THE TCC BLOG: photography, creativity and navigating life as an entrepreneur in the 21st century.

Composition, an introduction

This image below shows use of all three compositional elements I would like to discuss today. Let’s introduce the concept of composition, and visit three guidelines for composition, then revisit this image.

Image by Ria Mishaal FRPS

In its simplest interpretation, composition describes both the elements of a whole, and the way in which the whole is made. You can think of your composition in the context of the story you are telling – each element or object is a character, and the position of each character in the frame describes its relationship to the others. Your composition will convey your story – your vision – and will influence how the viewer of your image will react.

First, you need to decide what your story is. Everything you choose to include in the frame will become a part of the narrative of the image, and where you place your chosen subjects will influence how that story is told; where the viewer focuses first, where they are led and ultimately how they feel.

The first step is to decide on the focal point of your image, the protagonist of your story. It might be a particular object or person, or maybe a shadow or highlight. Knowing what your focal point is will always help you tell a better story.

The next step is knowing who you are telling the story to, and this might influence the visual language you use. Then you place the protagonist in a narrative, and frame it with the emotion and atmosphere you want to convey. The lighting you choose and the styling and compositional structure you follow keenly influence this. In this post, we’re going to explore three simple guidelines that will let you use composition to help make your images more striking and your stories more memorable. These guidelines are tried-and-tested ways of making an image carry emotional weight: they draw and lead the eye, they help you tell your story and they convey emotion – calm, balance or energy.

1. Rule of thirds 

The rule of thirds in composition is about where we place the focal point of the image within a frame. It has been shown that, if you take the whole frame and break it into thirds horizontally and vertically, as shown below, our eyes go naturally to the intersections of the lines rather than the middle of the frame. The rule of thirds suggests that if you intentionally place the focal point of your image or other key elements on the intersections, the image will feel more natural and interesting to the viewer than if you place your subject in the exact centre.

In the following image of a wedding day in Sicily, the couple are placed on the vertical third, while the horizon is on the horizontal third, making for a pleasingly balanced image.

Image by Ria Mishaal FRPS

2. Leading lines

This is one of my very favourites. It describes how you can use horizontal, diagonal and vertical ‘lines’ created by objects in your frame to lead the viewer around the image, providing perspective, scale and flow. You can use these lines to lead the viewer to your subject and to tell your story by placing more emphasis on one element or providing connection between objects. Often they start towards the bottom of the frame, leading the viewer up and in towards the main subject of the image. Leading lines are everywhere and great fun to use in composition. Here are some you might encounter day to day: fences, anything in a row, tables, candles, trees,; light and shadows.

It’s easiest to get to grips with this with a few examples:

In this wedding shot, the couple are positioned such that the receding lines of winter trees lead right to them. This is emphasised by the trees in reflection.

Image by Ria Mishaal FRPS

In this breathtaking image by Linda Wevill shows the use of leading lines in composition beautifully. The fence draws you in from the bottom right of the image and leads you right across, snaking through the tones and colours.

‘High Water at the Sea Pool’ by Linda Wevill FRPS

3. Framing your subject

Another technique for drawing attention to the subject of your image with composition is to use ‘framing’. This has the added benefit of providing context for the narrative; a doorway, a window, a natural arch in a tree, or lights in the background.

This layering in the image not only draws attention to the main focal point but also provides layers and visual interest, which are more intriguing and will hold your viewers’ attention for longer.

Frames don’t have to be complete, like a picture frame; they can be incomplete vertically or horizontally or even out of focus, and still bring an element of structure to the image.

In this image, the model (wearing a dress designed by Vicky Rowe) is framed in the light of the window reflected in the mirror behind her.

