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Most photographers are aware of the rule of thirds – the idea that placing the main subject of your photos a third of the way in from one side of the frame somehow makes a better composition.
Learn more: Beyond the Rule of Thirds
But I’d like to encourage you to look beyond the rule of thirds to understand what else is going on in the frame. There are deeper concepts at work. If you can understand some of them you can develop an eye for a good photo and improve your composition.
One of the questions you should ask yourself when you make a photo is what is the relationship between the subject and the rest of the image? How do the two balance out?
This is something to judge by feel more than anything else.
For example, in this photo Chinese baoding balls are the same size. Positioned on either side of the frame, they balance each other nicely.
This landscape photo is also well balanced, but in a different way. The yellow orb of the setting sun is balanced by the orange sky and silhouetted grass.
In composition the empty spaces in the photo are called negative space. Here, the small, bright sun is balanced by the large amount of darker negative space surrounding it.
Here’s another photo where there’s a good sense of balance between the main subject and the background. I made this photo with a friend who has an electronic hula hoop. She whirled it around to make patterns as I took photos.
Apart from an unusual subject, the photo works because of the setting. The symmetry of the marble wall in the background frames the pattern of light made by the hula hoop. It gives it room to breathe.
Another way to improve your composition is to make it as simple as possible.
You can do this by excluding anything that isn’t necessary. Often this just means moving closer to your subject so that there is less stuff in the background.
Here’s a good example. I made this photo while photographing a potter at work. I realized that his hands, covered in clay, told an interesting story. So I closed in for a tight composition.
But in this photo of an artist I work I needed to include more of the background in order to tell the story. He had a photogenic workshop and I wanted to include some of it in the composition for context.
If there’s a message here, it’s simplify, but don’t over-simplify. Think about the story you want to tell and what elements you need to include in the frame to make it work.
Learn more: The Three S’s of Composition
3. Use diagonal lines to create dynamic tension
Lines are powerful. The viewer’s eye naturally follows any lines in your images.
Diagonal lines add a sense of movement and energy to the composition. You can see that in the earlier photos of the baoding balls. I deliberately composed it so that they created a diagonal line.
Diagonals are powerful because they pull the eye from one corner of the frame to the other. They are more dynamic than straight lines.
This photo has two powerful diagonal lines that intersect. The dominant line is made by the metal tool that is full of shavings. The other is made by the piece of spinning wood.
You can see the same principle in action in this photo. It’s a close-up of incense sticks laying on the side of a burner in a Chinese temple. The incense sticks make a set of repeating diagonal lines that are intersected by another, stronger line. The result is a dynamic composition.
4. Look beyond the obvious
The first viewpoint you find when you take a photo of something may not be the best or most interesting.
When you find a worthwhile subject spend some time with it. Try and look beyond what first attracted you to it. Is there anything interesting about the subject that you have overlooked?
For example, if you are taking someone’s portrait it might be because they have a captivating or beautiful face. But what else is interesting about them? Look beyond the face and see what you can find.
A friend of mine has interesting hands. After making some portraits I asked him to hold them out and took this photo.
I first heard about the concept of punctuation in an interview with Bob Holmes (click the link below to see it).
Punctuation is the addition of something interesting, often a human figure, that completes a scene. The photo needs that little something extra to lift it above the ordinary.
For example, this photo is stronger because of the woman in the doorway.
Neither would this photo be the same without the presence of the boy hiding behind the door frame. His presence turns what would otherwise be a fairly boring view into a memorable scene.
Photos like this often require the patience to wait for a human figure to come along and provide the punctuation needed by the scene.
Learn more about better composition
Composition takes time to master, but it’s worth the effort as the quality of your photos will improve immensely. You can start by moving beyond the rule of thirds and thinking about the other principles of composition listed here. They are quite powerful.
If you’d like to learn more about composition from the perspective of a working pro then click through to the link above to the interview with Bob Holmes. He’s an eloquent speaker and you’ll learn a lot from the interviews.
If you have any questions about composition then please let us know in the comments.