Photography Composition Tips

Take more good photos more often

A quick Google search on the phrase "rules of composition" returns an absolute plethora of results. Here are some of the article titles from just the first page of search results:

- 9 Top Photography Composition Rules You Need To Know
- Back to Basics: 10 Composition Rules in Photography
- 28 Composition Techniques That Will Improve Your Photos
- 21 Most Important Rules of Composition in Photography
- top 6 photography composition rules
- 22 Photography Composition Rules,Techniques & Tips

Isn't it interesting that each article explains a different number of "rules"? I'm not going to suggest that you shouldn't read any of these articles, on the contrary, I'm sure they all contain lots of worthwhile information. The problem is that much of the information can be confusing and contradictory - if you think of the "rules of composition" as actual rules. Consider them to be guidelines at best.

I'm not going to attempt to add yet another article about the rules of composition, but hopefully provide a few tips that might help you compose better photos - even if you're too lazy to learn the rules.

If you're not too lazy, get started by searching a site like Google images for some examples of the following:

Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.

- Pablo Picasso

Various composition grids

Various composition grids

The above grids are supposed to detail some of the more pleasing ways to layout a photographic composition. The idea is that the photograph is composed with the subject/points of interest positioned along the lines, or intersections of lines, following the grid pattern. I doubt that many, if any, experienced photographers ever consider these grid layouts when composing their shot. I think it's much more likely that they compose instinctively. Later, when someone else is analysing the shot, they may notice that the layout of the photograph appears to conform to one of the grids.

The point here is, if your photo looks well balanced and the viewer's eye is drawn to the subject, your photograph probably conforms to at least some of the "rules" - without necessarily having considered any of those "rules" when framing the shot.

Centering your subject can make a strong composition

Centering your subject can make a strong composition

Here are a few tips that I hope will help you take better photos more often...

Identify the subject

Every good story needs a hero/heroine and every good photo needs an interesting subject. Before you press the shutter button think about what drew your eye to that particular scene.

Explore the subject

Think about how to best present the subject of your photo. Try exploring different angles, take a few steps left, right, forward or back, try a lower or higher vantage point. Try looking at the scene in both landscape and portrait orientation. Pre-visualise how the scene will look as a print.

Center the subject

As often as not, placing the subject smack-bang in the middle of the frame will produce a strong photo. I suggest that centering your subject should be your default starting point then consider if the photo could be improved by moving the relative position of the subject. Look for other potential points of interest in the scene, such as an interesting foreground object. Consider whether any of those secondary points of interest will add value to the shot or detract from the main subject.

Think about how much space to leave around the subject. Will showing more of the background give the subject better context or provide a more balanced composition? Careful use of negative space can sometimes really suit certain subjects.

Use your phone

This tip is mainly for film photographers that don't have the benefit of a rear screen - use your phone to preview the shot. I use a free app called Magic Film Viewfinder, It's really handy. The app allows you to select your film size and lens focal length, colour options or black and white, white balance options, and even a Depth of Field scale. You can just view the scene on your phone's screen or take a photo using your selected settings and see a decent preview image at the correct aspect ratio.

You may find this more beneficial if your camera has a small viewfinder, like a 35mm SLR or rangefinder but I find I often use the app even with my view camera.

Consider the scene's contrast

The viewer's eye will usually be drawn to the brightest part of the image. Make sure there are no bright spots such as lights, reflections, or high contrast areas that will distract from the subject.

Consider the background

How busy is the background behind your subject? If your subject is getting lost against the background try getting closer to make a tighter shot or, open your aperture to blur the background.

On the other hand, showing more of the background can add context to the photo. For example, say you were taking a portrait of the owner of a fruit shop, it makes complete sense to show some boxes of fruit in the shot - otherwise it might just be a photo of a person wearing an apron.

Scan the frame, particularly the edges

One of the keys to taking consistently better photos is knowing what to leave out. Run your eye around the entire frame, particularly the edges, look for things intruding into the image that might distract from the final print.

Trust your instinct

This is the most important tip - trust yourself! If your scene seems to be well balanced and looks good to you then go ahead and fire that shutter. Well, maybe take a minute to confirm focus and check the exposure but then, go ahead and fire that shutter.

A bit about moving targets

All of the above tips are based on the assumption that you have time to properly compose your shot. In more dynamic situations and when your subject is moving, as in street photography, sports, wildlife, etc. the overall composition is less important. Pressing the shutter button at precisely the "decisive moment" is what will produce that outstanding image. Capturing the instant the ball strikes the bat, or the tiger is at the top of its leap, or just as the ice cream falls off the cone is a hard skill to master and often quite a bit of good luck is involved.

Review your work

Look critically at every shot you take - before you start cropping or cloning or whatever other mischief you like to get up to in post production. Ask yourself what you could have done to make the image more compelling. Would it look better if the subject were a little higher or lower? Are there objects in the scene you didn't notice when you made the shot? If you feel you need to crop the image then you were probably too far away from the subject. Remember these things so that next time you are shooting something similar you make the necessary adjustments. This is how to improve over time.

On review, a little bit more space on the left might have improved this composition.

On review, a little bit more space on the left might have improved this composition.

And now, a few things to avoid

Nice views often make boring photos

I'm sure everyone has experienced this at some point. You are admiring a lovely view, pick up your camera and take a shot only to later realise that the photo hasn't done justice to the scene. Remember that the photo will only be a small segment of any scene. Without a definite subject or at least something of interest in the shot you have probably made a pretty boring photo.

Crooked lines

For the love of everything that is good... please, please, make sure your camera is set up level. It doesn't matter how good your shot is otherwise, if you have a crooked horizon or if everything in the shot is tilted one way or the other, you have a bad shot. Yes, I know, you can fix it in post but if that's the way you think then you may not really be interested in learning to take better photos.

If you don't have one (or more) on your tripod you can buy a camera spirit level to slide into your hot/cold shoe mount... totally worth it.

Using a viewfinder (or rear screen) with grid lines can also be a big help in squaring/balancing your image.

Chopping off bits

Especially when taking portrait photos, avoid cutting people's limbs off at the joints... necks, elbows, wrists, fingers, hips, knees, ankles. Either get in a bit tighter or move back a bit if needed. Think about a full-length portrait with the person's feet cut off, or just someone's head and neck... diabolical.

Tilted just 1° left - horrendous! (Crooked-ised in PS)

Tilted just 1° left - horrendous! (Crooked-ised in PS)

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