12 Tips For Better Compositions
“Auto-Composition” is not a feature you’re likely to find on your camera mode dial or in the background settings. Even if you’re shooting with your camera in full Auto mode, the art of composing a photograph is entirely up to you - and it’s fantastic.
You can always improve on using available camera settings, features, timing your shots, or working better with various light sources. However, if you're unable to compose an image like a conductor guides a symphony orchestra, or how an artist makes sense of putting all that paint down on canvas - creating something that is pleasing to the eye - then all that other “stuff” involving the technicalities of your equipment, cool features, or the angle of the light, turns out to be utterly meaningless.
You might be familiar with the [in]famous “Rule of Thirds” when it comes to composition, but there are other techniques which will also help to make a mediocre scene look a whole lot better. Training your eye to be aware of the visual potential of a situation just because you are aware of all the elements within the scene and how your movements and eye for detail can put it all together into something interesting, can often turn out to be the dividing line between novice and pro. Master these simple techniques, and you will likely see a massive jump in the quality of your work.
1. Trust Your Instincts
What makes a picture look just “right”? How do you know that a portrait is beautiful, a landscape fascinating, or a painting absolutely stunning? We don’t need to know about the intricacies of great composition or have a PhD in Fine Art to be able to recognize beauty and appreciate it.
Whether we realize it or not, our eyes have been trained to look for beauty and balance in all things. Trust your instincts, and if a scene just doesn’t look or feel right, it probably isn’t and needs a bit of adjustment; often simply by changing the composition of the elements within the scene. Likewise, if the shot looks good to you, then who’s to say it won’t make for a beautiful photograph?
Note: The following techniques are tips and guidelines, not rules. When you hold your camera in your hand (or tripod, action camera mount, or even selfie-stick), you are an artist wielding a mighty brush, and you can paint what you want. These tips are simply tools for you to create better images and images you will love.
2. Your Subject
When taking a photograph, the first thing to do would be to pick a subject to focus on. This is the main "focal" subject in your visual story. While this may seem obvious, it's something that's often overlooked. Too many main points of interest can lead to a cluttered and confusing image, while too few can lead to an emotionally flat or two-dimensional capture.
TIP: As an experiment, shoot the same scene twice (or more) and focus on a different element as the main subject each time. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to find how different each shot can turn out, and some will often be more interesting or visually appealing than others. Come back to this exercise once you’ve read through all the tips on composition and you’ll see how there are multiple shots and several stories waiting to be told within a single scene.
3. Frame Your Subject
Framing is a technique you can use when taking all sorts of pictures. Often emphasising what you want to focus on can make your subject stand out, even more, bringing a bit of extra life to your shot. From portraits to landscapes, to product photography, framing is a sure way to draw attention to the focal point of your image.
Frame your subject with elements, colours, shadows and leading lines to make your image more interesting. You can practice this by placing an object on a table and adding other objects to the outsides of the frame to not only frame your subject but also add context and tell more of a story with your image.
4. Play With Angles
If your images lack interest, try and change-up the shooting angle. This way you’ll be able to tweak the overall perspective of the scene. A picture can look completely different in many different ways, often by merely moving your camera higher, lower, or from the left to the right.
TIP: Shoot with intent from several angles, and compare your results. Which shots do you like best? Now take a few more shots from that same angle but zoom in and then out between each shot. How do they differ now?
Going through this exercise when you’re playing with your shooting angles and the overall composition can help you to find “that shot” you were looking for. It will also help you to be more comfortable with the capabilities of your camera (and lens) and the angle you can shoot from to achieve the shots you like.
5. Vantage Point
Similar to the point of adjusting your shooting angle, if your composition just doesn’t feel right or it’s missing that “something,” try and search for another vantage point. Sometimes changing your point of view can make all the difference.
TIP: Get up high and shoot down toward your subject, or get closer and look up toward the top of it. Put in the effort of experimenting with various vantage points and shooting angles and you will likely be rewarded with some interesting shots.
6. Shapes & Patterns
Patterns are everywhere. And these patterns together can make up shapes, and shapes themselves often hold within their borders distinct patterns. Be aware of details in a scene and how these details create patterns you can hone in on and shoot in a way which is pleasing to the eye. Patterns really are everywhere, and simply being aware of them will help you to compose interesting photographs.
TIP: Get close up on textures and fine details, or back off to a distance to find patterns and shapes within the landscapes around you.
7. Leading Lines
Lines can take many forms - the horizon, streets, walls, trees, buildings, and railway lines to name but a few - and they can help you to create a lot of interest in your shots. Look for leading lines that dart off to infinity (called the Vanishing Point), sweeping and winding roads, or curved footpaths, all of which will add a special something to your photographs.
Taking note of how these lines make their way across the scene can really make or break your composition so take your time and play around with how they interact with the other elements in your field of view. Adjust how the lines come into the frame and at what angle. Using a line to “lead” the viewer’s eye to your main subject is a skill you will want to try and master if you're going to create compelling and exciting images.
TIP: Try and make sure your horizons look straight, and if they aren't, make sure there is a purpose behind your thinking. Merely being aware of the levels and angles of lines in your frame will do a lot for your photography, so be sure to keep them in the back of your mind whenever you take a photograph.
