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8 Photography Composition Tips to Take Better Photos

February 12, 2019

If you’re learning about photography basics, understanding composition should be a key area of focus. Many new photographers ask about the rules of composition—though it’s better to think of them as guidelines rather than strict, unbreakable rules. Here are some essential principles of photography composition you can apply to take great pictures and improve your photography skills:

8 Photography Composition Tips to Take Better Photos

  1. Use the Rule of Thirds
  2. Learn about the Golden Ratio
  3. Frame Your Focal Point
  4. Choose the Right Viewpoint for Your Photos
  5. Consider Leading Lines in Your Images
  6. Enhance Depth in Your Photos
  7. Look for Symmetry
  8. Make Sure the Background Suits Your Main Subject

The great thing about the rise of digital photography technology is that it’s easy to experiment with composition. You can easily delete photos that don’t work—and adjust others during post-processing. You can even start learning the principles of composition in photography with an inexpensive smartphone camera. Gaining experience with basic photography composition is important, whether your goal is to simply take better photos or eventually set up your own photography studio.

Learning photography composition basics can help every beginning photographer advance their skills quickly. Even experienced photographers are open to new ideas for improving photography composition.

Always consider the subject of your photo and the message or story you want to convey when considering which composition techniques to apply. For example, you’re likely to find landscape photography composition approaches to differ from portrait photography composition methods. And street photography may require completely different techniques. Still, every image is unique—so keep your mind open to make the most of all your photos.

1. Use the Rule of Thirds

Many beginner photography classes teach students about the rule of thirds. It is considered one of the most basic—and most useful–photo composition techniques.

Simply put, following the rule of thirds means breaking a picture into thirds—both vertically and horizontally. This results in nine even squares that serve as guidelines for your image. Keep this grid in mind when setting up your shot and envision four lines dividing your photo. Try to put key points of interest at the intersections of the four lines.

With this technique, you can create balanced images that will engage your viewers in a natural way. When photographing a person, you can place their body along the vertical line to create an interesting composition. For landscape photography, you can position the horizon along one of the vertical lines. You can keep this photography composition approach in mind if you pursue travel photography and take landscape photos often.

With this rule, you start to learn how to intentionally determine where to position subjects in your photos. You can also apply this photographic composition concept while editing photos during post-processing.

2. Learn About the Golden Ratio

Once you’ve gotten comfortable with the rule of thirds, you can learn about another photography composition approach called the golden ratio. Used in art composition for centuries, the golden ratio appears in famous works, such as the Mona Lisa and the Birth of Venus. The golden ratio also appears in nature—in everything from seashells to pine cones.

To apply the golden ratio in photography composition, you can use a grid—but the proportions are different than what you use in the rule of thirds. The intersecting lines appear much closer to the frame’s center. You can also visualize a small square in the corner of one frame, then visualize an invisible diagonal line passing through the corners of the square. Then, visualize a curve spiraling out from the opposite corner of the square and filling your frame.

It can be difficult to perfect this photography composition technique at first—but you can still make use of it in your pictures. You can apply an overlay called “Golden Spiral” in Lightroom and use it as a guide to crop any photo.

3. Frame Your Focal Point

Framing is another essential concept in photography composition. With framing, you are intentionally trying to draw the viewer’s eye into the image. When shooting indoors, you can use elements like a door or window and place your subject matter within it. Outdoors, you can look for natural elements—like branches or blossoms—or architectural ones, such as tunnels or fences.

When you place your focal point within a frame, you tell your viewers exactly where you want them to focus. Also, you can use framing to tell a story or provide context for the image. Often, your frame will be in the foreground with your subject behind it. However, you can place your subject in front of a frame element—such as a closed door—to create a framing photography effect.

4. Choose the Right Viewpoint for Your Photos

Before you take a photo, consider where you want to position yourself for the shoot. You do not always need to shoot from eye level. When you change your viewpoint, you shift the foreground or background of your composition.

For example, if you’re taking a picture of a person, try kneeling or positioning the camera above your subject. Move to one side—and then the other. Move closer and far away. Each time you move, you adjust your viewpoint and create a different composition. Changing viewpoints also works well for pet photography—especially if you are taking pictures of an agile and active furry companion.

Even subtle changes in viewpoint can have dramatic effects. You’re sure to find that viewpoint is one of the easiest and most versatile photography composition techniques to master.

