Take your photography from meh to wow! Get up close and personal with these 19 photography composition techniques and you will see instant improvement in your photography.
I know there is a lot to learn in photography: how to achieve sharp focus, how to correctly expose a photograph and how to see and use light. Right now you need to know the photography composition rules so you can get used to thinking about creating strong composition as a matter of course. Your photograph can be focused, well exposed and nicely lit, but if it is poorly composed, it will never be great.
There are several photography composition rules and you will no doubt already have heard that “rules are meant to be broken”, which is fine. In fact, sometimes rule breaking is great and adds to the story of the image. However, if you don’t know the rules of composition, you don’t know how to break them.
The rules exist purely because over time creatives have learnt how humans appreciate an image, how the human eye works and how the brain reacts to an image. This goes way, way, way back to a very long time before cameras were ever invented. If you want to test your knowledge of composition techniques, just take a walk around an art gallery after you’ve read this article.
The rules of composition apply to all art – photographs, paintings, drawings. You’ll be able to apply your knowledge of composition when examining any of the great works of art. It’s quite fun, actually.
Here are19 photography composition tips that you should absolutely know and start practicing today. There are more, but we’ll start with these. Why 19 photography composition tips, why not 20, I hear you ask? Well, I rather like the Rule of Odds – see rule number 19 for details.
Many photography composition techniques can be used together in an image, combining to strengthen composition. Some composition rules contradict others, but knowing the rules means that you know when to use which rule and which combination of rules would work.
1. Rule of Thirds
Of all the photography composition tips we’ll list, the one you might already have heard of is the Rule of Thirds. It’s usually the compositional technique beginner photographers start with. This rule is particularly easy if you have a grid view in your camera viewfinder, because you’ll see that your view is divided into nine sections by two vertical lines and two horizontal lines.
Here’s the grid. Let’s look at the vertical lines first. Do you see the four points where the lines intersect? These are the thirds of the image. If you place your subject at either one of these vertical lines, you will have a far more pleasing image. When photographing a person, their eye should be on one of the intersecting points.
Now let’s look at the horizontal lines. Placing your horizon at either the top horizontal line or the bottom horizontal line creates a much more interesting image than if the horizon is in the centre of the image.
Framing your subject within an image guides the viewer’s eye to your subject. You can frame your subject using an endless variety of techniques.
There are man made frames, such as archways, doors and bridges to name just a few. Natural frames include tree branches, caves and even mountains. Your subject can also create a frame for her face with posing by positioning her arms or hands around her face.
Think about Mo Farrah and his “mobot” pose. When he places his arms in the air, bent at the elbow with his hands on top of his head, not only is he creating the M shape of his name, he is also directing the viewer’s attention to his face, framed by his limbs. This ensures that, no matter what else is happening in the image, your eye is drawn to his smiling face looking straight at you.
If something is repeated once or twice, it makes the photo interesting. If it is repeated several times it becomes a pattern, which is one of our photography composition tips mentioned below. Repetition leads the viewer’s eye to your subject in much the same way as leading lines work, so you’ll find that you will often combine these two composition techniques when creating an image.
Color, shape, parts of objects or even whole objects can be repeated.
4. Leading Lines
Leading lines is another photography composition technique that is easy to pick up and, once learned, you’ll never “unsee”. They are the equivalent of placing a “you are here” arrow on a map.
The leading lines lead the viewer’s eye to the subject, or the main focus of the image. Leading lines can also be used to direct a viewer’s eye out of the image. In fact, leading lines will direct the eye to wherever you want it to go, because our eyes follow lines.
Like frames, leading lines can be naturally occurring, such as a row of clouds, rivers or a line of trees. They can be manmade such as roads, rails or converging buildings. They can also be created by your subject with their limb placement as arms and legs lead the viewer’s eye to the subject.
Leading lines don’t even have to be straight – think of a meandering country lane, or river leading to the focal point of your image.
5. Negative Space
Leaving space around your subject gives it “breathing room”. The minimalism of this photography composition technique ensures that the viewer’s eye is drawn to the subject.
Negative space is the space in your image that is empty.
Knowing which colors work well together, and as opposites, helps you to use color in photography composition. Color theory is an essential tool used in all areas of design to create pleasing designs with impact, such as graphic design, fashion design and also interior design.
Here is a helpful color chart.
Colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel are complementary colors, so work well together in an image. Alternatively, a spot of color in an otherwise monochrome image creates a wonderful element of visual interest. Not color added in post production later, but a flash of color in an otherwise nearly colorless scene.
Just a word of warning, please don’t be tempted to use the spot color tool when editing an image. Although we’re talking about photography composition tips, I’m sneaking in this important editing tip.
Creating a black and white image with one aspect of the image left in colour very, very rarely looks good and most times looks bad and dated. An exception is the 1993 film Schindler’s List where the use of red as a spot color was used with such exceptional skill in that it added to the composition and story. Also, that was a long time ago.
7. Balancing Elements
When you have a strong subject in the foreground, it helps to have a smaller subject in the background to balance the foreground element. This is particularly so when using the rule of thirds.
When you balance elements in an image you create interest for the viewer. This may seem to contradict the rule of negative space, but that’s the advantage of so many composition rules. Some rules work better with certain scenes and it is up to you, as the photographer, to judge which rule of composition will work best for your photograph.
