Mastering essential photography composition techniques is a crucial step in transitioning from wannabe to serious artist. Knowing how to effortlessly arrange a scene to capture the perfect frame separates the pro photographer from the amateur.
The learning curve for composition may seem steep at first - all those rules and conflicting opinions can easily overwhelm a beginner. However, take heart. These numerous rules and guidelines have been distilled into this series of essential practical tips that will instantly take your photos from bland to amazing.
Wait… what is "composition" anyway?
In the context of the arts - visual or musical - composition is the arrangement of elements in a way that best suits the artist's core idea or goal. In photography, it means paying careful attention to the primary object being photographed (called the "subject"), and how it is positioned in relationship to other objects in the image. Think of a fruit bowl on a kitchen table - the bowl is the "subject". Easy.
If the subject is moving, as in street or sport photography, anticipation is involved since the photographer doesn't usually have the opportunity to control the subjects, but has to wait for the perfect time when they take a suitable position within the "frame".
Composition theory follows the lead of the human eye - how it reacts to light, how it focuses on a subject, the intrinsic meaning behind color, contrast, and positioning. Think of these guidelines as a translation book for the silent language of the eye.
Choosing the most appropriate technique will depend on the message or feeling you wish to portray as the artist. There is rarely a 1 "right" option. These concepts are your paintbrushes, you can wield them in any direction you wish, but mastering the skill of photography takes time and practice.
Think of these photography composition tips in the back of your mind every time you press the shutter trigger, and in no time, you'll be impressing friends and family (and Instagram followers) with your engaging images.
1. Rule of Thirds
If you've read anything about photography composition techniques before, the rule of thirds probably rings a bell. This is one of the most foundational rules of composition because it's easy to implement and other concepts build on top of it.
Here's how it works: divide a scene into thirds vertically and horizontally so there's a tic-tac-toe style grid across the image. Line up your "subject" (the main focus of your shot) or the horizon with one of these vertical lines, and that's it!
Placing your subject off-center add interest and a slight "tension" due to the apparent lack of balance. In the above example, if the truck had been centered with the hills over to the side, it wouldn't have looked quite right.
For a doubly-effective approach, place the subject at the intersection of 2 of these lines (4 possible points in the frame).
In the context of photo composition, think of balance as the visual "weight" each element carries in the frame. A well-balanced scene has the same amount of interest on either side and gives a feeling of harmony or consistency.
On the other hand, if executed correctly, an unbalanced photo can be visually interesting as you position the subject to the side instead of the center. The unbalanced weight creates tension and draws the viewer's eye to that side of the scene.
In contrast to the rule of thirds, framing a symmetrical photo is a very effective technique. Symmetry is pleasing to the eye and can portray a feeling of ease, solitude, stillness or grandeur, depending on the subject.
An easy way to accomplish symmetry in an image is by using reflections. Whether it's a portrait utilizing a mirror, or a mountain reflecting in a lake, draw on the power of symmetry to showcase your creativity.
4. Rule of Odds
Don't get too comfortable with symmetry, because here's another rule using unbalanced imagery. While the eye is drawn to symmetry within a photograph, it's also drawn to odd-numbered items. According to the rule of odds, images are more appealing when they consist of odd-numbered subjects. So instead of taking a photo of 2 or 4 items, use 3 or 5.
5. Golden Ratio
Whenever I used to see the golden ratio (also called golden spiral or Fibonacci spiral) in photography articles, it always gave me a feeling of dread. However, the golden spiral isn't as complicated as it seems. A photograph overlaid with the golden ratio guidelines looks like this.
Placing your primary subject at the center of the smallest spiral and using the larger curves as leading lines or dividers produce what is considered the "perfect" photo composition. The sections of the spiral are all mathematically calculated using squares to give the most pleasing ratio of composition, hence the "golden" ratio. You'll see this same ratio in many places within nature, including the length of the human hand compared to the forearm. Artists have been drawing on this technique for hundreds of years.
I'm going to be honest here. I've never once consciously used this technique when taking photos, but there is a way to make things simpler.
Another way to look at the golden ratio is by using the phi grid. The phi grid uses the same ratio of 1:1.618 that the golden spiral uses. Without all the math, this is similar to the grid used in the rule of thirds, but it fits with the golden spiral. Imagine if you shrunk the center rectangle of your rule of thirds grid like in the photo below.
This would give you a phi grid, which produces a more natural composition than the rule of thirds. Easy!
6. Straighten the Horizon
Arguably one of the most important rules of landscape photography is to keep the horizon level. A horizon line that isn't straight is distracting, even it's just subtle. You can fix this in-camera or in post-process.
If the horizon isn't visible in your image, keeping your camera level is still important. There are exceptions to this rule, so it's a matter of artistic preference. Using an obviously tilted horizon can convey a feeling of whimsy, mystery or action if used properly.
7. Leading Lines
Lines in an image, including the horizon line and contours, play an important role in photography composition and visual storytelling. In a well-composed scene, lines will lead your eye through the image to the desired destination. This can help emphasize the subject or tell a story about where the subject is going.
In nature, look for walking paths, tree branches, or mountain ridges. In urban environments, watch for roads, buildings, and signage. Your creativity is the only limit.
Architecture photography is an area that relies heavily on leveraging leading lines, but this technique can be incorporated into most styles of photography.