Image by Ria Mishaal FRPS

In this striking image by David F Cooke FRPS, the subject is quite literally framed by the ferry window, creating a ‘window’ on to this story

The Couple by David F Cooke FRPS

Combining ideas

Image by Ria Mishaal FRPS

This image shows use of all three compositional elements. The boy with his ice-cream is placed on the vertical third (rule of thirds); the line of the houses runs in to a bright curb which leads your eye from the bottom left hand corner right to the subject – the boy (leading lines); the boy is framed by capturing him when he was exactly in the middle of the yellow section of the wall (framing).

Have a go with these compositional guidelines and let me know if you feel it helps improve the impact of your images!

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How to get a blurry background

Today we are going to talk a little bit about how to get that blurry background you often see in portraits or lifestyle product images. That blurry background really makes the subject stand out, and it is one of the first things aspiring photographers are keen to find out how to do.

Image by Ria Mishaal FRPS; aperture: f/2.2, shutter speed: 1/200s, ISO: 500

The aspect that influences how much of your image is in focus (and so how blurry the background is) is the depth of field. Technically put, the depth of field in an image is the area of acceptable sharpness that appears in focus. It extends in front and behind your focal point (where you focus). If your depth of field is large, a lot of the scene in front of your lens (front to back) will be in focus; if the depth of field is small, then only a small amount will be in focus, giving you a blurry background and a sharply in-focus subject.

Let’s use an analogy to help: if you imagine the scene in front of you is made up of slices like a loaf of bread, the more of those slices you want in focus, the larger your depth of field needs to be.

How do we influence the depth of field in our image? By changing the aperture.


Aperture is the setting that will give you a lot of creative control because, as well as influencing the amount of light that reaches the sensor, it influences the area of an image that is in acceptable focus (the depth of field).

Aperture is the variable opening of the lens. By changing the aperture to be large (small f-number e.g. f/2.0), you will let a lot of light in (good if you are working in low light) and you will get a shallow depth of field. The opposite is true of a small aperture.

There are other things that influence the depth of field, like the focal length of your lens and your distance from your subject, but at the beginning, let’s concentrate on this: the smaller the f-number, the shallower your depth of field becomes (relative to a subject at a fixed distance when taken with the same lens).

Recap on how to get a blurry background by adjusting your f number:

Blurry background = small depth of field

Small depth of field = large aperture opening

Large aperture opening = small f number e.g. f2

Below we can see this clearly: note that the flowers at the back and the book are less in focus in a than in b.

a: aperture: f/2.0, shutter speed: 1/500s, ISO: 1250; Image by Ria Mishaal FRPS

b: aperture: f/8.0, shutter speed: 1/30s, ISO: 1250; Image by Ria Mishaal FRPS

Give it a go and please do let me know how you get on below!

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Being Truly Yourself is Freedom

“Truly believe from the bottom of your heart and you can make change happen…..
everyone of us must be the very best of ourselves”

– Caroline Casey

Self belief is one of the most powerful tools we can have, and it’s one of the characteristics most of us battle with.

At sometime in our lives, we ask ourselves who we are, and what we want to be. So often we are limited by what we believe others think our destination is, or by the labels we place on ourselves. Judgment, preconception and assumption all come so naturally to us.

Evolutionarily, it makes sense that our behaviour is governed by pattern. When faced with a situation similar to one we have experienced before, we reference our past experience. This is a fine principle when it comes to learning that fire is hot, but when it comes to what you can and cannot do, and what other people may or may not be thinking, this way of reacting is incredibly limiting.

There is freedom to being mindful, referencing only your present experience, without judgment, preconception or assumption. So much more is possible when we aren’t assuming the world is saying no.

That doesn’t mean that we won’t make mistakes, but admitting failure, learning from those mistakes and asking for help when we need it, is a key aspect to being truly self confident. Understanding and appreciating your gifts and your limitations, harnessing all the pieces of all of you and believing in your own convictions, will give you the power to make whatever change and meet whatever challenge you want.

I made a choice seven years ago to change the course of my career from neuroscientist to photographer. While science and art have always been passions of mine, I had set course as a career scientist early on. My photography business had been going for some time alongside, but to make such a change as to move to a full time career as a photographer, after attaining a science PhD and working through a couple of post doctoral fellowships, seemed impossible. I was defined as a ‘scientist’, how could I be anything else? This is what the world knew me as, what it expected of me.

