Composition is one of those things that seems simple on paper, but can be tricky in practice. That said, with a little bit of planning and forethought, you can create some truly amazing images.
In this article, I will share a few of my favorite composition tips that I’ve picked up over the years.
1-Include A Focal Point
A photograph must have a central subject or focal point. The focal point gives your photograph meaning and serves as a resting point for the viewer’s eye. It’s unlikely that your image will keep the interest of the viewer for very long if it lacks a focal point.
Always ask yourself, “What is the main point of interest in this scene?” before you start snapping photos. or “What will be the focus of my research?” Adding a focal point is simple most of the time, but you may need to look for an interesting subject to include in your scene in order to accomplish this.
The sheep in this photograph act as a center of attention. The picture would be a dull landscape if they weren’t there, and it wouldn’t hold your interest for very long. Once you’ve scanned the entire image, the sheep serve as a comfortable resting place for your eyes.
To make a focal point the focus of your composition, choose a primary subject or point of interest and then design your composition around it.
Composing is easier if you know how to use the techniques listed below.
2-Rule Of Thirds
After telling you that there are no hard and fast compositional rules, I proceed to write about the ‘rule of thirds,’ which is the exact opposite of what I just said. To be fair, the name wasn’t coined by me. The rule of thirds couldn’t be any easier to understand. 3 across and 3 down are used to divide the frame into 9 equal rectangles, as shown below. In fact, this grid can be displayed in live view mode on many cameras thanks to the inclusion of the feature by many manufacturers. To activate this feature, refer to your camera’s manual.
The goal is to position the scene’s most important elements along the lines or at the intersections of the lines. It’s human nature to want to put the main subject in the center of the composition. Using the rule of thirds, move it out of the center to create a more visually appealing composition.
The horizon is in the bottom third of the frame, and the tallest and closest trees are on the right-hand side of the frame, as seen here. In my opinion, the photo would have more impact if the taller trees were placed more centrally in the composition.
The horizon runs along the top third of the frame in this image of Prague’s Old Town Square. The majority of the structures are located in the middle third of the frame, while the square itself takes up the bottom third. The church’s spires are positioned along a horizontal axis just to the right of the picture frame.
3-Balance The Image Diagonally
A more interesting and harmonious composition can be achieved by placing your main subject off-center using the rule of thirds. However, doing so may result in a scene that is unbalanced.
Include another object to fill the space to balance the “weight” of your subject.
Multiple subjects can be balanced in a photograph using the “diagonal principle.”
If you follow the diagonal principle, you’ll place your most important elements (like the main subjects) on its diagonal.
The image will appear unbalanced if all of the key elements are centered in the upper or lower third, or on the left or right side of the frame. Think of a diagonal line that runs from one corner of the image to the other, and place your main subjects along this line when you’re out taking pictures.
The black circle at the bottom right of the photo balances the cup. The image would be off kilter if the bottom right corner lacked anything of interest. It would also be unbalanced if the two subjects were located at the very top or very bottom of the image, or if they were placed side by side. The image is horizontally and vertically balanced thanks to the diagonal alignment of the composition’s most important elements.
4-Use Leading Lines
Leading the viewer’s eye into the image is easy with the use of lines in your composition. The lines should point in the direction of the main subject, and running diagonally is preferable to going horizontally or vertically.
Typical examples of leading lines include highways, paths, railroad tracks, bridges, and rivers, among others. With the right use, leading lines can be a very powerful tool for enhancing the visual impact of your iPhone photos.
There are several guiding lines in the photo above, all of which lead to the hikers in the distance. The convergent lines direct your attention directly to the people in front of you. As your eye travels along the lines from the front to the back of the photo, you get a sense of depth in the image.
The line of foam in the foreground of this photograph leads diagonally towards the surfer in the distance.
5-Centred Composition And Symmetry
You’ve been warned not to place the main subject in the center of the frame, and now it’s my turn to advise you to do just the opposite! A subject in the middle of the frame can work really well in some situations. A centered composition works best with symmetrical scenes. They also look fantastic when framed in squares.
The Ha’penny Bridge in Dublin, Ireland, was the perfect subject for a centered composition, as evidenced by this photograph. Roads and buildings are great subjects for centered compositions because they are so common.
The use of symmetry in scenes with reflections is also advantageous. The composition of the scene in this photograph is a hybrid of the rule of thirds and symmetry. The lake’s perfectly still water creates symmetry despite the tree’s off-center placement to the right of the frame. Composition guidelines can be used in a variety of ways in a single photograph.
6-Foreground Interest And Depth
It’s an excellent way to give your picture more depth by including some foreground interest. By definition, a photograph is a two-dimensional artifact. One way to make a scene appear more three-dimensional is to include foreground interest.