8. Triangles and Diagonals
Another example of leading lines being used in the composition of photos is triangles and diagonal lines. These 2 shapes create visual tension in photographs because the tilt and angles imply instability. This goes along with the idea that the horizon line should be straight because that's how it is in real life; if you tilt your horizon, something feels off.
An example of diagonal lines improving composition is the "golden triangle". This photography concept makes use of both leading lines and triangles.
The framing doesn't have to be exact when using the golden triangle. It's more of a suggestion.
Just as you would frame a picture to hang on the wall, framing within the frame of a photo is a powerful composition technique that draws the eye towards the primary subject.
In the above photo, the red torii gate perfectly frames Spaceship Earth in the background. You can utilize a range of objects as frames - walls, arches, tree branches, windows, bridges, tunnels, the list goes on.
To add interest to a 2-dimensional photo, photographers will use depth to convey scale and a 3D appearance. Try adding elements to the foreground of your image, whether blurred by bokeh or not.
In the above photo, the flowers are in the foreground adding depth and color to the frame. The river is in the midground, and the mountain is in the background. Adding the flowers in the foreground gives a realistic view to the photo and communicates a context that informs the viewer - seasonality in this case.
Just as the eye is drawn to symmetry, visually appealing repeating patterns and textures are a simple tool for creating a harmonious photo.
In this photo, the beams of the bridge create an interesting repeating pattern. This photo also makes good use of leading lines. I converted the image to black and white which draws attention to the pattern and lines without the distraction of color.
12. Fill the Frame
Remove distractions from your composition by filling the frame with your subject. If the background isn't interesting or important to the mood you're trying to create, filling the frame with the subject makes a more impactful photo. It also tends to create a greater emotional connection between the viewer and subject.
In the above example, I wanted the focus of this picture to be solely on the donut. Without worrying about the background, I filled the frame so that you can't see much else.
Filling the frame is a helpful tip when taking photos on your smartphone. Smartphones shoot very wide angled photos, so getting closer to your subject will cut out some of the distracting background. Avoid using digital zoom on a smartphone! This will decrease the quality of your image. So, if you need to get closer, do it with your feet!
12. Negative Space
The opposite of filling the frame with your subject is using negative space. This idea of leaving empty space in your frame draws attention to your subject while creating a colder, more detached feeling.
Use negative space to create photos with a minimalist look. Clean, flat photos like this can look very professional without expensive equipment.
14. Change up Your Angle
There are some subjects that have been photographed the same way hundreds of times. Create a unique composition by shooting a popular subject from a different angle. Get up high or down low. Shoot through something such as tree branches or a window. Focus on one element of a popular subject instead of the whole thing.
In addition, don't just stand in one spot, take a photo, and then be done. Keep moving and look for different angles. You might get a good photo standing in one spot, but you might get 10 more great photos if you keep moving around.
15. Rule of Space
The rule of space in photography composition is adding space in front of the direction your subject is moving. Photographs are meant to tell a story, and this is better accomplished if your subject is moving into the frame rather than out of the frame.
Also, consider which direction your subject is looking. The viewer of the image will follow the line of vision of the subject. If your subject is at the edge of the frame looking out of the frame, there will be a disconnect.
16. Cropping and Vignetting
Similar to getting close to your subject to block out distracting backgrounds, cropping after taking the image can be a useful tool. Cropping can remove unsightly objects from the edge of the frame, or it can help you center a subject or reposition it according to the rule of thirds (or golden ratio).
Another editing tool you can use to bring attention to your subject is vignetting - darkening the corners and edges of your image. This draws the eye to the brighter part of the photo where your subject is located. Be careful not to vignette too harshly or it will be obvious and look amateurish.
The composition of a photo can also be enhanced by using color. An important tool of artists is the color wheel because it shows what colors compliment and contrast each other.
See how the red tones are directly opposite of the green tones on the wheel? This means they are complementary colors. Take a look at the photo below.
The red color of the berries pops against the green background because they are complementary colors. If the berries had been green or yellow, the image wouldn't have been as impactful.
Creating contrast in your photo helps your subject pop. One way to describe this is by using "figure to ground." This is just the contrast between an object or figure and the background. Especially in black and white photography, the subject should stand out from the background. Otherwise, you have a flat and uninteresting image. The human eye is naturally drawn to areas of strong contrast, and will flow from there along leading lines.
19. Use People for Scale
If you've ever taken a photo of a grand landscape or huge mountain, you may have looked at the photo later and thought that it looked so much more impressive in person. One way to show the true scale of an enormous object in a photo is to include a person in your scene. Placing a friend or yourself in front of a big building or impressive landscape allows the viewer to more accurately see what you saw in person.
20. You Don't Have to Follow the Rules
By now you've probably noticed that for almost every rule of photography composition there is an opposing one. Photography is an art form and a communication medium, so be creative! It's important to know the rules of photography composition so you can effectively communicate your desired message with the viewer. But once you've mastered the rules, it's perfectly okay to break them.
The most reliable benchmark is simply asking yourself, "how does this scene make me feel?" before pressing the shutter button. As you continue to listen to your eyes, your technique will improve in leaps and bounds.
30-Day Photography Challenge
To put these techniques into practice, start right now. Try setting yourself a challenge - over the next 30 days, capture at least 1 photo that uses each of these composition techniques. And by the end of the month, you'll be a stronger, more confident photographer.
Are you up for it?
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