Written by Joe Maillet | May 22, 2020
We’re going to take a look at some of the classical rules of composition, and send you out into the world to practice each type so you really understand how they work.
First off, we’re going to look at the Rule of Thirds. This is probably the simplest of the composition guidelines to understand, which makes it a great place to start. (In fact, you may already remember it from the intro lesson on how to take better photos in five minutes.) The Rule of Thirds (RoT) is more or less exactly what it says: you divide the photo composition into thirds vertically, and into thirds horizontally, like this:
There are four points in the image where these divisions intersect and they’re a great place to put the subject of your photograph to create a dynamic composition. This is far from the only way to compose a photo, so never feel like you are being forced to shoot this way, but it’s a quick and easy way to compose a photo. If you have only a single subject, you can place it at one of those intersection points, or if you have two or three subjects, you can try to align them all with RoT intersection points. The only way it can go wrong is if you try to use all four points, because then you’ve created a balanced image that lacks the dynamism of the asymmetrical options. If that’s your goal, that’s fine, but unbalanced photos are more dynamic.
One of the biggest mistakes that beginner photographers make is focusing too much on their subject matter, and not paying enough attention to what is in the background of their photo. This is one of those things that you simply have to remember every single time you take a shot, and eventually it will become second nature. It might help if you think about the classic selfie joke called ‘photobombing’, where someone appears in the back of your photo doing something ridiculous, either on purpose or by accident. You don’t want to accidentally photobomb your own compositions, so always be sure to look at the entire photograph before you click the shutter. It sounds obvious, but a bad background can ruin a lot of great photos, and is usually pretty easily corrected. Simply moving the camera a little bit can dramatically change what’s behind your subject, so experiment with slightly different shooting locations if you’re not happy with your initial composition.
These compositional tips are bit more complicated, and like always, the best way to learn them is read up on them and then experiment! As always, if you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below and we’ll do our best to help.
Visual lines are pretty self-explanatory, but they can be a powerful compositional tool. We’re literally referring to lines in the photo, whether it’s the line between two sidewalk squares, between the waves and the beach, or the horizon line between land and sky. One of the most important elements of composing is guiding the eye of the viewer through the photograph, and visual lines are natural guides for the eye.
Sometimes, leading lines are created without an actual explicit visual line. Usually, this happens in combination with a series of similar objects, or any kind of repeating element that guides viewers through the photo.
Key tip: Try to avoid having one of your visual lines end at one of the corners of your photograph. This can guide the viewer’s eye right out of the frame, and that’s hardly ever a good thing! If you’re creating a diptych or a triptych (a series of two or three photos, respectively) it might be helpful, but in general it’s something to be avoided.
Photography is obviously only a two-dimensional medium (at least for now!), but with the right composition, a photo can take on a great deal of depth. Instead of leading the eye around the image with lines and repetition, you can lead the eye INTO a photo using your awareness of foreground and background elements. For example, imagine you’re out walking through your hometown and as you pass by a house, you see a gap in a hedge that leads to a long winding path. At the end of the path is your subject – a child playing with a dog in the sun, a lighthouse, whatever. Should you step through the gap in the hedge to compose your shot, or should you allow the hedge to act as a natural frame? It depends on the shot you want, but if you allow the hedge to stay in the foreground, and let the path guide the eye towards the main subject, whatever it happens to be. The more you become aware of this technique, the more opportunities you’ll see to use it.
As we mentioned briefly in the foreground and background section, exactly where you choose to place your camera can have a huge impact on the composition of your photograph. It sounds obvious, but when you see a potential subject, you should take some time to explore all the possible ways to shoot it. Go out of your way to challenge your assumptions, and you may surprise yourself with the shots you discover. Try standard framing of shots and extreme close-ups; try shooting from an extremely high vantage point, or lie down on the ground and shoot from as low as possible. This will help you start to see everything in a new way, which is arguably one of the most important goals of photography – it also happens to be one of the most enjoyable parts!
The most important lesson of composition is that you need to pay attention to how every single element in your photograph interacts with every other element. It sounds simple, but it’s not until it becomes second nature that you really start to become comfortable enough to get the most out of it. All of this barely scratches the surface of composition techniques for photography, but it’s a good place to start. If you’re looking for some more in-depth explanations of design elements and how they can affect your photographs, be sure to check out the in-depth lesson on design elements here.
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