The rocks in the river foreground in this picture of a waterfall in the Netherlands were perfect for adding interest to the image. Wide-angle lenses benefit greatly from foreground interest when shooting.
This picture was taken in Dublin’s Docklands by me. Foreground interest in this photograph was provided by the dock cleats along the quay. It gives the piece a lot of depth, in my opinion. When I took this picture, the dock cleat in this scene was only a few meters in front of me. With the bridge and buildings far away and everything in between, including it in the frame creates an illusion of depth.
On that particular evening, one of my companions tripped over a cleat and almost got a close-up view of the River Liffey. I suppose that’s one way to give the scene more depth.
7-Frame Within The Frame
Another effective technique for conveying depth in a scene is to use a ‘frame within the frame.’ Framing the scene can be accomplished by using architectural features like windows, arches, or hanging branches. To be effective, the ‘frame’ does not have to encompass the entire scene.
To frame St. Mark’s Basilica and the Campanile at the far end of Piazza San Marco, I placed an archway across the street. Renaissance painters frequently depicted depth by showing landscapes as seen through arches. As you can see from the photo, the square was deserted at the time. One of the advantages of waking up at 5 a.m. every day is that this happens. One of my favorite times to go out with the camera is in the early morning.
Even natural structures like arches and windows can serve as frames. The image below was captured in Ireland’s County Kildare. This time, I framed the scene with the bridge and boat house by using the tree trunk to the right and an overhanging branch. Even though the ‘frame’ doesn’t actually surround the entire scene in this case, it still adds a feeling of depth to the image.
With a “frame within a frame,” you can take advantage of your surroundings and use them creatively in your photographs.
8-Diagonals And Triangles
Triangles and diagonals are frequently credited with adding “dynamic tension” to a photograph. Also, my mother-in-law is great at raising the stakes in any scene. But what exactly do we mean when we talk about ‘dynamic tension’? This is a difficult concept to grasp and can come across as a bit pretentious when explained. The presence of both horizontal and vertical lines suggests stability, so consider this. A person standing on a horizontal level surface appears to be stable unless he is stumbling out of the pub at 2 a.m. A sloped surface will make him appear less stable. As a result, there’s an air of dread about the scene. Diagonals are something we don’t see very often in our daily lives. They imply instability in the mind of the listener. Dynamic tension can be achieved in photographs by using shapes like triangles and diagonals.
Dynamic tension can be introduced into a scene by incorporating triangles. Triangular shapes can be literal or figurative, depending on how they’re defined. In a moment, I’ll go into greater depth about this.
This photograph of Dublin’s Samuel Beckett Bridge utilizes a lot of triangles and diagonals to create an interesting composition. The bridge is shaped like a triangle, and is meant to resemble a Celtic Harp when viewed from the side. Additionally, there are a number of ‘implied’ triangles in play in this scene, as well. Observe the way the leading lines on the right of the frame are all diagonal and form triangles that all meet at the same point in the composition. These are referred to as ‘implied triangles’. The ‘dynamic tension’ created by diagonals going in different directions is crucial in any scene. This time around, you’ll notice that I used a combination of two compositional techniques: leading lines and diagonals.
The implied triangles and diagonals in this photograph of Paris’s Hotel de Ville create a feeling of dynamic tension. Buildings leaning at such an acute angle are rare occurrences in our daily lives. It throws us off balance a little bit. The visual tension is created as a result of this. Speaking intelligently (or annoyingly pretentious) in front of your friends doesn’t mean you have to bring up dynamic tension all the time.
9-Patterns And Textures
Patterns have a powerful effect on the human brain. They have an eye-catching appearance and convey a sense of harmony. For example, a series of arches made by a human hand or a natural pattern like the petals on a flower can both be patterns. Adding patterns to your photos is a great way to spice them up and make them more visually appealing. Unregular textures, on the other hand, can be extremely eye-catching.
It was taken in Tunisia, as you can see in the image above. The paving stones’ pattern has been used to draw attention to the domed structure. A series of arches adorn the structure, lending the structure itself to patterning. The rounded arches below the domed roof are enhanced by the domed roof.
Also taken in Tunisia, I was particularly taken by the texture of the ground’s stone work in this second photograph. The pattern here is less regular than in the previous image, but the way the light and shadows play on the surface makes up for it. The passage’s walls and roof have a variety of textures to explore as well. As an added bonus, the archway frames the man and cafe on the other side of it, creating a ‘frame within a frame.’
10-Rule Of Odds
There are many ‘odds’ in photography, but the ‘rule of odds’ is something entirely different. According to this rule, an image with an odd number of subjects is more visually appealing. According to this theory, a scene with an odd number of elements is disorienting because the viewer is unsure of which one to pay attention to. When a design has an odd number of elements, it appears more organic and unforced. Even though this isn’t always the case, it can be a good rule of thumb to follow in certain circumstances. What if you’ve got four little ones to take care of? What criteria do you use to select which subjects are omitted from the final image? Personally, I’d base my decision on potential earnings in the future.
