Composition Ahead of HDR

Article by Blake Rudis

You have probably spent a lot time skimming through this HDR stuff and think it is pretty cool.  I know I did when I first started.  I was in hog heaven the first time I started shooting for HDR and processing the pictures.  However, I lost sight of the most important element to photography when I started shooting for HDR images, Composition.

Composition is the foremost important aspect of DSLR photography.  It really is!  Has anyone ever said to you, “Holy crap, you made excellent use of f/8.0 with a shutter speed of 1/1000th, oh and your metering choice, incredible, how the heck did you handle that center weighted metering mode?”

No one has ever said anything even remotely close to that about my photographs.  Instead I hear things like, “Great angle!” or “Nice perspective, love the leading lines!” or even more HDR specific “I love the detail and color!”

It is very easy to lose sight of how important composition is when HDR images just look so awesome!  I don’t know why I threw composition out the door.  I guess I just got in over my head with how awesome the photos looked after tone mapping that I didn’t even think about creative camera angles anymore.

It took me about three months before I finally looked at all the tone mapped junk I had collected and said, “Blake, you suck!  What the hell did you do to your compositionally focused eye?”

You may know a lot about composition, you may have been classically trained like me.  However, there are a lot of HDRtists that have not.  So for those who have never seen any formal training on Composition this one is for you.  For anyone else, it will be a great refresher!  Just because HDR images look so cool after tone mapping, doesn’t mean they look good compositionally.  If you polish a turd, it is still a turd!

Composition 101:

1.       Rule of Thirds

This one is probably the fastest way to improve your compositional eye.  Draw an imaginary set of lines on your viewfinder horizontally and vertically that divides your scene into thirds.  Ideally you would place your focal point at one of the intersections, your strong horizon on the top or bottom division line, and/or line up a vertical line in the scene on one of the vertical division lines.

This is very simple to do when you are hand holding your camera and composing pictures, snapping and moving on.  However, us HDRtists are often tripod mounted which can pose some potential problems when selecting a focal point.  If you are using autofocus be sure to set your correct focus point on the focal point of the scene.  This will tell the camera to focus on that specific spot for the duration of the exposures in your AEB set.

2.      Geometry

I love to look for geometry in my compositions.  Whether they are implied shapes or obvious shapes, looking for specific shapes within the scene will help the viewer navigate your photo and keep them looking around for a longer period of time.
Look for specific shapes, rectangles, circles, and squares.  Triangles are one of the best as they can really have your head pinging from one end of a picture to the other.

3.      Golden Ratio
The golden ratio is a good one, but all too often people get hung up on the perfect picture with the perfect golden ratio composition.  I say exploit it when you can, but don’t think every photo can be captured with the perfect golden ratio.  If every photo could possess the golden ration there would be nothing “golden” about it right?

4.      Perspective

Always look for an opportunity to capture perspective.  Anytime an object transcends multiple planes in a photograph, from the foreground to the background, the scene appears three dimensional even though it is on a 2 dimensional photograph.

Railroads, highways, and sidewalks are common objects that make perspective relatively easy to capture.  However, you can do the same with cars.  Instead of photographing it head on or on the side capture a low angle on one of its sides to show that it is a 3 dimensional object.  It may make the car appear fiercer!

5.      Angle

A clever camera angle can always make an excellent HDR photo.  However, we are often tripod mounted which leaves us with the limitation of our tripod, right?  Wrong!  You can use anything to brace your camera.

You can set it on the ground, you can carry a small bean bag with you, or you can find objects around the scene like rocks and sticks.  You can brace your camera with anything, but if you don’t want to run the risk of ruining the bottom of your camera you can purchase a Gorilla Pod.

Always look for a creative angle to take your HDR images from.

If you liked the tips here you may want to check out my newest eBook, The DSLR Survival Guide.  I cover a lot of beginning photography techniques like the tips above.  It is jammed packed with valuable information!

For more information on HDR techniques, visit Blake’s blog Or see Blake’s HDR book – Exploring HDR