5. Consider Leading Lines in Your Images

Leading lines is another essential photography composition technique to learn. With this approach, you use lines to lead your viewer’s eyes to the focal point of your composition. You can use diagonal lines, vertical lines, horizontal lines, or even zigzags and curves to focus attention on your subject and create a good composition.

If you look around, you will find leading lines everywhere. One of the most obvious types of leading lines is a roadway. You can also use bridges, doorways, or fence posts as leading lines. In nature, look for rocks, rivers, tall grasses, or lines of trees. In fact, you can use anything placed in a row as a leading line. For example, consider using a row of lampposts or buildings as a leading line for one of your photo compositions. This idea works especially well for street photography composition.

6. Enhance Depth in Your Photos

A photograph is a two-dimensional image, but the best photographers know how to give photos a three-dimensional feel. You can achieve this look by learning photography techniques to add depth to your photos.

Many inexperienced photographers aim to fill up the frame with their main subject. As you gain experience, however, you can learn how to add interest in the foreground, middle ground, and background to create depth for a more interesting composition.

One thing you can do is deliberately overlap one part of your image with another. This causes viewers to identify layers in your composition naturally. Layering photography composition can be a very powerful technique.

Another simple approach to produce depth is shooting in portrait. Often, this produces an image where items near the bottom of the composition appear nearer while elements at the top appear far away.

Adjusting your camera’s aperture can also help you create a sense of depth in your photos. When you use a large aperture, you can make elements in the foreground appear very clear and sharp, while the background becomes blurry. In photography, this is known as a shallow depth of field.

You can also use a wide-angle lens to create depth in your composition. Shooting from a wider angle adds perspective to your scene. If you don’t have a wide-angle lens, zooming out can help you achieve this effect.

Also, by mastering techniques like leading lines, framing, and changing viewpoint you can add depth to your photos.

7. Look for Symmetry

You can find examples of symmetry everywhere—both in manmade environments and in nature. When you use symmetry in your photography composition, you can create images that evoke a sense of harmony and balance. These can be very pleasing to the eye.

Although symmetry technically means something folded in half would be exactly the same on both sides, that is not true in photography. Instead, you’ll find that two halves of a symmetrical image have the same weight.

Consider a photo of a person walking through a narrow alleyway. The buildings on the sides of the image may be different colors or textures, but they create balance in the image. A classic photo of a newly-married couple can produce the same effect—a sense of balance without both sides of the photo being mirror images.

8. Make Sure the Background Suits Your Main Subject

Even the best shot of a subject can be hampered by an ineffective background. In poorly composed photos, you’ll often note that the main subject blurs into the background. This occurs when the photographer has not taken time to create a distinct foreground and background when setting up the shot.

This is easy enough to remedy when taking photos. Simply move your subject in front of a neutral or less busy background before composing your image. Also, mastering essential photography composition practices—like depth and framing—can help you make sure the background of your photo doesn’t detract from your main subject.

You should also learn about negative space—an essential idea in composition for photography. Negative space is the area that surrounds the main subject of your photo. Often, it is empty space such as wide-open sky or a wall. By contrast, primary space is the main subject. Aim to have negative space take up more of the photo than positive space to create a quiet image that draws your viewer’s eye to the subject matter.

Learn Photography Composition Essentials and Take Great Pictures

Many people who are new to photography ask about essential photography composition rules they should know to improve their images. The truth is, while you can master key elements of composition in photography, you will learn that every image is unique. There is no one way to take a great picture.

Still, learning photography composition basics is important for every beginner photographer. You can find a photography composition book at the library or take an online photography composition tutorial. However, one of the best ways to learn about photography composition is to look at photography composition examples you find beautiful and aim to understand what makes them appealing.

You’ll likely find that certain techniques of composition in photography appear in your favorite images. In time, you’ll notice when a photographer has used the rule of thirds or golden ratio to place key subjects in a photo. You’ll recognize when an image uses framing or leading lines to guide your eyes to a focal point. And you’ll understand the power of creating depth, using unexpected viewpoints, and exploring symmetry.

You can also experiment with photography composition on your own. And you don’t need an expensive camera to learn about different types of composition in photography. You can start thinking more intentionally about photography composition and apply what you know without buying any new equipment.

If you ask experienced photographers about rules of composition in photography, many will tell you that there are no rules! Instead, once you master essential photography composition practices, you can apply the rules—or learn how to break them. Whether you defy composition rules or follow them, you’ll learn that good photography and composition go hand in hand.


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