Layers will add depth to your images like nothing else can. If you can pair all these other composition tips with a stunning vista which has interest in the foreground and the background, you will have the makings of a masterpiece.
Just like patterns, shapes, and lines, layers are everywhere if you know where to look. Layers can be found in epic landscapes, stylish fashion shoots, and even food photography. Layers are as delicious to the eye as a well-baked cake is to your tummy on your birthday. I personally think layers are underrated and often forgotten when it comes to composition, but now that you know about them you will be able to supercharge the interest in your images tenfold.
9. Balance & Symmetry
Not to be confused with keeping a steady hand, or looking for solid grounding under your feet, I’m talking about visual balance.
Balancing elements within your frame can make a significant impact on the visual feel of your photograph. Heavy, solid looking objects can dominate the scene if left in the frame on their own, and if this is not your intention, can ruin an otherwise well-balanced shot.
You can either balance-out visually heavy elements with other elements placed on the opposite side of the frame, by grouping that element with smaller components of interest, or by leaning toward asymmetry and “balancing” your element with negative space.
Think about light and dark objects too, sunshine and shadow, Land and sky, and so forth. Visually balancing these elements will make your images more pleasing to the eye.
TIP: Remember that you can take your photographs horizontally (landscape) or vertically (portrait). And if a scene doesn't look or lend itself to feeling balanced try and switch between horizontal and vertical shots and play with your overall composition to find a balance of elements, light, shapes, and lines that you like best.
10. Get Closer
Photographers often try and fit too much into the frame. Pictures can turn out feeling off-balance, random, or plain uninspiring. As with shapes, patterns, lines, and layers; look for details and spots of interest to zoom in on. Often, a single piece of interest within a larger scene will make for a far better photograph compared to a situation where everything is captured all at once.
TIP 1: If you’re out shooting landscapes, swap your wide angle lens for a zoom lens, or zoom in with your kit lens as far as it will go, and pick out spots of interest in the overall scene in front of you. This exercise in creating a tighter composition will help you to train your eye for “shots within the shot” you might otherwise have missed.
TIP 2: If you’re taking portrait shots, get closer and zoom into the details within the bigger picture. Pair standard portrait shots with images of facial features, hands, clothing, and accessories to create a visually interesting set of images. The same goes for objects, building, and food, arts, crafts, and more. Shoot a series of eye-catching details by getting closer and creating a completely unique composition with each shot. Look for unusual shapes, textures, and colors.
11. Work With Scale
Making use of Scale is another technique found within the realm of composition that is often overlooked. There is no better way of representing the reality and the immense size of something better than by placing it directly alongside that which is a whole lot smaller.
With an element of scale placed strategically within the composition of your photograph, you can create imagery that comes across as epic, breathtaking, or on the other hand, calm and serene. Master the art of using scale together with the other techniques mentioned above, and you’ll come away with some impressive photographs, guaranteed.
12. Negative Space
Being bold with your subject and filling the frame, or by getting closer and taking in all the detail, textures, and patterns makes for a mighty fine start when it comes to composition, but another element that can be fantastic for your shots is remembering to leave some extra room in the frame.
As mentioned in the section on Balance, this can help to create a visually pleasing image, but it’s also true if you want to represent or portray a particular mood or “vibe”, create a feeling of drama, or serenity, or to simply tell a bit of a story with your shot.
TIP: If you feel like your composition is lacking something, or it seems a bit too cluttered and contrived for your liking, consider adding some space on either side - or on a single side - of your subject and see what you can come up with.
Here, the image has lots of open space above (the sky) and some solid "anchoring" features (the rocks) at the bottom. The clouds in the sky also do a good job of balancing out the rocks below.
Looking up towards the man and the sky above makes for an interesting composition, while the graffiti on the rock becomes part of what makes the image interesting as well.
Below are some extra images portraying a good use of space to help tell the story and to create a certain "feel" or a general sense of either interest, balance, symmetry or assymetry.
All the handy tips on composition listed here are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to composition and creating interesting photographs. However, they are a really great start!
13. Bonus Tips
i) When you’re trying to put all these techniques into practice, it can get a bit crazy at first, so slow down and take a deep breath. Enjoy the world around you and the scene in front of you. When you are in a calm state of mind, you will be better able to compose the kind of shot you are looking for.
ii) Use your LCD display screen instead of the viewfinder. Often this can get you to rake in the whole picture and better balance your composition and all the elements within the frame. This is especially true when outdoors with large open spaces or sweeping scenery filled with smaller details further off, or a host of visually enticing layers, lines, and patterns.
Practice, Practice, Practice
While knowledge is often said to lead to power, I believe that new-found knowledge means nothing if it is not acted upon. Because if you don’t actually go out and do something and put what you’ve learned into practice, you won’t actually get the results you’re after.
Composition is one of the areas of photography that I get asked about the most. We tend to think of creating good structure within an image as something almost mystical or overly complicated. In actual fact, it’s in essence quite simple when you know how, and it will likely become second nature with a right amount of practice.
I encourage you wholeheartedly to act on these composition tips no matter how small, silly, or mundane they might appear. Better yet, apply them in combination for added effect, and you will be well on your way to creating stunning images you will absolutely love.
Do you have any favourite composition techniques? Let me know!
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