What is Composition? In its most basic definition, composition is the arrangement of elements and their relationship to one another within an image. It is composition—as well as lighting—that is the primary tool with which photographers put themselves into an image and emphasize the subject(s) in the frame.

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Composition doesn’t just happen

Beginning photographers often see a subject they like and just start shooting. While it is often easier just to be a shutterbug, taking the time to think about how the subject would look best in the frame and within its environment can dramatically increase the impact of the image.

This guide is intended to provide you with some basic composition tips that will help improve your images and serve as a starting point from which you can eventually develop your own creative vision. Many of these tips are not only applicable to underwater photography, but can also prove useful in your topside photography endeavors as well.

When first approaching how to compose a shot, the first thing you must consider is the best way to generally orientate the shot—horizontally (landscape) or vertically (portrait). Be sure to approach every subject with an open mind. Feel free to shoot both portrait and landscape images of the same subject; sometimes you might surprise yourself and find the orientation that you wouldn’t have originally chosen is better than you thought.

Enough ‘fish butts’ & dorsal fins

When diving we are in a three dimensional world; and when swimming over a reef, we are usually looking down on the life below. Resist the urge to just start shooting the top of the fish. You will usually need to get below the fish, or at least at eye level, in order to make a pleasing image. Therefore, always remember this when composing your shots—“get low and shoot up.” No more dorsal fin shots!

Another common mistake is scaring the subject and then chasing after it to get the shot. Fish swim faster than you. You will never catch up. You will end up with “fish butt” shots. Instead, be patient and take the time to wait until the subject is facing you. As to be discussed later, eyes are the most important part of the subject: a viewer can’t relate to a subject without eyes.

Don’t cut off your subject

Avoid cutting off parts of your subject with the edges of the frame. Sometimes it is okay to not include the entire subject in the photo- this is usually true for creative macro shots where the frame is filled with a strategic part of a subject. Cutting off parts of the subject with the frame is best used consciously as a creative tool, like shooting face portraits or eye-shots. However, cutting off part of the subject otherwise meant be included in its entirety will result in an image that subconsciously reads as being incomplete.

Focus on the eyes

Some people say that the most important rule of wildlife photography is making sure the eyes of the subject are in sharp focus. Out of focus eyes means often results in the loss of your audience’s focus. Just as we show a lot of expression in our eyes, so do our fishy friends. Therefore, it’s only natural for us to be drawn to the eye in an image.

If you are shooting with large apertures or with high magnification macro lenses that have shallow depths of fields, it is very important that you ensure sharp focus on the subject’s eye. Luckily, eyes usually offer good contrast and auto-focus can pick them up well. By locking the focus on the eye, and then composing your image, you have the best chance of keeping this important feature sharp.

Give fish room to swim

You should always remember to place any subject, or potential subject for that matter, well way from the frame’s edge with room “swim into the frame”. In other words, there should be more ...

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