8. Differential (selective) Focus
A great way to direct the viewer’s eye to exactly where you want them to look, at the main subject of your photograph, is to use differential focus (also known as selective focus).
To achieve differential focus, ensure that your main subject is sharply in focus with a narrow depth of field. The blurred background contrasts with the in focus subject, so the subject holds your attention. This is a well known photography composition technique used when photographing portraits.
I personally like all things to be asymmetrical, but in photography symmetry works very well. Sometimes breaking the symmetry works well too, simply because the break highlights the symmetry.
When you start looking, you’ll be surprised by how much symmetry you see around you, both manmade and natural. If you’re going to break the rule of thirds, symmetry is a good way to do it.
Patterns are formed by repetition of a shape, an object or a line and can be very visually appealing. They create harmony within an image and are a wonderful compositional tool. The trick with patterns is to make sure that they fill the frame.
You can also highlight the pattern by inserting an object to break it, which instantly adds another level of interest to the image.
11. Depth (layers)
Just as layering your clothes creates a more interesting outfit, layering in photography creates depth and a more interesting composition.
Because a photograph is two dimensional, we need to work hard to give it depth and make it more appealing in a three dimensional world. Layers in landscapes are created by ensuring there are foreground, middle ground and background elements to draw the eye into the scene. When one layer overlaps another, the viewer’s eye automatically separates them out and sees the depth in the image.
12. Depth of Field
Using either a shallow depth of field or a deep depth of field is a choice you make when composing an image.
Isolate your subject by creating a blurry background with a shallow depth of field, so that the subject holds the viewer’s attention. This is a very common composition technique used in portrait photography.
When photographing a landscape you generally aim to create front to back detail (or sharpness) by using a deep depth of field.
Changing your position, and therefore your viewpoint, can dramatically change the image. Getting down low to photograph your subject or positioning yourself at greater height than your subject will create a very different image.
Different viewpoints will certainly add more drama to the composition than the expected standing height viewpoint.
14. Triangles & Diagonals
Because triangles create dynamic tension within an image, they make it interesting. The tension is created because we are used to seeing vertical and horizontal lines, not diagonal lines.
Of course this doesn’t mean that you have to run around looking for triangular shaped objects to photograph to make your image interesting. Triangles can also be implied.
There are hundreds of ways to incorporate triangles in your images for better composition. For this reason, with formal family photography, the poses used to group the family often form triangles. When a model bends an arm and places her hand on her hip, she creates a triangle. When leading lines converge in an image, they create a triangle.
15. Fill the Frame
This is one of the easiest photography composition tips to learn, so I think it is often overlooked.
If the background is busy and distracting to the composition of your image, fill the framewith your subject.
When photographing a person this could go so far as to completely fill the frame with their face. To photograph patterns (mentioned earlier) with maximum effect, fill the frame with the pattern.
When you photograph a single subject without any distractions, you are drawing the eye straight to the subject.
This use of simplicity and minimalism as a compositional tool is very pleasing and restful. Simplicity can also be created by getting close and zooming in on an aspect of the subject. To see minimalism and simplicity at its finest, do a Google search of “Edward Weston minimalism”.
17. Left to Right Rule
This photography composition rule adheres to the principle that we read from left to right and doesn’t take into account the languages that read in other directions. Therefore it states that we also read photographs from left to right.
So, if movement is shown in a photograph, according to the Rule of Left to Right, it is good composition to have that movement going from left to right. Examples are a motorbike racing past from left to right, a person walking from the left of the frame to the right and a bird flying from left to right.
When using this element of composition in photography, it is always good to incorporate the rule of space, detailed below.
18. Rule of Space
A photograph is contained within a frame, so the subjects are also contained within that frame. By giving the subjects room to move in the frame we observe the Rule of Space. You’ll notice that this rule ties in with one of our earlier photography composition tips about using negative space. It’s another example of how the rules of composition often overlap.
There should be space in front of the subject, in the direction in which the subject is moving, to allow the subject “room to breathe” within the frame. As a viewer we can imagine the continued movement of the subject. Our eyes automatically go to where the object is moving to.
If you break the composition rule and have the space behind the subject, you cut short their journey, which jars the viewer’s eye. If that is part of the story you’re telling, that’s great, otherwise, it’s best not to jar your viewer.
19. Rule of Odds
Odd numbers work incredibly well in photography. I know this contrasts with the photography composition rule of Symmetry. However, this again proves that for every image there is a photography composition technique just right for the situation.
The rule of odds works, because sometimes an even number can be distracting, as the viewer’s eye might not be certain where the main focus is. With odd numbers the eye is led there naturally, so it is easier.
Once you are proficient in the rules of composition you can consider breaking them if you wish to achieve a particular result. Just as we observe the rules to achieve good composition, when breaking the rules there needs to be a good reason. Otherwise, your image may appear poorly composed, as opposed to thoughtfully and purposefully composed.
We have more than just 19 photography composition tips, but we’ll keep them for another time. That’s enough rules for one day.
How many of these photography composition tips do you use? Or (for the rebels here) how many do you knowingly break?
Leave a comment
If you have any questions about photography composition, let us know in the comments. Also, we love good news, so if our photography composition tips have helped you to understand what is composition in photography, share that too.