10 tools to improve composition in your photography.

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SmugMugFollowingSep 9, 2020 · 5 min read

Have you ever taken a photo, certain this one will be a masterpiece, only to find your final shot doesn’t convey the power, emotion, or story you hoped it would? There are lots of factors that contribute to a photo’s impact, but one of the biggest is photo composition.
What is photo composition?
Composition in photography is defined as the visual arrangement of elements in your photo. Believe it or not, there are better and worse ways to compose a photograph based on how we see and interpret color, light, and shape.
Let’s consider your photo from the introduction: Each element to create your masterpiece may be in the frame but, for some reason, the finished photo doesn’t have the impact you wanted it to. It could be that certain objects within the frame are distracting your eye from the main subject. Or maybe a misplaced line is leading your eye away from the focal point of your photo. Perhaps a particularly dark or bright feature in your photo is overwhelming the rest of your image.

Photo composition takes all these factors into account. By learning a few simple rules of composition, you can make sure your next shot is a masterpiece.

Before we get to the tools, though, let’s clear up one point of common confusion: photo composition versus composite photography. Composite photography is taking multiple images and layering them into one. Photo composition is how you capture or arrange elements within a single shot. Composition plays a big role in composite photography, too, but we don’t want to get too in the weeds here. On to the tools!

Composition in photography is defined as the visual arrangement of elements in your photo. Believe it or not, there are better and worse ways to compose a photograph based on how we see and interpret color, light, and shape.

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10 tools for better photography composition.

  • The rule of thirds: How you line up your subject in the frame plays a huge role in how visually interesting your photo is. One of the most common rules in composition is known as the rule of thirds. Imagine a grid that divides your photo into nine equal sections. Using the rule of thirds, your focal point should be placed around one of the four spots where these lines intersect, or along one of the horizontal or vertical lines. This helps you establish a balanced image that’s pleasing to the eye. Many cameras have the ability to display a grid while shooting, which should help you keep the rule of thirds in mind.
  • Negative space: Negative space is the space in your photo that isn’t occupied by your subject. Depending on what you’re shooting, you may want to fill the frame and leave as little negative space as possible (keeping the rule of thirds in mind!), or use lots of negative space to your advantage to simplify your photo and focus on your subject. Pay attention to colors and brightness with this technique: contrasting colors and light levels will emphasize your subject far better than similar tones.
  • Frames: While the edges of your photo naturally frame your subject, you can add some extra impact by including more structure and visual interest in your framing. For example, when photographing architecture, look for pillars, archways, posts, or other elements that you can use to frame your subject. When taking landscape or wildlife photos, trees, branches, and other plants can serve the same purpose, putting your viewer into the shot and adding an element of mystery or exploration.
  • Lines: Lines in photo composition are used to guide the eye of your viewer, drawing the eye to a focal point. Lines can also contribute to the feeling your image evokes. Horizontal lines can convey stability, like the horizon in a landscape. Diagonal lines often convey motion or distance, especially when they converge (think of a road going off to the horizon). Vertical lines are excellent for imbuing your image with height, structure, and grandeur (trees, architecture, etc.). When shooting, note the relation of your frame and your lines, and try to be intentional about the way you use these lines to your advantage. Does that powerline lead the eye away from your subject? Is that road cutting across your frame where it shouldn’t be? Maybe find another vantage point to eliminate unwanted lines.
  • Focus: This one is simple: It’s important not to have too much distraction from your main subject. While your photo may have more than one focal point (or a broad focal range), if there’s too much going on the viewer may feel lost. Make sure your focal point is clear and uncluttered.
  • Juxtaposition: This composition technique uses two elements that contrast each other, often to draw a comparison between the two. Sharp and soft, happy and sad, tall and short, light and dark, near and far — the options are endless and can make for a much more interesting photo than either subject on its own.
  • Symmetry: There are times when the rule of thirds isn’t your best option. When the subject has exciting details that are symmetrical, you can place your subject in the center of your frame to excellent effect. For example, an ornate staircase, a path through the woods, or a reflection on a still body of water can make a great subject if you want to play around with symmetry.
  • The rule of space: When your subject is traveling or facing a certain direction, give it some room to breathe! The rule of space refers to the amount of space in your frame given to the direction that your subject is traveling or facing. For example, if you’re photographing a car driving from left to right, you may want to have more space on the right side of your photo than the left to keep your image from feeling cut off.
  • Patterns: Repeating or otherwise visually appealing patterns can make for a beautiful photo. Pay attention to the lines, symmetry, and directions when composing your photo and make sure the pattern highlights or points to your subject.
  • Odd numbers: When you’re composing a photo, it’s more visually appealing to have an odd number of elements than an even number. The theory behind this is with an even number of elements, the viewer has trouble choosing what to focus on. This same rule is often used in decorating.

While all these tools may seem daunting if you’re first starting out, once you begin to practice them they’ll start to become second nature. Keep these in mind when shooting, and watch your photography skills grow — then experiment! Once you have a handle on photo composition, intentionally breaking a rule or two can give your photos even more impact.

What do you do to improve the composition of your photos? Leave a comment below or share with us on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

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