Five Simple Tips for Better Composition

Five Simple Tips for Better Composition

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: Debunking the Rule of Thirds

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.

1. Balance

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.

Better composition tips

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.

Better composition tips

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.

Better composition tips

2. Simplify

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.

Better composition tips

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.

Better composition tips

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.

Better composition tips

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.

Better composition tips

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.

Better composition tips

5. Punctuation

I first heard about the concept of punctuation in an interview with Bob Holmes (click the link below to see it).

Learn more: Composition Tips From Pro Photographer Bob Holmes

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.

Better composition tips

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.

Better composition tips

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.

Further reading

How to Use a Limited Color Palette in Photography

How Aperture and Focal Length Affect Composition

Framing, Placement and Composition

Mastering Composition

My ebook Mastering Composition presents 20 simple lessons to help you compose more interesting photos.

Mastering Composition ebook

 

About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, publisher, traveler, workshop leader and photographer based in the UK. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

Comments

  1. Andrew,
    excellent post. It is not often that a blog or any other text has a very strong echo inside of me. Thus I rarely leave comments. But I love this summary as it really summarizes those important aspects in a concise manner together where a lot of photographers are struggling with. This overview I think will be extremely helpful for other photographers (incl. me 😉 ) as guidance and to remember when doing the next composition or when reviewing ones own photos…
    Best
    David

  2. Thanks for an excellent article. I found it very useful. I’ve made notes for my future reference – even on field. I was totally unaware of the concept of punctuation, and that is the single most important take away from the article. Just one item on my wishlist: like you demonstrated balanced images, could you demonstrate unbalanced images and explain why they are imbalanced? (If you agree to this proposal, you will need to make some unbalanced images; hope your reputation will not be hurt 😉 ) This is because most of us would be making such images without knowing why! I have also bookmarked your website for future references, especially about Black and White. Thanks for a great article.

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