A Crash Course in Styling Composition and Photography in 5 Tips from Anna Naphtali

11/02/2016 02:44 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2016

Anna Naphtali is a photographer, stylist and visual director. Chances are that you have seen her photography and styling work before as she has been featured in everywhere from The New York Times to Vogue Italia. Her work has also been featured in two international books, dozens of published editorial spreads, on magazine covers, and in design catalogues. She has photographed and styled celebrity brand campaigns.

Anna shares her top five tips for styling and composition here:

Find the Good Light

The key to any good image is light. Light sets the tone, expresses emotion, and is essentially your medium as a photographer. Your styling, subjects or atmosphere can be stunning but if the light isn’t working, the photo isn’t. This means you’ll need to plan ahead if you’re shooting products or food- like the beautiful dinner recipe for your blog. Make the ingredients ahead of time and shoot them in nice light. Unless you’re shooting in a studio, don’t risk unnatural light; pull your subjects by a window, find diffused light from under a tree outside, practice finding it, be a connoisseur of good light.

Mind the background

Sometimes when shooting, it’s easy to focus on your beautiful subject and forget to check the background, but remember what’s behind your subject can still show up in the frame and can distract or clutter what could be a great image. Often times careless backgrounds are the detriment to good photography. Things to watch for are; dark and light spots, bright colors, competing elements, cluttered scenes or lines that unintentionally extend your subject. This doesn’t mean that your background has to be blank either, you just want to be mindful that what’s behind is just as much part of the composition as the foreground.

Make it Werk!

Anna has an inner Tim Gunn that motivates her life whispering to her in every challenge, “Make it Werk!” Specifically when it comes to creating, Anna applies this phrase when what is offered is not working. You don’t have to have fancy equipment, or a pimped-out studio to make something beautiful. The first thing Anna does when she enters the scene for a shoot is scan the environment for the best light, the most interesting props, textures, colors etc… if the tabletop isn’t working, use the floor, if the best light is on the other side of the room, drag the tables and chairs or the people to the other side, if the packaging isn’t good, take the product out, use your compositional elements to create a more appealing visual, if the background is busy, move to a blank wall, or shoot tighter, if the art on the wall is creating a distracting line, take it down!… whatever you do, don’t be afraid to see a different way to create the scene don’t get stuck with what you see, take the extra step, make it work!

Line Leaders

Part of the composition process is creating pathways for the eyes to move through your image. Anna imagines creating rivers for your eyes to follow with a sense of rhythm, you don’t want to stop the river at an awkward place, or leave the path hanging unintentionally, you want all the components of the image to have a sense of purpose and harmony. Being cognoscente of the lines will help you troubleshoot in composing. Every object has shape, curve or line that is acting as a director or contributor for movement, so even the angle of the silverware or the placement of a napkin is creating a line as part of your composition. Where are the lines leading your eyes?

In or Out

Anna has stood on sets with ten creatives staring at a table and deliberating about if the bean is too far away from the bowl or not, or is the product getting lost in the props etc… but one thing she has noticed in working with creative directors in our composing conversations is deciding if the objects are either intentionally in the frame or leading off the frame. If you’re styling objects close to an edge you want to leave enough space to feel the weight inside the frame, if you’re styling objects off the edge of the frame you want it to be overt enough to feel intentional. This idea can be applied to any type of image, are your subjects staying in the frame or intentionally leading off the frame?

Want to learn more? Using her diverse creative background, Anna created a course called The Art of Styling, teaching photographers how to apply styling and composition techniques to their creative process offered online through The Define School. She also offers in person workshops at various and creative gatherings. After selling out several semesters and teaching over 800 students, Anna is now working on several more refined, intensive courses, books and workshops specifically tailored for different creative formats. To keep up with the release of these projects follow @annanaphtali or @annanaphtali.co on instagram or find her here.

<em><strong>Find the Good Light: </strong></em>Photographed and styled for the book: Inspired Design for a Bespoke Affair. An
Find the Good Light: Photographed and styled for the book: Inspired Design for a Bespoke Affair. Anna and her team created this scene under a tree in midday, to get that glowing, dappled light and use the harshness of the sun filtered through the trees.
<strong><em>Mind the Background:  </em></strong>Even though this is a busy, branchy background, the lines and textures of the
Mind the Background: Even though this is a busy, branchy background, the lines and textures of the trees intentionally add to the composition of the photo as part of the messaging and story, but the placement of the model is very strategic to go against such a line-filled background.
<em><strong>Make it Werk: </strong></em>A storm was coming making the original light. Anna was working with, darker than plan
Make it Werk: A storm was coming making the original light. Anna was working with, darker than planned, casting harsh shadows on their faces while shooting them standing in the water. Positioning them laying down in the water shooting from above allowed Anna to utilize the very last drops of daylight. The reflective light from above painted them with beautiful compositional accents. Anna used the darkness to create composition around them she made it work!
<em><strong>Line Leaders: </strong></em>Notice how many subtle lines are part of this composition: the angle of the guitars,
Line Leaders: Notice how many subtle lines are part of this composition: the angle of the guitars, the cuts of the field, the horizon, the position of their bodies, the movement of their clothes… all lending direction and design.
<em><strong>In or Out:</strong></em> Styling for Boardshead
In or Out: Styling for Boardshead

All Images Anna Naphtali and used with permission.

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