When we look at our favorite photographs or paintings, we might not notice where our eye is drawn, how close we are to the subject, what's in focus, and other details that make up an appealing picture — somehow it just instinctively feels right. These and other visual elements balance and work together behind the scenes to create a beautiful image. But with a little bit of background, we'll be able to identify exactly what these elements are — and learn how a few image composition basics can make your photographs shine in surprising and unconventional ways.
Photographers and other artists before them have used these techniques for centuries, sometimes following and sometimes breaking the rules for different effects. To spot good composition, find some photographs you like and think about why you like them. Why do they work so well? How are the different elements set out? How is the photograph divided up? What is the focal point? How are patterns used?
This guide will help you notice the different elements that make up good composition, and introduce you to techniques that will help you produce professional-looking photographs of your own.
The Rule of Thirds
Many tricks used to produce good composition have been worked out over time, and the Rule of Thirds is no exception. Long before the camera was invented, painters discovered that the way they divided up their canvas, and how they placed different elements on it, affected the composition. They discovered the Rule of Thirds.
So, what is it? Think of a photograph divided into nine equal parts – or a grid consisting of three rows and three columns. This divides the image into horizontal and vertical thirds with four lines (two running up and down, and two across) — and creates four points where those lines intersect.
All these markers can be used as guides to improve composition. Many DSLR cameras will help you by displaying this grid in the viewfinder. When you use the Rule of Thirds, you simply line up the main elements of your photograph within the thirds, on the grid lines, or at the points where the lines intersect.
For example, when you take a photograph of a landscape, instead of placing the horizon in the middle, try lining it up with one of the lines that run a third of the way up, or down, the image. Try the same thing with the tops of buildings or mountains, and you'll instantly notice an improvement in composition.
You can also use the Rule of Thirds in still life and portraits. Rather than placing the subject in the middle of your shot, try shifting it up or down, or off-center. Center key features or focal points at one of the points where the grid lines intersect.
Complex compositions will use the Rule of Thirds both horizontally and vertically. The photograph will have a good balance of elements, and it will just 'feel right,' even when it's based on a tried and tested rule.
When you take a photograph, your viewfinder acts like a frame. By moving it around you can decide what is included in an image, and what is left out. Framing effects can be subtle or bold, and you can even create frames within a frame — another great way to create a solid composition.
If you are shooting outdoors, look carefully at the scene in front of you. What can you see? Perhaps the trees in a forest create a natural archway, or there is a ruined building in a landscape. Can any of these elements be used to create a frame? Using your viewfinder, look for ways to frame your shot. Use the branches of the trees or a window in the ruined building to frame the view beyond.
You can also create interesting photographs indoors by creating a frame around people and objects. Try looking at your subject through a doorframe, or frame them in a mirror. Experiment and have fun!
It took painters hundreds of years to learn how to show 3D perspective on a 2D surface, but once they discovered it, they developed it into one of the best tools for producing powerful compositions. Luckily, when we take photographs, we don't need to worry about creating perspective, since the camera does it for us. But we can use it to make our compositions stronger.
Perspective shows how the size of an object changes relative to distance. Think about how large buildings or mountains look small when they are far away. Or, how a street gets narrower as it extends away from you, even though it's the same width along its length.
The classic tourist photo of a person "holding up" the Leaning Tower of Pisa is a fun example of how we can play with perspective. Try experimenting with perspective in both natural and man-made settings, mixing giant close-up objects with tiny faraway ones.
Leading lines are closely connected to perspective, and guide our eye through a photograph to a focal point nearby or in the distance. It is so instinctive to let these lines lead our gaze when viewing a photograph that we often don't realize it's happening.
Once you start to notice leading lines in your surroundings, you'll see them everywhere — in the city, out in nature, and even at home. A line of buildings might lead your eye to a person at the end of the street, or a path winding up a hill might draw your gaze to a castle at the top.
Leading lines can also be subtle. Think of a row of sunflowers in a field, or glasses lined up on a tabletop. As you use them in your own photographs, also remember that they don’t always have to be straight — leading lines can be curves and zig-zags too.
Once you've mastered leading lines, the next step is to look out for and use patterns. Patterns are everywhere and they produce bold compositions. They can be manmade or natural, big or small. In landscapes, look for the patterns made by fields in farmland or by shadows on a forest floor. To improve your photography in cities, keep an eye out for things like scaffolding poles creating grid patterns, or the patterns made by windows on an apartment block.
Indoors, you can find patterned lines as apparent as bathroom tiles, or as subtle as the edges of framed images on cereal boxes lined up in a supermarket. Even the buttons on a remote control create interesting patterns.
The toughest part of using these patterns in composition is noticing them in the first place. Once you spot one, use other techniques, like leading lines and framing, to enhance it. Let the pattern fill the whole shot, or contrast a patterned area with something plain.
Experimenting with focus in your photography is another fun way to learn more about good composition.
Try taking a photograph of an object, like a statue. If the photograph is evenly focused, the statue might get lost amongst all the other elements. But, if the statue is in focus and the background is blurry, the viewer will focus on the statue. This will create a strong composition, especially if the statue has been placed using the Rule of Thirds, or it has been set in the foreground to enhance a sense of perspective.
Point of View
Now is a good time to think about your favorite photographs or paintings again. What point of view has the photographer or artist used to create the image? As a viewer, do you feel like you are high up and looking down on a scene? Are you looking straight on? Or, are you below an object and looking up at it? This is point of view.
When we start taking photographs, we tend to do so from our own eye level. But, when we shoot an object from below, or move to higher ground and look down a landscape, it changes our point of view.
In nature, try looking up through a canopy of trees or down on a river from a hillside. You can even lie on the ground and look up at a flower to make it appear enormous against the sky above. For street scenes, look around for taller structures. Is there a rooftop or a bridge that you can access? How does it change the composition when you look down on the people in the street below?
Or flip it around the other way – get down low and look up. You might feel silly crouching down on a busy street, but when you see the power of point of view in your final composition, it'll be worth a little embarrassment behind the lens.
The Power of Color
Bold colors make images pop, but as a compositional tool, they're only a piece of the equation. Subtle colors can play an equally important role, creating a calm, reflective mood. As you frame your shot, think about how you can use these qualities to influence a viewer’s impression.
When you're out taking photos, look for blocks or splashes of color. Perhaps you encounter a row of houses with red roof tiles or a field of dazzling yellow sunflowers – let these colors dominate your shot to create a powerful composition.
You can also use color contrasts to position people or objects within a composition. A vivid green chair will stand out against a white wall and a bright pink flower will pop against a blue sky. Capturing a tiny burst of color in an otherwise muted scene is another great way to compose your images for maximum effect. Remember that colors like red, yellow and orange are warm, and blues and greens are cooler. Stick to one range to produce a specific mood or mix them up for a composition with dramatic contrast.
Though good composition might mean following the rules at first, once you master the basic techniques and train your eye, you'll learn when to break the mold to create stunning images whenever you're behind the camera.