Today, I want to show you how to find the best composition from digital photos on PhotoShop. You know what? It’s probably a lot easier than you think!
Almost every artist who has ever wielded brush or pencil has also explored compositional ideas when deciding what to paint. Thumbnail sketches, color studies, even framing a composition with your hands if you’re working outside are all good methods for finding the best composition before you start drawing or painting.
In this age of technology, artists have a few new tools to aid them in composing artwork. The process can begin with your camera, but it doesn’t end there.
I used a Macintosh G4 and Photoshop 7.0 for this demonstration, but you can do pretty much the same thing with any photo editor on any computer. The steps may be different, but the results will be the same.
How to Find the Best Composition from Digital Photos on PhotoShop
The Reference Photo
Reference photos should be the best possible. Good lighting. Good contrast. Sharpness of image.
You can make changes in contrast or brightness, and even adjust color. Since I do a lot of composing through the lens of the camera, most of the images I use for reference already have the best available lighting, contrast, and color. It just saves time.
This image was taken on a cloudy day with relatively flat light. The lighting and color saturation are part of the appeal.
But it’s a pretty boring composition, with the house almost dead center.
Before You Begin Editing
Before doing anything else, save the image with a new name by selecting SAVE AS and giving it whatever name you want. This protects the original photograph so if you mess up, you can start over with the original. Choose a name and naming system that makes sense to you, is easy to file, AND easy to find and retrieve later.
I named this one Old Stone House Reference.jpg and put it into a separate file dedicated to this project.
Cropping the Image
The best first step is usually cropping the original image to focus on the subject. Creating three or four—or half a dozen—different crops may be all it takes to find the best composition.
Choose the SELECTION tool from the toolbox on the left of this screen shot. In most versions of PhotoShop, this will be the tool at the upper left of the toolbox. (See the gray box in the toolbox).
Select the area you want by placing your cursor at one corner of the desired area and dragging it downward and across the part you want to crop. The result will be a dotted line outline as shown above. The area inside the box is your selection.
Next, select the IMAGE drop down menu and choose CROP.
Your image now looks like this. Save it using the SAVE AS function and give it a new name. This is now old-stone-house-comp-01.jpg but you can choose any name and numbering system that works for you.
You can make as many compositions as you like by repeating the steps above. Begin with the reference photo each time. I ended up with five different options for this image. Two of the others are shown here.
As you can see, the only limitation is your imagination.
Once you’ve selected your favorite compositions, you can resize them to suit the needs of your drawing or painting.
Under the IMAGE drop down menu, click on IMAGE SIZE.
That will bring up this dialogue box.
Set the size by pixel in the top two boxes. You can also set size in the next two boxes.
Multiple measuring systems are available under DOCUMENT SIZE, including inches, picas, metric, and columns.
You can also change the pixel density in the image by changing the resolution. The higher the number, the finer the resolution and the larger the file.
Most cameras automatically capture images at a low resolution, but offer ways to increase resolution. It is better to take pictures with a higher resolution, because you’ll capture more detail. But those files will require more memory on your camera.
In other words, you’ll have higher quality images, but will be able to take fewer of them. Especially if you’re limited to a memory card or an older camera.
Make Sure to Keep Proper Porportions
The last thing I’ll mention in this dialogue box is the option to CONSTRAIN PROPORTIONS. When you choose this option, the enlarged or reduced image has the same proportions as the original. If you don’t check this box, you can change one dimension without changing the other and the result will be a distorted image. For the majority of work, you’ll want to check this box.
Once you’ve made your selections, click OK.
Repeat these steps for each of the compositions you’ve created.
If you compose intuitively or by eye, you’ll be able to tell which compositions are working and which aren’t.
If you need more concrete tools for evaluating the compositions, continue reading.
Evaluating the Compositions
The two best tools I know of for evaluating or fine tuning compositions is the Rule of Thirds, and the Golden Mean.
The Rule of Thirds divides a compostion into even thirds vertically and horizontally.
The Golden Mean also divides a composition into thirds, but along the Golden mean.
In both cases, the idea is to place the main points of interest in the composition on one of the four places where two lines intersect.
It’s much easier to calculate even thirds than the Golden Mean, so that’s what I’ll show you.
How to Draw the Rule of Thirds
However, some photo editors have preset grids that allow you to crop by the Rule of Thirds or the Golden Mean. Irfanview is one such photo editor.
Chose the drop down menu labeled LAYER and select NEW, then select LAYER.
On this new layer, place a line one-third of the way across the top and another line at two-thirds. Lines should also be drawn at one-third and two-thirds along the side as well.
Hold down the shift key as you draw the line to keep the line straight and on the square.
To make this easier, I set the size of the image to a number divisible by three. By setting the width of the image at 30, for example, I can easily place a line at 10 and another at 20 and have the image divided into thirds.
Change the height to a number divisible by three and place the lines.
TIP: Select a color for the lines that does not blend into the image. My favorite color for this process is red because it’s easy to see and I rarely use red for any other part of the digital composition process.
Below is the first composition with the one-third grid in place.
And here is the panorama composition with the one-third grid in place. It, too, could do with just a bit of tweaking to get the subject in one of the sweet spots.
The sweet spots in the composition are where two lines meet. It applies to the one-third rule, which I’m using here, and to the Golden Mean, which also divides a composition into thirds, but not equal thirds.
This is one way to find the best composition from digital images. As I mentioned at the beginning, you can use the same basic procedure with any photo editor. I’ve used IrfanView and GIMP in the same way. Both are free to download.