Photography composition: 9 basics you might have overlooked
Matthew James Oxlade
There’s no such thing as too many composition tips when you’re a photographer. Photography composition is one of those things you just can’t ever perfect.
Composition is all about anticipating where the viewer’s eyes or viewer’s attention in going to go. As people studied photography, they realised that you can actually guide the viewer’s eyes yourself.
When you need some inspiration or want to better understand the power of guiding the viewer’s eyes, look to your competition or peers. Head to their websites and look at their work. If you don’t know who your peers are, Google the photographers within the genre you’re interested in or want to learn more about.
Look at their work and concentrate on where your eyes are going. Are they going to a certain corner of the image? Are they following a certain leading line? I’m not suggesting you copy the formulas or photography composition of other photographers, but I think about how their work guides your eyes. Then think about how you can create work that guides your viewer’s eyes. The goal is to get an understanding of how the work guides you.
Break the rules of photography composition
Unless you’re shooting on film, you don’t need to worry about making a mistake. Mistakes are practice, and there is no right or wrong way to compose. There are effective methods of composition to lead the viewer to the emotion you want them to have, but there is no wrong way to compose a photo.
Experimenting with different composition techniques, bending the rules, combining two or more composition techniques or something different are all on the table.
Rule of thirds
The rule of thirds is a simple grid-based composition technique that helps balance your photo. Imagine three rectangles wide and three rectangles high. The rule of thirds is about placing your subject, or the important elements of your photo, along the intersecting points. Top right, bottom right, bottom left and so on.
The rule of thirds is probably the first technique you’ll master, and it’s built into most phone camera apps now, and even into DSLRs. You probably don’t need a grid to show you where each of these intersecting lines would sit, but it’s a feature that’s often there if you need it.
Balancing elements using the rule of thirds
If you have a scene where you’ve lined up the subject on the left side of the image, your photo might come out looking a little uninspiring. Sure, it’s better than just shooting and not putting any thought into your photography composition, but it feels like something is missing from the photo.
The technique of balancing elements within the rule of thirds is simply adding in an element that is less important than the primary subject matter. For example, if you have a person standing to the right in an image, the photo will feel unbalanced. What is meant to be on the left? Where is the person? The left side of the photo is an opportunity to provide context to the image and balancing the visual weight of the photo. Adding something relevant to the story you want to tell to the right, like a piece of artwork they are proud of, provides more context to the image while balancing elements within the photo.
Fill the frame
You can use negative space as a way to fill the frame, or isolate your subject. Negative space is a powerful method for putting the focal point on your subject and not allowing anything to compete with it.
Put the subject in the centre of the frame and try not to let any background in. At the very least, make the subject come close to the edge of the photo, if you can’t fill the frame entirely.
This composition technique is good for intimiate portraits and can deliver a strong impact. This impact is especially strong when the final image is displayed in a large format on a wall or in a gallery.
Leading Lines and natural frames
Lines are one of the most important aspects of great compositions. Leading lines are a great way of guiding the viewer’s eyes to the point of interest. These might be vertical lines, horizontal lines or diagonal lines. They can be a natural piece from nature, like a tree branch, or a prop or man-made edge, like a building.
Leveraging patterns and symmetry is a powerful photography composition technique. Patterns and symmetry are everywhere. You just need to be open minded and willing to see things you see every day, differently.
You don’t have to show the symmetry in a positive way. You can break the symmetry with something in the image. It’s a powerful way of showing a divide across the photo.
Where you stand when you take the photo changes its impact dramatically. Think about this carefully. Shooting a photo at eye-level isn’t the only way to take a photo. It’s actually one of the least interesting ways, because it’s so commonly done.
Are you wanting to make your subject small? Get an arial viewpoint from a clifftop. Are you wanting to show off the detail of your subject? Get up close. Fill the frame with it. Show off the detail, intimately.
One of the most common missed opportunities in photography composition is the lack of consideration for what is in the background.
Even if your background is not part of the image, it can’t be ignored. The viewer’s eye will drift to the background at one point or another, and they may consider if the background has relevance to the subject itself. If you haven’t considered the background, it may misinterpret your message.
Simply asking the subject to take two steps to the left or right can solve problems with the background. If you’re in a studio, or have the luxury of altering your background, it is worth the time doing so. This way your image can really shine and deliver the message or impact you’re aiming for.
If you have an element in the background that is just impacting on the primary image, crop it out. A careful crop can save an image from becoming too confusing. You might want to even crop the image back heavily so the subject of the photo is all that is visible. That’s one way to use cropping to deliver impact with your photography composition.
Depth of the image
The rule I work with for my consideration of depth within my composition is to only allow relevant areas to come into focus. If it provides no value, it shouldn’t be in focus.
That’s easier said than done, but let’s think about two examples.
If you’re doing macro photography, you are making something very small (like an insect), stand out. Details in the background are going to compete with the minuscule details of the subject. Get the subject in focus and leave the background to the heavy bokeh.
On the other hand, if you are taking a landscape image, the background is going to be just as important as the foreground. You’d want to use a narrow aperture to make sure it is all in-focus.
Mentioned before, using the environment for leading lines and natural frames is one of the ways to compose your image.
Framing is different to leading lines because it is a technique used to isolate the subject. Use the environment to hold the subject or highlight it.
For example, place the subject on the outside of an old door and photograph it through the keyhole, with the keyhole framing the subject. Without the keyhole visible, it just looks like any old photo that has little thought given to the composition.
Don’t forget to break the rules of photography composition
We visited this early on. But it’s important to remember. There is no right or wrong way of composing an effective image. Your individuality as a photographer is far more important.
Focus on photography composition techniques that draws the viewer into your image. I hope the above techniques help, but don’t be worried about breaking the rules. Create new rules.
If you’re still looking for more photography composition tips, Pixpa have a super detailed article you might find useful.