Developing a feel for good composition is one of the easiest ways to significantly improve one’s photography. It doesn’t require a new camera or expensive and fancy new lenses. Average and relatively uninteresting photographs can be made into interesting and captivating images, and good photography can be made exceptional.
Composition is all about arranging the elements of a picture to create something the viewer finds pleasurable, interesting, visually appealing and worth looking at.. And all that is required is to consistently keep a few fairly straightforward principles in mind. Herewith twelve of those principles, ideas that can improve your photographs significantly.
First a note: All rules are meant to be broken, not least so for the principles of composition. Exceptions will always be made. As in most cases, knowing the rules better prepares you to break them intelligently. There will be many outstanding pictures that do not observe some of these principles. Think of these ideas as suggestions to be kept in mind, “starting points” perhaps, a guide to thinking about and assembling your picture, not hard and fast rules.
1. Think in terms of the frame
Strictly speaking, “framing” refers to what gets included in the image, and “composition” to how those elements are arranged. I tend to think of it all composition. But the first principle of composition is to frame the picture.
Look at the scene first. think about what elements you want to include, and imagine a frame drawn around them. With practice, you should become used to thinking of the size frame associated with each lens focal length (Using a single lens for a period helps develop this instinct) so that you can visualize the picture frame before looking through the viewfinder. What gets included? What is important to what you want to say, and what not? Can the elements in the frame stick together in a cohesive and related way (see Balance below, 8)?
2. Think about the Center of Interest
Ask yourself, where is the center of interest? Is there a dominant element? Something you want to be sure the viewer looks at? Or something you expect will draw the viewer’s gaze? This might be the “subject”. It might be the most important element. Or it may just be the most dominant visual element. Ask yourself how the center of interest relates to other elements in the frame.
3. Look for elements that frame the picture, or that create a “frame within the frame”
Bits of foreground, a tree perhaps, or other elements that surround or delineate the key elements of the picture, can create a frame within the frame and help to define the picture. They also create a sense of location of the scene in space. The “frame within the frame” can be a strong compositional device. It creates strong spatial relationships among the elements it includes.
4. Keep the rule of thirds in mind at all times
The 1/3 rule or “rule of thirds” is the single most helpful compositional device I know. Many images end up ignoring or breaking the rule, but I almost always start from a point of seeing the frame in thirds. Draw lines through the frame horizontally at 1/3 and 2/3, and vertically at 1/3 and 2/3. There will be four intersection points and a grid dividing the frame into 3 zones vertically and 3 zones horizontally. There are several ways to use the 1/3 principle.
- When looking at an image, the eyes naturally focus first on the four points where the imaginary 1/3 lines intersect. By placing the center of interest at one of the four intersection points, you insure that the picture’s composition is structured around that center of interest, and are assured that will be a focus for the viewer’s attention.
- By placing the horizon at either the 1/3 or 2/3 line, you create a more interesting picture than one with the horizon at center.
- By using the 1/3 or 2/3 vertical lines to place dominant visual elements off center, you create a more interesting image than one with the main subject exactly in the center.
5. Look for and use diagonal lines or elements
Diagonal lines can make a composition very strong and appealing. In the rectangular frame, the eye sees diagonal lines as introducing different visual elements and a sense of movement. Diagonal lines can help draw the viewer’s attention across different regions of the picture as well as create a sense of dynamic tension or balance in the image.
The strongest composition is a triangular one, with the main visual elements arranged roughly along a right triangle with the vertices at 3 of the four 1/3-2/3 intersection points. Such an arrangement is compositional gold!
6. Draw the viewer’s eye
Look in general for lines and curves that draw the viewer’s eye into the picture and towards the center of interest and the main visual elements. Avoid compositions in which lines or curves draw the viewer’s eye away from the picture and out of the frame.
7. Use perspective lines and angles
The use of the numerous types of perspective can be a whole chapter in a treatise on design theory. Suffice to say that perspective is a way to fool the eye into seeing a three dimensional scene rendered on a flat plane. Perspective consists of angular lines that appear to converge at a point (referred to as the vanishing point).
