If there is one important thing in photography, an element to make your pictures stand out from the pack, it is the composition. When you are new to photography, it is best to focus on pure technique: knowing how your camera works, how to correctly expose a photo by mastering how aperture, ISO and shutter speed work perfectly. Once you have mastered all of these elements, you will very likely still think “it’s fine, but my images keep being pretty much ordinary…” … This is where composition comes into play.
Indeed, even if you master your DSLR/Mirrorless camera and all the associated parameters by heart, you will not necessarily take beautiful pictures. This article will then introduce a complementary notion to the technique. Knowing how to compose your image, how to make your photo way better than the majority of Mr. Average’s ones. Everyone knows more or less how to shoot a white sandy beach and its coconut tree, but how to get a “wow, this is such a gorgeous picture!” result is way different.
I’ll propose in this article to go into detail of composition in photography, with a set of elements constituting principles and “rules” to follow. Of course, I couldn’t go into detail of everything exactly, the idea being to give you a good idea of what makes a photo “work or not”. To go further, you can refer to the book mentioned at the end of the article. I will develop more precisely some of the techniques mentioned here in more precise articles.
For those who wonder, almost all the photos are mine!
As mentioned before, you may feel like you reached a deadlock because your pictures are not extraordinary, and you are unable to make some of them really stand out. Forget about technique and settings for now and just focus on composition. No matter what equipment you have, you are capable of composing a picture correctly.
Composition can be defined as the art of knowing how to arrange the different elements of a scene in a picture. The objective here is to make sure these elements are perfectly positioned, arranged, framed, so that your subject is highlighted. This will involve changing the way you photograph as well as having to think about what you are going to shoot and how you can “highlight” your subject(s). This is the difference between “wow, that’s a great car” and clicking, and “wow, that’s a nice car, how can I take a picture of it” …You get the idea.
So here is below a set of help and clarifications, a kind of guide about specific points to improve your compositions and finally manage to get better pictures. It’s up to you, once you master them, to adapt them, push them to the extreme or on the contrary to go completely in the opposite direction. So, the idea is not to follow these principles to the letter, but they do are great general principles that will definitely improve your photos and make them stand out.
📚 For those wishing to learn more about composition in photography, here is my selection of three serious books on the subject.
We get started with the simplest and probably the best-known principle of composition. I have written a complete article on this subject as it deserves that we linger over it some time. To clearly understand this “rule of thirds“, let’s imagine that you divide picture up with 2 horizontal and 2 vertical lines. The result is a group of 9 same-size rectangles as well as 4 power points.
It is generally accepted that the human eyes are naturally drawn to these lines and points of intersection. The general idea is therefore to compose the scene you have before your eyes with these elements, allowing you to create a harmonious and pleasing image. In the picture above, I deliberately chose to place my wife on a strong point at the bottom right of the image, while placing the horizon line almost on the lower horizontal line.
I think this is one of the most important tips to improve your photos. In every scene or situation, you see right in front of you, you will find lines or curves. You don’t necessarily pay attention to them at first because your eye is not used to, but they are there indeed.
Of course, in some areas and cases, they are quite obvious. I am thinking in particular of architectural photography or seaside horizon. The general idea is also to look for those lines and curves in front of you when taking pictures, which will help guiding the person’s eyes in the picture.
We actually also read pictures thanks to these elements that will guide our eyes towards a strong point. You can (and even should) think about this technique along with the rule of thirds.
The two photos above show thoughtful examples using the landscape lines. In the photo of the black sand beach, your gaze starts at the bottom right, at the pebble beach, to take you to the other end (top left) on the horizon line, and finally leads you back to the rocky island with the two trees. This taken image is well balanced.
On the other picture, it is the dirt road in the foreground that brings the eye to the back of the picture, towards the ocean.
When we start out, we may not necessarily realize this point, but we can completely decide to highlight your subject in a natural setting already present. It can be a hole in the vegetation, a door half-open, an open tunnel, in short: many things.
The idea is to naturally guide the gaze to your subject while incorporating it in a larger frame. As an example, a picture of a beach that I took on the island of Moorea, here in French Polynesia. Nothing could be more banal in this place (if I may say so…) and I wanted to try something else than a basic beautiful white sand beach picture. So, I deliberately tried to insert the beach within the palm tree foliage. The eye is also guided by a leading line (the yellow top of the palm’s leaf) starting from the top left and taking you to the bottom right.
This is one of the other tips I apply very often, especially in landscape photography, which I am personally fan of. Depending on the scene you have in front of you, you may be able to show the immensity, the vastness of things. Try to visually qualify what you see right before your eyes.
One example among so many others: a photo I took here in French Polynesia on the island of Maupiti. There is, on the way out of the city, a huge basalt cliff about 80m high, or even higher. It’s quite difficult to measure its size when you are at the foot of it and to then transcribe that in a photo. During a boat trip on the lagoon, I was lucky enough to be able to see it from further away.
