Top 10 Composition Tips

One of the first qualities of a photo that catches and captures a viewer’s eye is the composition.

Great composition is something that immediately separates the amateurs from the pros and enthusiasts. How you place various objects in the photographic frame determines the composition and works tremendously toward creating a feeling greater than what the object would convey in the real world.

Composition is one of the most important elements of the craft of photography, and it is a skill that can be taught and honed through extensive exercise and persistent practice.


Focus the Viewer’s Attention

Composition tips-Beautiful girl outdoors

To raise the quality of your photos you must make sure that the main subject is of heightened interest and is effectively positioned in the frame to draw the viewer’s eye exactly to where you want it, and emphasize that subject.

This can be done in a variety of creative, artistic and symbolic ways. Size, color, shape and how the object contrasts with the rest of the elements in the image (foreground, middle ground and background) are ways to isolate and direct attention to the subject.


Balance, Layout, Arrangement

Composition tips-Beautiful Russian girls outdoors

The layout of your images influences how visually effective or stimulating your photos will be.

When composing your photo, seek a balance in the color, the lighting, and object placement within the frame’s constricting rectangle. When we talk about “balance” in a photograph, we mean a composition that has arranged the visual elements in such a way as to be pleasing to the eye.

We’ve all seen group photos (of friends and family) in which the subjects are stuck in the center of the frame with no apparent design other than to fit everyone in the frame, and without regard to effectively filling the frame either. This typical shot lacks interesting composition in the layout, and there’s probably way too much empty space above their heads as well.

You seek to achieve interesting composition and perspective by being creative with where and how you physically position the camera, such that the composition has a unique perspective, or view of the world. For example, if you put the camera at the level of the floor when your pet or baby approaches the camera, that photo has a much more interesting composition and perspective than if the camera were held at full height while looking down at the pet or baby.

Like many art concepts, perspective and composition is either instinctual, or it can be developed through practice and study.


Use Contrast

Composition tips-Sunset at eiffel tower and photographer

Contrast — in lighting — is another way to add dimension to an image. Lighting contrast is the difference between the lightest light and the darkest dark in a photograph.

Manipulating this element, works wonders to extend the depth, the three-dimensional quality of a photograph – one of the great feats and benchmarks for your photographs. You can also use contrast in shape & size to affect the intricacy of your photos; contrasting geometry inherently creates that dramatic tension that we were talking about earlier. You feel like there is more to “the story.”

The photo of the Eiffel Tower above employs contrast in lighting and size to increase the effectiveness of this photo. The man in silhouette appears to be nearly as tall as the Eiffel Tower, and the complex pattern of the Eiffel Tower (more pronounced in silhouette) seems to be etched into the pulsating red sunset sky. Imagine how lackluster this image would be if it was taken at noon.


Frame within a Frame

Composition tips-Unusual sight of Taj Mahal

This is an artistic concept that photographers lifted from painters, which one uses a frame (like a door, a window, a mirror, an archway) within the overall frame to further isolate an object/subject.

The key to using a frame within a frame is to make sure that the frame is distinct in shape and lines, and is in sharp focus. Your viewer’s attention will immediately be taken to exactly what you want them to see by using this technique.


Blur the Background

Composition tips-Portrait of Brother and Sister

A photograph can have a blurry foreground or background, so this special optical property can enhance the composition of your photos by further isolating the main subject from everything else around it.

You can blur the background or foreground by having command over the depth of field, which is controlled by the lens’ aperture, focal length and object’s distance from the lens.

Mastering this skill is critical for more interesting images. The wider apertures (f/1.4 to f/2.8) effectively reduce DOF, as do longer focal length lenses.


Pay Attention to Details

Composition tips-Portrait of Mother and Daughter

As with everything else in life, the details need to be properly addressed and emphasized in photography.

Every detail can do something different to your photograph or create a new meaning. A photo of a flower is much different when you can see the way the morning dew plays against the texture of the flower’s petals. When doing a portrait, use lighting to bring out the heavy laugh lines and crow’s feet on a person’s face. Character in a face makes an interesting portrait.

If you think about it, it is the details of objects and people that delve beneath the surface and tell more of a story, more about that singular moment in time.


The Rule of Thirds

Composition tips-The Rule of Thirds

This is another illustration/painting technique that photographers must master (so it can then be broken).

The Rule of Thirds divides the canvas/film frame with three vertical lines and three horizontal lines. The four intersecting vertices are the key points to remember, as studies have demonstrated that the human eye goes to those points first when looking at a framed object like a painting, sketch, or photograph. Therefore, when you are composing the photograph, placing the key elements at one of those four points enhances the dynamics of your photo.

Take a look at the photo above, and imagine how much less interesting it would be if the little girl was placed smack dab in the middle of the photo. The background would seem like an afterthought, not a really part of the composition as it is now (the mischief on the little girl’s face is amplified by the slight understanding of the background… a carnival perhaps?).


Crop and Clip!

Composition tips-Group of five trendy young people standing in a city square

One of the beauties of digital photography is the relative ease with which you can do post-processing, something formerly reserved for the darkroom.

With Photoshop you can crop an image for better aesthetic results. Cropping is the process of re-framing a photograph to enhance the composition. We’ve all seen (or perhaps taken) photos where there are distracting elements at the edges of frame, or perhaps intruding on the secondary areas of the main subject. You can crop the photo to eliminate these unwanted elements.

In this photo, you can see that the original had too much headroom and another photographer was standing in the photo!

By cropping the frame, one zeros in on the main subject (the family). Eliminate the photographer from the photo, but still keep recognizable elements in view to inform the viewer as where the photo was taken.


Differences in Perspective

Perspective is how the photographer views the objects in the camera frame via the placement of the camera.

For example, the same subject will have different perspectives when photographed at eye level, from above or from ground level. By varying the perspective you change the placement of the horizon line and you influence your audience’s perception of the scene.

For example, if you placed the camera on the ground level to take a full-body photo of someone, and angled the camera up to fill the frame with your subject, he or she will appear much more menacing, powerful and larger than if the camera was held at eye-level.

Another way to look at differeing perspective is to utilize camera positions that are atypical to what the human eye sees. Bird’s eye views or extremly high angles change the dynamics of your composition.


Opt for Simplicity

The concept of less is more lends itself effectively to just about everything, and photography is no exception.

Overly complicated or complex photographic composition has the same problem as compound complicated sentences in writing, which make it difficult for the audience to understand and appreciate the idea that is trying to be conveyed.

Simple in this context doesn’t mean simplistic, but rather lacking unnecessary elements that confuse or are redundant. In photography creating uncluttered, but distinct compositions simplify yet enhance the delivery of the idea. The mind’s eye of the viewer can do all the heavy lifting.

Attila Kun

Attila is the founder and editor-in-chief of Exposure Guide. He is an avid photographer, graphic designer, bedroom DJ and devoted Mac addict. Attila got his first DSLR camera, a Canon 10D, back in 2003 and he has been hooked on photography ever since.