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Jackson Hole-based photographer Cody Downard lets us in on some pro-tips on one of the most important aspects of photography: composition.

Words: Cody Downard

-Photography is about being in the right place at the right time. Nothing is more frustrating than getting back to your computer to realize the photos of the beautiful sunrise you just witnessed don’t look very good.
-One of the most important aspects of photography is composition. If your image is full of distractions, your subject quickly fades away in the confusion. If your subject is placed in the wrong spot, the quality of the scene is greatly diminished.
-There are many other factors involved in photo composition, below are just a few to get you started.

Rule of Thirds
Imagine that your image is divided into 9 equal segments by 2 vertical and 2 horizontal lines. The “rule of thirds” says that you should position the most important elements in your scene along these lines, or at the points where they intersect. Doing so will add balance and interest to your photo.
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Notice how the boot, edge of barn roof and line of green grass are aligned along rule-of-thirds lines.

 

Balancing Elements
Placing your main subject to one side of the frame creates a more interesting photo, but it can leave a void in the scene which can make it feel empty. You should balance the “weight” of your subject by including another object to fill the space.
cody-downard-photography-balancing-elements
Here, the visual “weight” of the black horse is balanced by the horses on the other side of the shot.

 

Leading Lines
Our eye is naturally drawn along lines when we look at a photograph. By thinking about how you place lines in your composition, you can affect the way we view the image, pulling us into the picture, towards the subject, or on a journey “through” the scene. There are many different types of lines – straight, diagonal, curvy, zigzag, radial etc – and each can be used to enhance our photo’s composition. Rivers, horizons, shadows, tree lines and much more can be used to provide nice leading lines.
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The angles of the clouds, reflections, and trees in this photo draw your eye through the scene.

 

Symmetry and Patterns
We are surrounded by symmetry and patterns, both natural and man-made., They can make very eye-catching compositions.
cody-downard-photography-symmetry-patterns

 

Background
The background is just as important as your subject in every photograph. If you have a distracting or busy background, your subject will fade away and become lost in the rest of the photo. Thankfully this problem is usually easy to overcome at the time of shooting – look around for a plain and unobtrusive background and compose your shot so that it doesn’t distract or detract from the subject. Also, shoot with a very shallow depth of field to isolate your subject. When you blur the background, there is no doubt what you are supposed to see in the photograph.
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The blurred background in this composition ensures nothing distracts from the subject.

 

Depth
Because photography is a two-dimensional medium, we have to choose our composition carefully to conveys the sense of depth that was present in the actual scene. You can create depth in a photo by including objects in the foreground, middle ground and background. The human eye naturally recognizes these layers and mentally separates them out, creating an image with more depth.
cody-downard-photography-depth
Snowflakes in the foreground, trees in the middle ground and shadowed snow in the background.

Composition in photography is far from a science, and as a result all of the “rules” aren’t set in stone. If they don’t work in your scene, ignore them; if you find a great composition that contradicts them, then go ahead and shoot it anyway. But they can often prove to be accurate, and are worth at least considering whenever you are out shooting.

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For more information:
Cody teaches photography classes, workshops and private lessons in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks and around the Rocky Mountain Region. Please visit his website for current offerings and more information. When not teaching scheduled workshops, Cody is available for half day and full day photo tours, lessons and classes. Please visit his website for more information: http://www.codydownard.com/workshopinfo.html

Bio
Cody grew up in Eureka, Kansas. He received a Bachelor of Science in Park and Natural Resource Management from Kansas State University, then moved to the Rocky Mountains where he has lived since 1996.

After college, while working as a park ranger for the National Park Service in Yellowstone National Park, Cody’s love for nature inspired his photography. His hobby became his career when he moved to Vail, Colorado in 1999.

Cody’s career has allowed him to photograph a wide variety of subjects ranging from ski resort marketing to fine art. He owned a gallery in Eagle, Colorado, where his Western Fine Art was displayed and now shows his work at Art Shows around the Rocky Mountain region. He was the photo editor for four major outdoor magazines: Backcountry, Alpinist, SKI and Skiing Magazines.

Cody now calls Jackson Hole home and continues to shoot outdoor sports, lifestyle photography and conducts photography workshops in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. When not out shooting he can be found mountain biking, skiing, paddleboarding, climbing, hiking or drinking coffee with his wife Colleen. He is a highly published photographer and his work can be seen worldwide in a variety of publications and locations such as: New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Ski Magazine, Skiing Magazine, Backcountry Magazine, Powder, Cowboys and Indians Magazine, Outside Magazine, National Geographic Adventure Magazine, Sports Illustrated, NBC Sports, US Ski Team, Denver Post, Vail Daily, Aspen Times, Bicycling, Seattle Bride, Rocky Mountain Bride, 5280, Mountain Bike, Paddler Magazine, Weather Channel, Vail Resort, Beaver Creek Resort, Breckenridge Resort, Keystone Resort, Grand Targhee Resort, Big Sky Resort, Dalbello