So, I deliberately wanted to put it in the spotlight by confronting it with a notion of scale: the little house you see at the bottom left of the screen. I wanted to give this greatness impression of the cliff, by eliminating as much as possible the sea in the foreground which does not add anything. A larger picture with much more sea in the foreground would not have had the same effect. You will also notice that placing the house at the extreme bottom-left perfectly balances the photo with the imposing cliff at the extreme top-right. We will talk about it below.
It’s often an issue when you’re a beginner: you always tend to compose very large, and therefore, either you don’t really have a subject on your picture, or the subject is too small to be highlighted. As a result, the image does not provide any value, does not convey anything, and your subject won’t be dominant in your photo.
You must see this principle as a possibility, and not as a truth in itself. Obviously, you can consider doing the opposite by placing your subject alone, lost in the middle of a large space, to show the immensity of this place, for example.
In both cases above, the subjects are framed very tightly in order to completely fill the frame. No space is deliberately left. You will notice that, even on very diverse subjects, the notions of leading lines and the Rule of Thirds may more or less be applied.
As mentioned above, another great-working principle in composition is to deliberately place a second side subject at the other end of your main subject, which is on a strong point according to the Rule of Thirds.
This picture may seem insignificant at first sight, but I managed to do exactly what I wanted to only after several tries. I had spotted the forming waves in the foreground as well as the boat in the background on the lagoon. As you can see, the boat is globally placed on a strong point of the image, with the horizon on the horizontal line of the rule of thirds. In order to balance the picture, I deliberately wanted to place a small wave in the diagonal opposite to my subject. To accentuate things, you will notice the leading line formed by the limit between the top of the sea and the sand, starting from the bottom right corner of the picture and leading the eye to the wave, and then to the boat.
It is a great classic of composition that goes against many of the points mentioned above. On some subjects, especially architecture and building photography, you can find perfect symmetries. Use them to create balance in your photo.
I took the picture on the right at the foot of the Petronas Towers in Malaysia. The subject is perfect to be centered here, likewise the architecture picture on the left.
This is more a piece of advice than a great principle in itself. Very often, you will focus on a subject on the scene in front of you. However, you should not forget all the elements surrounding it. Sometimes, you only realize it when you come back to your computer, but you frequently have elements that spoil your image.
These are unwanted elements on the same level as your subject. This can make the image quite difficult to read. To avoid this kind of things, you have to move, turn around the subject so that you don’t place them in the frame. If they are in the background, you will still be able to blur them later – we’ll talk about that below.
Here’s an example of an old picture taken when I wasn’t yet paying attention to my compositions. I probably wanted to take a picture of the landscape with the beautiful color of the water in the foreground.
Unfortunately, there is a bit of road sticking out on the left, which spoils the picture a bit (even if it’s not originally a work of art…).
I have deliberately regrouped these three elements all together, but I could have write a complete article on each one of them. When we talk about pattern, we immediately think of repetitive subjects that can suggest an impression of infinity in the image.
Textures are omnipresent in everyday life. They can be old boards on an old building, a cracked ground in Africa or the roughness of a leaf highlighted with macro photography.
Finally, geometric shapes are also a nice way to create balanced pictures. The above picture of a door detail is a nice example of a triangular shape, all accentuated thanks to a perfect symmetry.
To accentuate your compositions, it is also possible to play with contrasts. It can be about contrast of colors, lights, but also shapes or sizes. Color contrasts are often used in macro photography to highlight the subject.
Light contrasts are for example akin to taking pictures in backlight. It is particularly seen in street or reportage photography, where some parts of the image may be deliberately dark or even black in order to highlight your subject, which will be correctly exposed.
It is a great classic of composition which is fully matched with the rule of thirds, very often depending on the subject. The objective of such a composition is to leave room in front of your subject. As a general rule, this technique does correspond very well to any living being, either human or animal.
Usually, this person or animal will always tend to look in one direction. If this subject is looking to the right, you will place it on a vertical line on the left side of the image so you’ll leave space towards its gaze, making the image appealing and highlighting the subject as “looking forward”. You can play the opposite game by trying to deliberately place a subject on the edge of the image, in the direction of its gaze, to let you imagine it as being stuck. The two examples below show the general idea.
I’ll end this article with the last technique that will allow you to clearly improve your compositions. The depth of field is one of the major elements to bring your subject out. Indeed, by playing particularly with the aperture parameter, you will be able to isolate the subject with a small depth of field.
The purpose of this technique is to isolate as best as you can your subject by bringing it out of a blurred background. You can refer to my article on aperture in photography in order to know how this parameter influences the background blur. I’m also finishing an article about how to make nice background blurs…
Small conclusion on the subject. All these practices and rules are a very good starting point to help you improve your compositions and, thus, your pictures. It is not about stupidly applying them, but rather giving you some general ideas of photographers’ practices. Once you have mastered these practices, you can then have fun with it, alone or with one another.
Of course, other practices exist to improve your photo compositions, but if you already keep these ones in mind, you will surely be able to make better photos.
Come on, let’s take your camera and test it right now! 🙂
See you soon,