The image shown above illustrates the rule of odds in action. Three arches were purposefully framed into the scene. Two arches, in my opinion, would have been a poor choice because they would have distracted the viewer’s attention. In addition, there were three people present at the time. Patterns and “frames within a frame” are also used in this piece.
Notice how the rule of odds is completely ignored in the photo of two Venetian gondoliers above. It’s possible that your focus will flit between the gondoliers. However, a back-and-forth exchange of words is exactly what constitutes a conversation between two people. As a result, I believe an odd number of subjects is appropriate in this situation.
11-Fill The Frame
If your main subject isn’t prominent enough against the background, your iPhone photos will be boring. Use a simple composition technique like cramming your subject into the frame to make it look more interesting. Moving in close means getting rid of all the surrounding background so your subject can stand out against it all.
Filling the frame enhances the intimacy and significance of your photographs. By removing all of the clutter in the background, the viewer’s attention is drawn entirely to the subject at hand. More detail can be captured, and the result can be some truly original and abstract images.
As soon as I saw this pile of logs in the middle of a field, I knew I had to take a picture of it. Thus, you’re drawn to the scene’s patterns rather than the objects themselves.
It was easy to use this leaf to fill the frame. By focusing on the leaf’s color and details up close, I was able to remove the distracting background elements. The image’s balance is maintained by the composition’s diagonal lines.
12-Use A High Horizon Line
When you want to draw attention to the foreground of your photograph, use a high horizon line. In addition, it can be used to give the viewer the impression that they are looking across a vast expanse, drawing them into the image.
13-Use A Low Horizon Line
Use a low horizon line to draw the eye up into the sky. A similar method can be used to illustrate how small your subject is compared to the universe.
14-Keep The Background Simple
There will be numerous occasions when you want to draw attention to a particular aspect of a project while minimizing background noise. In portrait photography, it’s common for the most distinguishing features of your subject to be obscured by a distracting background. There are a variety of ways to achieve this effect, the most common of which is to simply blur the background. Take a look at things like a clear sky (or a completely grey day). Maybe a repeating pattern like a brick wall or a wide open field or parking lot. Use creative angles to make the background disappear when shooting from below or above.
15-Let The Background Show Context
Not all backgrounds are created equal, and sometimes a simple background is preferable to one that enhances your subject and helps tell a more compelling story. Background activity should be visible, but not so distracting that it overwhelms the subject and ruins the composition. Background activity should be visible, but should not be too distracting. Allow the background to provide context for a crucial part of the story that would be otherwise unclear. The iconic V-J Day photograph may have done it better than any other.
16-Leave Space For Motion
The main subject of your photograph must have a destination when it is moving. Too close framing of a moving subject can degrade its dynamic value. Leaving negative space in the direction the subject is moving will help amplify the perception of motion. With implied or anticipated movement, such as a mountain slope, this also works well.
17-Use Repetition To Your Advantage
A dominant pattern can be created by a recurring object or shape. Incorporating these patterns into your work will allow you to achieve serene, rhythmic effects or create complete abstractions using everyday items. Abstractions and optical illusions are more common when there are repeating elements in your photograph.
18-Use Contrast To Add Interest
Avoiding “flat” images that are dull and one-note requires the use of contrast. While strong contrasts in color and light and shadow can enliven a photograph, so can subtle ones. Shooting at dawn or dusk, for example, allows you to take advantage of the slanting light. Texture variations can also be used to enhance the drama of your photographs.
19-Beyond The Edge Of The Picture
When a part of your subject isn’t on display, viewers are compelled to learn more about it. Use what they can’t see outside of the frame to draw them deeper into the story. As we’ll see in the next section, this method makes use of the dynamics of “implied lines.”
Are you with me so far? Almost there, I promise. There are many similarities between the golden triangles composition and the rule of thirds. However, rather than using a grid of rectangles, we instead drew a diagonal line from one corner to the next. To complete the diagonal line, we need to draw two more lines, one from each of the other corners. Following is an illustration of how the two smaller lines meet the main line at a right angle. This creates a grid of triangular shapes out of the frame. We learned about ‘dynamic tension’ in guideline number 6 and this method of composition helps us introduce an element of it into our composition. Similar to how we use the thirds rule to help us place the various elements in this scene, we use lines (in this case, the triangles).
Strong diagonals follow the ‘golden triangles’ in the image above. A diagonal line runs from the top right to the bottom left corner, which is exactly followed by the traffic light trails. Buildings on the left have their apexes close to the smaller diagonal on the side opposite the larger one. The intersection of the small right-hand line with the larger left-hand line is at the building’s upper-right corner.
