What You Need to Know about Composition to Take Photos Like a Pro

The composition is a polarizing topic in photography. On the one hand, delving too much into the rules can lead photographers to shoot generic photos without a unique style and vision. On the other, missing out on photography composition techniques and principles will result in your pictures coming across as amateur.

In this post, we’ll dig deeper into the aspects of composition, its advantages for photographers, and photography composition basics that will instantly improve your pictures without getting in the way of your creative vision.

How Composition Affects Photo Aesthetics

The composition is essentially the art of balancing the elements of an image’s frame. You want to ensure there aren’t too few things in the picture — otherwise, a viewer will experience a void looking at the shot. A patchwork of elements can be distracting as well, making it harder to focus on the central element of the image.

How can following the basic composition elements in photography improve the quality of any shot? Here’s how composition affects the look and feel of the frame.

  • Helps guide the viewer through the frame. Through the principles of composition in photography, a photographer controls the order in which the audience notices the elements of the shot and manipulates a viewer’s attention. Placing the most important object in the center of the frame or using leading lines to guide a person’s eye to the eye-stopper are both extremely effective composition tricks.
  • Improves the quality of visual storytelling. Although pictures are static by nature, composition helps tell continuous stories in a single shot. By taking action shots or strategically using the background, a photographer helps viewers understand what was happening to the object in the frame before the photo was taken, or what is likely to occur after.
  • Helps find your style. Changing the point of view alone gives the photographer a new perspective on a commonly-shot object. By trying out composition hacks, you can show familiar objects or actions from a different angle to tell a different message than most of your peers do.
  • Adds an eye-stopper to the picture. As an average human is bombarded with information on a daily basis, our eyes became selective about ignoring particular objects and paying attention to others. That’s why photographers use various types of photography composition. Controlling the depth of field, using contrast and color changes, are ways to draw attention to the part of the image that would, at first glance, seem insignificant.

If you want to ensure a viewer is captivated by the main object in the photo, eliminate all the distractions from the frame, and stand out creatively, consider getting to know the basic photo composition rules.

Regardless of whether you’re shooting on a high-quality camera or a mobile phone, the following tips will drastically improve the impression your shots leave the audience with.

1. Understand the rule of thirds

The rule of thirds consists of breaking the frame into a grid with nine even parts. To make a shot balanced and aesthetically pleasing, photographers usually position the main element slightly off-center.

Here are the best practices in using the rule of thirds:

  • Place significant objects at the grid intersection;
  • Position people closer to one side of the shot;
  • If there’s a single important element in the frame, placing it closer to the center is a wise stylistic choice;
  • Align the horizon border with the horizontal gridlines;
  • Don’t use the rule of thirds for basic headshot photography.

2. Don’t cut off body parts

Cutting out body parts at the joints creates an unnatural, awkward flair to the shot. If you need to remove a piece from the image, try zooming in on a person’s thigh, hip, or chest level.

Cutting off a part of the hair is also a no-go for photographers — this way, you’re likely to give a person you shoot an extremely poor haircut, not to mention the lack of ‘breathing space’ in the frame.

Although there are no set-in-stone composition rules in photography, as a standard, the subject of the frame should never touch the edges.

3. Use leading lines

A leading line paves the way through the picture for the viewer. Most lines start from the bottom of the frame and take the direction to the focal point of the shot. Photographers usually don’t have to create leading lines on their own — there are plenty of those in any scene. You can use objects like railways, roads, and telephone lines as a trail for the audience.

Other ideas for leading lines are:

  • Rivers
  • Bridges
  • Boardwalks
  • Cliffs and rocks
  • Sun rays
  • Fences
  • Tall grass

Leading lines help create a feeling of depth and motion in the image, adding more detail and visual appeal to the frame.

4. Choose the right point of focus

Not knowing where to focus is a pain point in portrait photography — even more so for landscape shots. If you’re shooting distant objects like the horizon, there is no single point of focus.

However, it doesn’t mean you should shoot with no focus whatsoever. As a rule of thumb, landscape photographers focus on the second-third of the frame. This way, everything behind the point of focus will be sharp as well — a concept, known as hyperfocal distance.

Portraits are more straightforward this way. Humans are naturally drawn to the eyes of others — as should your cameras. When shooting a group, focus on the person that is closest to the camera.

5. Make sure the background doesn’t clutter the image

Unless you fully prepare the background beforehand, there’s always a risk something in the back of the frame will reduce the picture’s visual appeal and distract the viewer. In advanced composition photography, there are more than a few tips that help get rid of cluttered backgrounds. Here are a few go-to practices:

  • Move the subject of the picture closer to the camera. This way, the background will blur and no longer distract the audience.
  • Reduce your aperture. Doing so will cause the sharpness in the background to decrease, respectively. Choose the widest aperture of the lens to blur the back of the shot to the fullest extent.
  • Change the angle. Taking a bird-eye shot of the subject draws a viewer’s attention away from the background and adds a fresh perspective to the shot.

6. Look for image patterns

Looking for repeated elements is another way to add structure to the shot and increase the visual appeal of the picture. In an urban environment, finding patterns is a breeze — think about house windows or street tiles — even something simple as a tray of eggs shot from a bird-eye angle offers an aesthetically pleasing pattern of its own.

