main focus of the picture.
This image shows the Lionfish much closer to the photographer, making it the focus of the photograph and an overall more interesting picture.
One of the most common mistakes by beginner underwater photographers is to shoot from too far away. When we are underwater obviously there is water between us and our subject. This water can be full of particles and can reduce the detail in our pictures. So the best thing to do is to get rid of this water, ie move closer to the subject so there is less water between it and our lens. This obviously does not mean get so close you will damage any delicate corals or marine life, but for macro shots try to be just a few inches away and for wide angle shots a few feet is enough. There is usually no point in using your cameras zoom to bring you closer, unless you are already close to a macro subject, as any flashes or strobes are unlikely to be able to reach the subject from too far away and the subject will not be lit adequately.
In this picture, the coral is quite dark and the colours are not pinging out.
This is the same coral, however in this one the photographer has moved closer to the subject, therefore it is now properly lit by the strobe.
Another common mistake is to shoot subjects from above. 9 times out of 10 it is far better to be at the subjects eye level or slightly below so you can shoot upwards. If you are above your subject and pointing down towards it, you are stopping any natural light getting in and causing a shadow. You will also lose any details such as the fish’s face or rhinopores. Shooting upwards lets in more light, and will give far more dramatic images as more of the subject will be in the shot, not just the top if its head!
This Sea Cucumber is lacking in interest and light.
This is a much better composed photo, with the head of the Sea Cucumber the focus with lots of detail.
Let Fish Swim!
When photographing fish, it can be quite difficult to capture them just at the right moment due to their fast and sometimes erratic movements. This can lead to images that have the fishes face close to the edge of the picture. It is better to try and have the head about 3/4 of the way across the frame as this gives the impression of the fish having ‘room to swim’ and doesn’t look like its about to move out of the picture.
This fish looks like he is about to swim out of the picture, which leaves it slightly uncomfortable to the eye.
Here, there is some room at the front of the fish, which give the feeling of space and ‘room to swim.’
How often have you tried to take a picture of a fish but it has swum away from you, leaving you with just an image of its rear end disappearing into the distance? Probably quite alot! This is also a common mistake, and not just by beginners. Fish are challenging subjects to capture, and our desire to photograph a certain fish can detract from how we compose our pictures. The problem is obvious from the fishes perspective – a big creature chasing it around and sticking a shiny lens in its face doesn’t exactly make for a relaxed fish wanting to pose for photos! Following a fish will usually only result in ‘butt shots,’ so its often a better idea to stay in one spot close to your subject, then once it’s used to your presence, move slowly in closer. Patience is the key! It can also help to know a bit about your subject and its habits, i.e Bannerfish for example will move downwards towards the reef when they feel threatened, knowing this can help when positioning yourself for the shot. Getting a picture of a fish facing you is a far better than getting a picture of its bum!
This image is not great, all you can really see is the tail of the fish, who is swimming away.
This image is taken from the front of the fish as it is swimming towards the camera, rather than away, making for a nicely composted photograph.
Amputations and Eyes
Amputations can also detract from a good image. It doesn’t always mean that you need to have the whole fish in each shot, macro pictures for example can be especially dramatic when only a small area of the subject is focused on. But when an image is obviously missing a part of the fish, it can cause the picture to feel unfinished. If you cant get the whole subject in the frame, do a close up shot instead. So before pushing the shutter button, have one last look to ensure you are capturing as much of the subject as you want.
When photographing fish or other underwater creatures, eyes are essential to the images. An eye draws an eye and if your image doesn’t have one, it leads to an uninteresting end result.
This is a good example of amputation. If the photographer had moved to the right or slightly closer, the picture may not have had the unfinished look.
This picture shows the whole of the subject shot from the front with a good view of its eye.
With the digital revolution in photography, its no longer necessary to worry about the cost of film processing or having a limited amount of shots on your dive. As a result, practicing with different shot types and composition has never been easier; you can practice the same shot over and over then delete any unwanted ones without the worry of any extra cost. Use this to your advantage and experiment with a variety of compositions – you will only know if your ideas will work if you try them!
Composition in photography is not an exact science, and as a result, all of the ‘rules’ above should be considered but not necessarily stuck to. If they don’t work in for your picture, ignore them; if you find a great composition that contradicts them, then go ahead and shoot it anyway. Only you can decide what you think is a fantastic picture. But often these rules can be pretty much on the mark and are therefore worth thinking about when you are diving with your camera.
So give it a go! Once you start to learn and practice, these rules will become 2nd nature, and will help you produce pictures to be proud of.