If I put down these assumptions and judgments and asked myself who I was and what I wanted to be now, would the answer be different? As it turned out, despite feeling I had no confidence at all, I had enough self-belief to challenge my preconceptions and make the steps for change. I was not only surprised by my own capabilities but by the support and encouragement of those around me who knew me best – the very ones I worried I would be letting down. I do of course have a long way to go, but I embrace being a life long learner, and I can see the power of cultivating self-belief and what that enables me to achieve.

In a moving TED talk by Caroline Casey, she describes her own unique experience with these concepts. It’s well worth making a cup of tea and listening to her story.

If you put aside the assumptions and judgements you make about yourself, do you find yourself with more possibilities?

If you put aside assumptions and judgement, what are you called to do?

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8 Steps To Growing Your Instagram Following

Instagram is an incredible asset for photographers and a great place to share your work with the world. This post is designed to help you boost your presence on Instagram and cultivate a strong, meaningful following.

Aerial photo of mountains and rivers with the text '8 steps to growing your instagram following'1. BE CONSISTENT
The key to all social media is consistency – one post a day is better than none for a week and five in one day. Seeing your photos frequently will help people make a connection with you, which in turn will make them more likely to share your work with their own audience.

Image by Natalie Martin

In the small space above your images you get to define who you are and what you’re about. Don’t waste it with vague or generic phrases that you think people will find inspiring or catchy. Really hone in on your niche and your passions and then link to your strongest online asset, whether that’s your website, your Facebook page or your Etsy store. If one link is really not enough, use Linktree to give yourself a menu of links to the most important pages or sites you want to share.

Image by Ria Mishaal FRPS

Grabbing attention for one image is great, but encouraging people to follow you comes down to the rest of your feed. Consistency is key, particularly if you’re trying to attract clients and followers to a specific genre or niche. Choosing a tone or palette to use throughout your images can really grab attention.

You can choose to use light, airy images or dark, moody ones to add that consistency, or maybe if you love black and white photography, run your whole feed in black and white. Choosing a palette that suits your brand can also help, so each image has that palette and those tones within it.

While it’s tempting to ‘like’ as many photos as possible in the hope people will follow you back won’t lead to anything meaningful in the long run. ‘Likes for likes’ is an empty way to promote yourself. Having 500 followers who genuinely love what you do is way more powerful than 5000 followers who ‘liked you back’ out of courtesy but never check your feed. Search for terms you find interesting and engage with the people whose work you like, give feedback and praise and follow those who you really want to follow. That way you build up an authentic following of like-minded people who value what you do.

Image by Natalie Martin

You can use up to thirty hashtags on each post and the evidence shows that the posts that make use of all? most? hashtags will get the most engagement. You can use sites like Webstagram to see which hashtags currently have the most interactions and pick the ones that work with your brand. You can also create your own hashtag and encourage your followers to interact with your content by using your hashtags on their posts.

As with other social media platforms, reaching out to others for collaborations and joint posts or projects is a fantastic way to give your following a boost. You can increase your following and get your work seen by like-minded audiences who are more likely to follow you with such projects. For example: 1) work on a styled shoot with a makeup artist or stylist with a strong following, who will tag you in the final images; 2) work on a personal photography project with a second photographer where the final images are shared on both profiles.

Image by David F Cooke FRPS EFIAP

If you’re serious about growing your following organically, you can make your life easier by using analytics to evaluate which times of day or types of post work best for you. Tools like Iconosquare help you to evaluate which of your hashtags are gaining the most interaction and which times of day are the best and worst times for engagement with your audience. From this information, you can ensure you’re posting in a smart way, really honing in on the content that is serving you, and finding ways to improve on what actually works for you and your audience.

