Once you’ve learned how to use your gear and what cameras settings you need to get the effect you want, the next step is to perfect your photographic composition.
The composition tips in this tutorial help train your eye to understand the elements that make up a good photo.
In fact, your eye for a photo is what separates the truly creative photographer from everybody else. To help you understand these composition tips properly I’ve written a paragraph or two about each one and given you a photo to illustrate it. You can also follow the links to read in depth tutorials about each concept.
Composition tip #1: Move beyond the rule of thirds
Learning the rule of thirds is a bit like taking driving lessons and being taught to press the gas pedal to accelerate, the brake pedal to stop the car and nothing else. It covers the basics, but you know there’s more to driving than that. It’s the same with composition.
Take this portrait as an example:
You can see that the model’s face is close to the center of the photo, rather than on a third. The reason for that is that I asked her to stand in a specific place so I could use a white square painted on the rocks behind her as a framing device. I aligned the photo so the model’s face was framed by the out of focus square. If I had tilted the camera down to place the model’s eyes on the top third, the white square wouldn’t frame her face so effectively.
The point is that placement of the subject (which is really what the rule of thirds is about) is determined by a number of factors including balancing the various visual elements in the frame and the relationship between subject and background. If you compose using the rule of thirds alone it becomes formulaic and these other elements get forgotten.
Once you understand this idea you’ll start to move beyond using the rule of thirds as your main compositional devices and start making better photos because of it.
Learn more: Beyond the Rule of Thirds
Composition tip #2: Fill the frame
The long narrow rectangle of the 35mm frame (that is, photos taken with full-frame or APS-C cameras) presents a unique compositional challenge. Once you’re placed your subject, you’re often left with empty space around it.
Now, negative space (see composition tip #3) can be a good thing. But sometimes you’re just left with space that needs filling with something interesting that complements the subject without distracting from it.
In the portrait below I positioned the model in front of an interesting rock formation, then used a wide aperture to blur the background. The rocks behind her are out of focus and create an interesting background that fills the space without creating a distraction.
Learn more: Composition and Filling the Frame
Composition tip #3: Use negative space
Empty space in the photo is known as negative space. Even though there’s often little to catch your attention in areas of negative space they’re still an essential part of the composition. That’s because negative space gives your subject room to breathe. It can also create a sense of space and scale.
You can see how it works in this landscape photo where the empty sky and gray lake (smoothed out with a long exposure of 125 seconds) create negative space around the tree.
Learn more: How to Use Negative Space in Composition
Composition tip #4: Use a limited color palette
Saturated colors can catch your attention but good photographers learn to use color in a more sophisticated way. One way you can do this is to limit the number of colors included in the photo. This simplifies the composition and makes the colors you do use stronger.
The photo below is an interesting example of this because it shows the use of a limited range of two primary colors – red and yellow. It works because the red ticket is balanced by a larger area of yellow. The rest of the colors in the photo are neutral grays.
Composition tip #5: Add drama and mystery using shadows
There are many ways you can add a sense of drama and mystery to a photo. One of the most effective is to use shadows, a technique commonly used in television and film. Shadows create a sense of mystery because we can’t see what they contain.
Shadow and dramatic light are often found together. You get one kind of dramatic light when the sun is close to the horizon at the end of a sunny day. The light rakes across the landscape and casts long shadows.
The sun was setting and casting dramatic shadows when I made the photo below. Part of the scene was in deep shade, but most of the car was in sunlight. The drama comes from the interplay between bright sunlight and dark shade.
Learn more: How to Add Drama and Mystery to Photos
Composition tip #6: Simplicity
Make your photos as simple as possible. Think about what you want to include in the composition – and what to exclude.
Simplicity involves thinking about shapes, forms, patterns and lines. It requires an awareness of light, shadow, color and tonal contrast.
It takes time to learn to see these things. It needs discipline and practice and is a natural part of the process of developing creative vision.
The portrait below has a simplified composition. I deliberately positioned my model in the light so that there was a dark background behind her. I used a short telephoto lens (85mm on a full-frame camera) to help exclude anything that wasn’t relevant to the composition.
Learn more: The Three S’s of Composition
Composition tip #7: Add foreground interest
The technique of adding foreground interest is commonly used when taking photos with a wide-angle lens. In relation to composition, wide-angle lenses let you include something interesting in the foreground for the viewer to look at. The foreground provides the eye with a pathway into the scene.
The photo was taken with the camera tilted down to include more of the beach, pushing the horizon towards the top of the frame. The sand adds texture to the foreground and helps move the eye through the photo from the front to the back, creating a greater sense of depth and space.
Composition tip #8: Use color to create mood
One of the easiest way to create moody photos using color is with the White Balance setting.
Color temperature is an important factor in creating mood and atmosphere. If you are accustomed to setting White Balance to Auto, now is the time to stop. Instead of trying to capture a neutral tone, use the color of the light to your advantage.
For example, many photos benefit from the warm treatment created by setting the White Balance to Cloudy or Shade. Two subjects that benefit in particular are landscapes and portraits. Try raising the color temperature to warm up the image and enhance the natural warm color of the light.
Alternatively, if you are shooting at dusk, then use a lower color temperature to enhance the natural blue hues of the light.
I prefer to shoot in Raw and adjust the color temperature in Lightroom Classic to suit the mood that I want to capture. I created the seascape below by setting a low color temperature to give the image a cold, stormy feel.
Learn more: How to Create Mood in Color Photos
Composition tip #9: Add drama with shadows and contrast
You can make strong, dramatic photos by utilizing two key elements of photographic composition – shadow and contrast.