Perspective that locates the vanishing point in the frame, at the center of interest, or beyond, usually creates a very strong composition. The perspective lines not only draws the eye toward the center of interest but also create depth in the image.
Perspective that places the vanishing point outside the frame is more problematic. At times such perspective can help to create the illusion of depth, but it can also direct the viewer’s attention out of the frame and away from the subject.
8. Strive for balance
Balance is another topic that could lead to an entire chapter. In short, balance is a matter of arranging the visual elements, especially opposites, in a way that the viewer perceives as pleasing. This could include distributing elements around the frame, balancing light and dark, or using complimentary colors. Color theory is beyond the scope of this essay, but if you look at the frame and think in terms of elements that are in an opposite relationship, and try to balance those elements, you will come up with a very interesting and appealing image.
Static balance would be achieved by a uniform or even distribution around the center of the frame. Some good images have a static balance, but static balance is rarely as interesting as dynamic balance. A good dynamic balance is achieved through a creative tension between visual elements (light-dark, major-minor, solid-insubstantial, foreground-subject-background, line-angle, in focus-out of focus, etc) arranged off center (think about the 1/3 lines).
There are no hard-and-fast rules of balance. Good composition will usually be served just by thinking about balance.
9. Fill the frame
Avoid having lots of “negative” or empty space around a subject or center of interest. Step forward or zoom in or change angles so that the center of interest fills the frame.
Note that other visual elements besides the center of interest can go in the frame if they are contributing to a dynamic balance that makes the image as a whole well-composed and pleasing. This can include perspective lines or other lines that tend to draw the eye; or it can include elements that are in opposition to the center (light-dark, smooth-rough, hard-soft, foreground-background, etc). But avoid space that consists of subject matter that is wholly irrelevant and superfluous to the main subject or center of interest.
10. Use selective focus and work with depth of field
I consider focus and depth of field to be a compositional element. What is sharply in focus, and what is not, can greatly affect the composition, the dynamic balance that exists, and how the viewer sees the image. It can help define and locate the center of interest and draw the eye.
In general, field of focus refers to that range that is sharply in focus, and depth of field is the distance or width of this range or sharpness. Whole chapters are possible here as well, but consider the following suggestions:
- Use “hyperfocal distance” to include the foreground when photographing at infinity. Particularly for landscapes, I always begin by focusing at infinity, but then crank back the focus until the foreground I want to include is just in focus and view at infinity is still sharp. By gradually focusing back from infinity until just the point where infinity begins to lose sharpness, we find the “hyperfocal distance.” Focusing at that point then insures the greatest possible depth of field of sharp focus (from about half the hyperfocal distance out to infinity).
- Blur the background. This can greatly strengthen the composition and focus attention on the center of interest while creating an interesting and appealing picture. Start focusing as close as possible and gradually focus outward until just the point where the subject is in focus.
- Use a very narrow field of focus or short depth of field to isolate the center of interest.
- Conversely, a very wide depth of field can include very much of a subject in focus and create a dynamic tension that is very appealing. Note that this is one of the more difficult compositional challenges.
How to achieve such focusing effects? It helps to focus manually, or use manual override with the autofocus. Then, keep the following in mind:
- Long lenses or focal lengths create narrow depth of field; short or wide angle lenses create greater depth of field.
- Large lens apertures (small f-numbers) create narrow depth of field; small apertures (high f-numbers) create greater depth of field.
And, two more to round out the Twelve!
Don’t be afraid to move around in search of a great composition. Moreover, with digital cameras, there is no reason to limit the number of images we shoot. After shooting from one position, circle around to a different angle and explore a different composition; shoot some more. And then, move again, to a different position. Composition is an active process, as you search for an interesting and appealing image. Move around and explore the composition from different points.
Don’t hesitate to crop the image in your image editor. An average composition can be turned into a great one by adjusting the framing with cropping. (Different frame shapes and ratios is another interesting element of the final image, which we’ll explore in a future essay.)