To learn how to divide a picture into patterns, follow these tips:

  • Shoot straight up to discover unique patterns ceilings form;
  • Shoot a landscape from afar to see a big-picture pattern it creates;
  • Fill the frame with repeating objects to create a pattern on your own;
  • Break the pattern by adding an eye-stopper to it;
  • Combine patterns.

7. Create image depth

Speaking of depth, photographers usually refer to a three-dimensional feeling a picture creates. Thanks to image depth, a viewer feels immersed in the frame and is invited to explore it.

There are a handful of tips for improving the depth of your shots — here are the must-haves to follow:

  • Add a captivating foreground element to lead the viewer into the background, to the main point of the picture;
  • Shoot in portrait mode. A vertical view is naturally deeper and more realistic than a horizontal one;
  • Shoot at a crouching level. This way, objects look more massive and have more weight.
  • Use overlapping objects to create layers in the frame, making the shot three-dimensional.

8. Balance elements

When shooting, you want to ensure all the elements of the frame equally complement each other, creating balance within the frame. Colors, shapes, and shadows are all the building blocks that contribute to creating a natural feeling of a balance in the picture.

To make sure you have the gist of balancing, take a look at a short guideline:

  • Use texture to soften the background. In food photography, manipulating the textures is crucial when you learn photography composition — this way, you’ll present a given dish in its best light.
  • Add visual weight to the frame by using an object of a different color than the rest of the image. That element shouldn’t be the focus of the frame — instead, it has to attract attention to the main point of the picture.
  • Take advantage of the relationship between elements.
  • Use symmetry to balance the shot.

9. Use cropping to focus on details

When an image has too much visual information, a viewer might get lost or distracted. Cropping is an excellent way to attract attention to the main subject of the shot. Changing the placement of elements through cropping helps add more drama to the image as well, creating the feeling of bleeding out of the frame.

10. Add the ‘frame within the frame’

Finding a shape that would ‘hold’ the image and attract attention to it is one of the most effective composition techniques in photography. Using a ‘frame within a frame’ adds depth to the video.

If there are more than a few objects of equal height, they would get smaller closer to the center of the frame, creating a three-dimensional feeling and paving a clear path for the viewer. Windows and doors are the most common ways to create a frame within a frame.

11. Use triangular and diagonal shapes

Diagonal lines add motion to any picture, helping create lively, dynamic shots. There’s a strong sense of uncertainty and potential energy attached to diagonal compositions.

There are several ways to benefit from diagonal lines in photography — such as the following:

  • Dutch angle, created by tilting the camera, help seamlessly connect the edges of the frame;
  • Shoot trees and buildings to practice placing them diagonally and having better control of the frame;
  • Look for triangle objects — they naturally form diagonal lines.

12. Use the rule of odds

The rule of odds encourages photographers to use an odd number of elements within the frame. Out of all odd numbers, three is the most appealing.

Using five or seven objects is still a good way to compose pictures, attracting a viewer’s attention to all elements of the shot. However, if you put more than nine things in a frame, the viewers’ brain will perceive them as a group, without focusing on a number.

If you are wondering how to arrange an odd number of elements, here are a few helpful ideas:

  • Place the elements in a line;
  • Form a triangular shape;
  • Put one object on top of the other to break the even number.

Depending on the type of shots, photographers might withhold from using the rule of odds — in couples photography, for instance.

13. Leave negative space

Unlike positive space, the part of the frame you place the subject in, negative space is an empty area of the frame that creates a ‘breathing room’. Negative space is crucial for photography — it gives your work a sense of completion, frames the subject, and offers an area for a viewer’s eye to rest.

Negative space is most often applied in street photography, especially when it comes to shooting minimalistic urban landscapes.

14. Fill the frame fully

Using close-ups and focusing on the subject’s face rather than the surroundings is a way to capture raw emotion and remove any unnecessary distraction. Here’s how filling the frame improves different types of shots:

  • Shooting people helps emphasize the subject’s face and emotions;
  • Shooting things creates a feeling of visual richness and dynamic;
  • Shooting wildlife allows the viewer to experience the stillness of watching a dynamic animal from a closer angle.

15. Change your stance

Holding the camera on a different angle or level is a way to create a unique, unforgettable shot. Make sure you try different positions when shooting — this way, you will not miss out on a rewarding angle.

To give you a better understanding of different ways to hold the camera, here’s a brief rundown on angles and positions:

  • Eye-level — a normal shooting stance;
  • High position — holding the camera above the eye level;
  • Low angle — holding the camera so that it faces upwards.

Conclusion

Composition gives photographers tools for effective creative expression. After learning and using basic photography composition tips, you will see new opportunities and ways to tweak every shot. While many professionals see composition as a box that limits creativity, it is, on the contrary, a way to drive creative value from the most basic setup.

To most photographers, composition rules don’t come naturally. That’s why photographers use software like Phototheca to improve the composition of pictures and ensure they follow the rule of thirds. Tools like cropping and straightening images can tweak and improve shots tremendously.

Take your time when playing around with composition and enjoy the learning curve to make your shoots as rewarding as possible!

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