Image by Sarah Zipell

Let’s face it, we all lead busy lives and often don’t have the time to write and put up three posts a day at consistent times, which is necessary to build a great following. This is where scheduling comes into its own. Apps like Planoly or Later allow you to upload images, write your captions and add hashtags in advance.

The real beauty of apps like Planoly is that they 
allow you to plan the look of your feed. This is because you can upload many images and reorder them to design the look and feel of the overview of your feed. It is great to consider your posts in blocks of 3 (a line in your thumbnail feed) and also in blocks of 9, as that will dominate the view on a smart phone screen.

As previously mentioned, choosing a tone for your images will help give your feed consistency, but what if you would like to post colour as well as black and white images, or you have a variety of subjects to share? Here is where designing your feed will pay off.

Design a pattern to follow, for example posting a quote or a personal picture so that it falls within the middle of a row, and then follow it again every sixth image, so you will have a reoccurring pattern.

Or alternate details and portraits, or portraits and landscapes, and blend colour tones or follow a theme within a block of three – all candle-lit or all autumnal. It will take time to figure this out but the results can be stunning.

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The art of conversation

Every month I read a book to expand my understanding, to help me develop. The pages I have leafed through in these last weeks have been concerned with the nature of interactions, conversations and personal preconceptions, namely Fierce Conversations and Leadership and Self Deception. These texts are well worth a read and a ponder….

One message rose above the rest, because of its simplicity and great consequence. Conversation and relationship are synonymous.

I had always acknowledged that my great relationships yield wonderful conversations. I had not consciously acknowledged though that, in reality, the relationship is the conversation and the conversation is the relationship, not a cause and consequence, but one and the same. Every single conversation has the potential to instigate significant connection and the capability of creating change, but that doesn’t mean every conversation will – the nature and potential of the conversation is, of course, dependent on you and me.

Reflecting on this idea, I was struck how words can be used without choice, carelessly, almost outside of ‘conversation’, and how there really is a great art in speaking and listening, which is taken for granted. There is value in the way we converse and how receptive we are to those we speak with. I realised that paying greater attention to each and every conversation I have, from the girl next to me on the train to conversations with my husband, could really change my outlook and life in profound ways.

I strive to be authentic and generous in my character. I believe strongly in the power of being honest in who you are. I could see, as I read these books, the value and gift we each have in actively and honestly listening to others, without agenda or preconception. As I paid more attention to my inner dialogue, I realised that often I hear a filtered internal translation of what was being said, distorted by my own thoughts. So I have begun to learn to listen more openly, to give of my heart and spirit in the act of listening and speaking honestly…developing my own art of conversation.

Listening is an act of love
The power of open and honest conversation is beautifully demonstrated in the archives of the American independent non-profit organization StoryCorps. Their mission is to “provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives”. To this end they have collected tens of thousands of people in conversation. Their old tag line ‘Listening is an act of love’ is vividly poignant. BBC radio and the British Library have embarked upon a UK counterpart called The Listening Project “capturing the nation in conversation to build a unique picture of our lives today and preserve it for future generations”. It is a beautifully powerful endeavour. If you are interested, you can listen online – get started with the presenter Fi Glover’s favourites.

Don’t hang up…or log off
In listening to these conversations I was reminded of a quirkier but equally fascinating study of conversation I heard back in 2011:Don’t Log Off. Alan Dein makes conversations with different people all over the world, talking about their lives and thoughts late at night via Facebook and Skype. Whatever medium we converse in, the conversation matters.

So I challenge myself to make every conversation I have more genuine. I challenge myself to ask questions I have not asked before and to listen with love and really hear the words and meaning, unfiltered, and share my own thoughts with honesty. Will you join me?

What great conversations have you had or wish you could have?

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The Creativity Collective’s blog is intended as a community resource exploring creativity, the art of photography and tools for happy and productive living.

It’s written by Ria Mishaal, a professional photographer fascinated by light, love and navigating life as an entrepreneur in the 21st century. Learn more about her and the rest of the TCC team here.

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