It’s a word often used in relation to various forms of art — in photography, composition is how you choose your subject, the things you decide to include in the frame, and the way in which you capture all of it with your camera.
Composition simply means a way of putting things together.
Before we continue on, let’s get this out of the way: there are no strict rules to composing your photographs. Good composition entails having a clear point of interest and a well-balanced photo among other things, and these can be achieved in a myriad of ways.
Although there are no absolute rules to photography, there are tried and tested techniques to bring the best out of your photos. They are meant to help you capture your subject in different ways so you can see how each technique affects the look of your photos. We’ve outlined some of them plus a few tips to be aware of.
The Rule of Thirds is one of the most popular composition techniques in photography. It states that the frame is divided into nine equal rectangles by two horizontal and two vertical lines intersecting each other, and positioning your subject at the intersection of these lines makes the photo more pleasing to look at.
This technique allows you to shoot better balanced photos and make them look more natural, compared to simply framing your subject dead center. See how applying the rule of thirds changes the appeal of the photo below.
Framing your subject in the center gives it more attention, but applying the rule of thirds in the second photo allows more breathing space and gives us a better view of the setting.
This technique can also be applied to landscape photos to balance out the scenery.
See how there are nearly equal parts of the grassy foreground, the mountain range, and the sky. By making use of the lines as a guide, we get a balanced variation of the different views in this scene. The tree that falls on the intersection complements the rest of the landscape.
Framing your subject dead center doesn’t have to look ordinary and boring! Look for symmetrical features around you that will make your shot eye-catching. There are lots of architectural elements, backgrounds, and textures that will help you achieve this — sometimes even by just changing the angle of your shot. You simply need to keep an eye out for them.
Symmetrical shots can look static at times so try to find ways to make them pop. Try incorporating an element in the scene that disturbs the symmetry to make things interesting.
A sense of depth will make your shots look realistic and dynamic. Although photography is a two-dimensional art form, conveying depth can be done by utilizing perspective and finding the right angle.
Be conscious of how your foreground, mid-ground, and background elements work together — having them contrast each other will make the depth effect more pronounced.
This technique is a straightforward way to lock the viewer’s focus on a specific point in the photo. Look for objects or structures around you that can act as a frame for your subject. Architectural elements such as hallways or arches and even trees can help narrow the viewer’s attention.
Get creative and use everyday items — you don’t always need a grand object to act as your frame. Experiment with mirrors, windows, or even the frame of your sunglasses to create a unique shot.
This technique is a straightforward way to lead the eye through the details of your photo. Draw attention to your subject by looking for lines that move towards them and frame accordingly. In the photo below, see how the shadows crawl to frame the subject further in the photo. The trees parallel to the subject also complement them well.
Leading lines do not always have to be straight. You can also used curved lines to guide the viewer’s eye across the photo.
While using odd angles make for interesting composition in some cases, sometimes it’s better to shoot subjects that are naturally aligned. Human eyes prefer seeing straight, levelled lines and it’s the reason why we get bothered when a wall frame is tilted to one side. The same goes for photos – check if your horizons are straight to make the scenery look balanced.
In cases where the horizon can’t be clearly defined, you can use other elements in the frame as a basis for keeping the right alignment. The photo below uses the man as a reference point — despite the downward curve of the landscape, the photo remains levelled because the man is standing straight and not tilted to an angle.
Look out for structures that form eye-catching shapes in contrast to its surroundings. You can often get nice geometric shots from architecture – walk around your city and take note of the buildings and spaces around. Punctuate unique shapes by including negative space in the frame, or by getting in close to the details.
Textures and patterns also make great backgrounds. Shoot with a textured background behind your subject to add character.
We’re often told to compose according to the best light available but it’s also good practice to consider how shadows appear in the frame. Contrast created by shadows can add more dimension to your photo and make it look more realistic and natural. Keeping an eye out for the many ways shadows can fall on various surfaces can help you get an interesting shot.
Play around with lighting. If you’re going for a moody scene and want textures to pop instead of looking flat, look for lighting that falls at an angle and casts shadows on your subject.