Contrast occurs naturally when you’re shooting in strong sunlight or indoors using window light. If you expose for the highlights you’ll automatically get strong shadows thanks to the relatively limited dynamic range of your camera’s sensor (which is a good thing in this situation).
I made the photo below in Granada, Spain. I took it inside a former residence now used as a museum. The architect had designed both the interior and exterior spaces to make use of the strong Spanish sun. The way the shadows fall across the scene works with the hard geometry of the concrete wall to create a dramatic composition.
Learn more: Create Dramatic Photos with Shadow and Contrast
Composition tip #10: Use lines to create a sense of depth
You can add depth by including lines that take the viewer’s eye through the photo, from the foreground to the background.
These can be obvious lines, like railway tracks that recede into the distance, or a line of telegraph poles leading to the horizon.
But they can also be more subtle lines, such as the S curve formed by a river or stream winding through the landscape. They can be implied lines – for example, rocks in the sea that are separated by water but together form a line that takes the eye through the frame.
You can see how it works in the photo below, taken with a zoom lens set to 25mm on a full-frame camera. The rocks in the foreground form lines that take the eye through to the island on the horizon. Using a wide-angle lens makes the island look smaller than it really is and increases the apparent distance between the island and the foreground rocks.
Learn more: Four Ways To Add Depth To Photos
Composition tip #11: Use balance to place your subject in the frame
Many photographers think about the rule of thirds when it comes to placing the subject in the frame but I think it helps more if you think about balance in composition instead.
There are several ways that elements within the photo can balance each other. One of these is tonal balance – the distribution of light and dark tones throughout the frame.
Light tones have more visual mass than dark tones. This means that your eye naturally goes to the highlights when you look at a photo.
Take a look at the photo below. If you’re like most people your eye will go to the brightest flower on the left, then move around taking in the rest of the photo before returning to the flower.
The small white flower (light tone) is balanced by the darker tones in the rest of the image.
Learn more: How To Use Balance In Composition
Composition tip #12: Use figure to ground
Figure to ground is one of those concepts in photographic composition that seems complex at first, but turns out to be easy to use once you understand it.
Figure to ground is the relationship between the subject (figure) and the background (ground). If people simple said subject and background it would be much easier to understand. Instead it’s usually referred to as figure to ground in reference to its origins in art theory.
For example, the photo below has a clear subject (the woman carrying a baby on her back) and background (the walls of the building behind her). We can say that it has good figure to ground, or more simply, that there’s clear separation between the subject and the background. In other words it’s easy for the viewer to see that the mother and baby are the main subject, and that the building is the background.
The separation between subject and background makes it easier for the viewer to see the subject without distractions. The result is a more effective composition and a more powerful photo.
Learn more: How to Use Figure to Ground in Photography
Composition tip #13: Decide what to include in the photo and what to leave out
Here are three things to think about when you compose your photos.
1. What to include in the photo
2. What to leave out of the photo
3. Where to place the main subject
For example, take a look at this street photo I made in Beijing.
When you look at the photo you can see that I had choices. I could have moved in closer and concentrated on the game board. I could have stepped back and included more of the people playing the game.
But I didn’t want to do either of those things. I wanted to capture enough of the scene to tell the story – so the viewer can see that there are two men playing a game.
I also wanted to include clues to the story without revealing everything. You can’t see the face of the man on the right. The blue transparent socks of the man on the left are strangely interesting (to me at least). The sandled feet at the top of the frame belong to somebody watching the game.
This technique of including details, but not revealing everything, leaves something to the viewer’s imagination. It adds a little mystery to the photo. It makes people curious, wanting to see more. All this is a result of the decision about what to include and what to leave out of the photo.
Learn more: Framing, Placement and Composition
Composition tip #14: Use color contrast
Good photographers learn to create interesting compositions using the colors they see in the natural and man-made worlds. Color contrast – which is really about the way that certain hues are related to each other – is part of this.
The key is to keep the composition simple. Don’t include too many colors.
There are many naturally occurring color contrasts. Flowers are a great example of this. Red, purple, blue and yellow flowers all provide pleasing contrasts against a green background.
The color wheel shows us that green is the opposite of red, purple and blue. Photographing flowers of these colors against a green background is an easy way to create a strong photo with a graphic composition.
Learn more: How to Use Color Contrast in Composition
Composition tip #15: Use numbers
Discussions about photographic composition are often based on the idea of placement – that is, where you should place the main subject or focal point of the photo in the frame. But there are times when you may have two, three or even more focal points, especially in more complex compositions. These give you the opportunity to create interesting and dynamic photos.
For example, including three focal points in a photo lets you employ two common compositional devices – creating triangles and establishing a pattern.
Triangles add a dynamic aspect to the composition. The viewer’s eye moves between the points, following the sides of the triangle, taking in different parts of the frame.
In the example below the group of three is made by the statue in the center of the frame and the flowerpots either side. They create a symmetrical triangle that takes the eye from one side of the frame to the other.
Learn more: Composition By Numbers
One final thought I’d like to leave you with is that none of the ideas in this tutorial work in isolation. Once you start analyzing the composition of good photos you’ll realize that most of them put several of these concepts to use.
Photographic composition is a little like a crazy venn diagram with lots of overlapping circles. It seems like there’s a lot to learn, and there is. So I suggest you concentrate on one of these ideas at a time and practice using it in your photos. Your eye for a well composed photo will improve and your photos will get better.