The ‘rule of triangles’ is used subtly in the image above. There is a “implied triangle” created by the statues because of their heads. We can see the Eiffel Tower in the distance if we follow this path. At the halfway point of the Eiffel Tower, the shorter line on the left meets the longer line. The thin line that runs between the two statues on the right is much shorter. Even though the rule of triangles appears to be a convoluted approach to photograph composition at first glance, it often yields striking results.
21-Balance Elements In The Scene
The ‘rule of thirds’ was the first compositional guideline we examined in this tutorial. Of course, this implies that the main subject of the photograph is frequently positioned off to the side of the frame, along one of the vertical gridlines. As a result, the scene’s equilibrium may be off. It’s possible that it will leave a ‘void’ in the surrounding area.
Overcome it by including an unimportant or small subject on the other side or your frame to include an additional one that’s more important or larger to you. This creates harmony in the composition without detracting from the photograph’s primary subject.
Here’s a picture of the ornate lamppost on the Pont Alexandre III in Paris. Take a look at it.
Almost the entire left side of the photograph is taken up by a lamppost. On the other side of the frame, the distant Eiffel Tower serves as a counterbalance.
It’s possible you’ve noticed that this appears to contradict guideline number 10’s idea of negative space. We’ve also broken with the “rule of odds” with an even number of characters now. Composition in photography, as I stated at the outset of this tutorial, is not prescriptive in nature. It’s okay if these rules conflict with each other. There are rules that apply to all types of photography, but others don’t. It’s a matter of using your best judgment and trying new things.
The picture you’re looking at was taken in Venice, of course. A decorative lamppost once again takes up the majority of one side of the frame. On the other side of the frame, the distant church tower serves as a counterbalance.
A side effect of this is that it alters the final composition. The lamppost appears to be dwarfed in comparison to the nearby church tower. Due to the distance, it appears smaller in the photograph. This aids in giving the scene a greater sense of depth and size.
22-Get Very Close
According to Robert Capa, the legendary photographer, “If your photographs are not good enough, you are not close enough.” To achieve the desired composition, you may need to get up close… really close.
Landscape, street, and similar types of photography benefit greatly from getting close to the foreground subjects. Shooting with a small aperture will usually result in better depth of field.
Using a macro lens, you can see a strange and wonderful world that is otherwise invisible to the naked eye. Make use of a 50mm to 200mm macro lens for the best results.
Compositional dynamics go well beyond the realm of simple physical motion. When living or artificial subjects interact, a feeling of “being in the moment” is created. Consider your photo to be a narrative with characters and a setting. The composition’s success or failure is determined by your choice of how to present interaction and how you frame it.
There are numerous ways to interact with someone. Moving in unison or opposite is just one example of eye contact; there are many more. Discovering how to capture an interaction in a way that best conveys the emotion you’re trying to evoke is half the fun.
24-Rethink What It Means To Take A Portrait
The subject’s face is usually the primary focus of a portrait. Faces may be the most expressive, but they’re not the only ones! Look for other ways to convey the personality of your subject. Perhaps it’s their hands, the way their soft shoulders are rolled, or even the way their back is bent. Look for the little things that will help you get a better idea of the person you’re photographing.
25-Rule Of Space
When taking a photograph, it’s important to consider the direction your subject(s) are looking or moving in. You should have more room in the frame ahead of the car than behind it when taking a picture of it moving. This implies that the car has room to maneuver within the frame. Take a look at the boat below for an illustration of what I mean.
While moving from left to right, the boat is shown on the left side of the frame. Take note of how much more room there is for the boat to move into before it moves in the direction it is going (to the right). The boat, which is cruising down the river, could theoretically enter this location. We also have a nagging tendency to anticipate the direction an object will take. Having the boat directly in front of the camera would take us out of frame.
In addition to pictures of people, this can also be used for photos of photos of photos. A subject should be looking or facing into the frame rather than out of it, according to the rule of space. Just take a look at that musician up there in the photo. I set up the shot so that he was sitting to the left of the center of the frame to create a balanced composition. He’s looking into the space between himself and the right hand edge of the frame with his back to us. Faced the other way, he’d be looking out of the frame, which would be strange to look at. Looking into the empty frame, he draws our attention away from the man leaning on the railing to the dancing couple on the right.
26-Break The Rules!
Photojournalism is an art form, not a scientific endeavor. The sky is the limit when it comes to what you can do. There are no hard and fast rules to following when it comes to composition; they are merely suggestions.
You should not let them limit your creativity, even if they are extremely useful in many photographic situations. If they don’t work, disregard them and try something else. If you’re shooting square images, the rule of thirds may not apply, and your photo may have more impact if your subject is in the middle or near the edge of the frame.
But before you can break the rules, you have to become familiar with them. Now that you’ve mastered the composition techniques described above, try breaking the rules and see what happens!