One way to hone in on your subject and exclude unwanted elements is to shoot them up close. By filling the frame, you remove any distractions that can take away attention from your point of focus.
Getting in close means you can feature finer details that wouldn’t be obvious otherwise, like facial features and detailed textures. If you’re using a shallow depth of field, make sure to focus on the parts of the photo you want to highlight.
Create a sense of minimalism in your photos by putting a lot of negative space around your subject. The less busy a scene is, the more you can achieve a clean, minimalist look. Work with solid backgrounds or uniform textures to make your subject stand out.
This technique requires using a shallow depth of field to achieve a clean separation between the subject and its ambient elements. Select a point of interest and nail your focus on the subject or area you want to highlight the most.
The areas that are out of focus create a blurry background that minimizes distractions. This effect makes the subject pop out and gives more focus to the details.
Colors heavily influence the look of your photos. Pay attention to the colors in your frame especially if you’re going for a particular style. Cooler tones tend to give off a serene, moody vibe whereas warmer tones are more energetic and passionate. You can learn more about color meanings.
It’s equally important to take a look at the other colors present in the frame. See if the color combinations harmonize well and contribute to the look you want to go for.
Shooting from a different angle or position than usual can help you see new ways to compose a scene. Move your feet and take your photos to new heights… literally. Experiment with taking photos down low or up top. You might end up finding visual elements that will give a unique touch to your photo.
Angles can also bring a certain effect or meaning to your subject. Shooting a person from a low angle makes them seem bigger which in effect makes them look strong or powerful. Framing from a higher angle will give the opposite effect, making your subject look smaller and even vulnerable.
Capturing movement is a great way to make composition more interesting. People are naturally drawn to moving things, and depicting action in your photos can create powerful images with the right angle and timing.
Adding negative space towards the area your subject is moving can give the photo more context about the action, where they’re going, and the setting.
If you want to capture raw emotion from people, you’ll have better chances of seeing them the less choreographed a scene is. Patience can be the key to getting a good shot – anticipate your subject’s best moment before clicking the shutter.
You’ll have to observe well and be quick on your feet to get good shots from candid situations. Take into account factors such as light sources, backgrounds, where the subject is facing, etc and work around them so you can shoot your subject at their best.
Including elements that contrast one another can bring an interesting twist to your photo. Make a statement by portraying opposing elements in one frame – this creates visual tension that will make your photo more gripping.
Light vs dark, old vs new, clean vs dirty – look out for contrasting emotions, styles, or objects to bring drama to your photos. Colors that make your subject stand out from the rest of the scene also create contrast.
Crowding your frame with too many visual elements can take attention away from your subject. Sometimes the simpler your approach is, the more effective it can be with getting your point across. Learn how to choose which ones to include and exclude so that you retain your main point of interest and get your message across clearly.
Be conscious of the things that surround your subject. Do all the visual elements in your frame blend well together? Does your choice of angle flatter the subject or does it include things you’d rather edit out afterwards? It helps to be aware of your environment when you shoot so you end up with a good photo from the start.
A little preparation can go a long way. Think about your subject’s features — in what ways can you shoot them that will bring out their best qualities? In which situation or set up can you put them or yourself in that will allow you to shoot an ideal photo? Addressing these can help you determine what you want your photos to look like and your approach to shooting.
Planning ahead is especially helpful for styled shoots where you get a lot of control over the look of your photos. You can make a mental checklist of how you want everything to look like (patterns, colors, angles, etc) and how the setup will work around your subject.
Knowing what you want your photos to be will influence the way you present your subject. Consider the purpose of your photography. Are you shooting with a specific theme or message in mind? Is it for a marketing campaign or a project like a photo book? Then, each frame should reflect that, and if it doesn’t, you might want to rethink your approach.
For example, taking food photos for your blog should have a different treatment compared to food shot for sale. You can do a more straightforward approach to shooting food for sale — it should look as close to the actual product as possible with styling that doesn’t take attention away from the main selling point. For your blog, you have all the creative freedom so style and shoot your food photos according to your vision.
Practice taking photos with these tips and eventually you’ll find yourself naturally applying those that fit your composition style. You may even discover other interesting ways to compose photographs. Keep shooting!