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Photographic Composition

Photography Basics > Photographic Composition

Composition is what seperates generic point-and-shoot photography from actual planned and thought out photography. Without knowing how to properly compose a picture, you may have a $3,000 camera, but will still be taking bland pictures. A camera is a tool, and no matter how simple or complex a tool is, the effectiveness of this tool relies on the operator. For an example, let's use one of the simplest tools, a hammer. This hammer has the full ability to drive a nail perfectly straight without bending it or smashing your fingers in the process, but if you don't know what you're doing, you can end up with a disfigured nail and a disfigured thumb to boot. That nice shiny camera may be excellent at reproducing your photograph on a digital or film medium, but you may not be using the camera properly, or 'hitting the nail on the head' so to speak.

The primary things to think about when composing a photograph are your subject, your surroundings, and your positioning. Before taking a picture, ask yourself, 'What do I want to accomplish with this photograph?'. Create a goal or objective, plan it out, then make that plan work. There are two basic ways to do this; position your subjects, or position yourself.

A good way to teach yourself composition is to read up on the subject, then study others photographs, asking yourself questions such as 'What was the subject in this picture?', 'Did the photographer do a good job of making the subject the primary and immediate point of interest?', 'If not, what could have been done to change that?', 'Is the background visually pleasing, are there any distractions?'. Of course there are tens of questions which you could ask, and these are just a select few, but reding this article will give you an idea of what to look for.

One good technique to get a feeling of what a scene would look like as an actual photograph is to make a frame out of your hands and view the scene through this frame. This effectively gives you a sense of border, and also blocks out items which may be otherwise distracting you from the actual scene at hand. Below is an example of this.

hand frame
Viewing potential photographs through a 'hand frame' can give you a good feel for the end result.


All good pictures start with a subject. Before taking a picture, decide what you want the primary subject or point of interest to be. Generally, the picture should be taken in a way that makes the subject the first thing which is seen in the photograph. Your subject should be the primary point of focus and should be crisp and clear. Ideally, there should be nothing in the photograph that draws more attention than the subject itself. If, for example, you were to photograph a beach scene with a lighthouse as your subject, and a viewer is more drawn to a sandcastle on the beach, you've done a poor job of making your subject clear. Obviously, there can be, and many times are, multiple subjects in one photograph. In this case, the objective is to obtain harmony and balance between all subjects. Do you want them both to be equally attractive, do you want one to pop while the others are slightly more subtle? These are all questions which you must address, and plan accordingly. When choosing a subject, don't look at the photograph as the photographer, look at it as another photographer critiquing your work.


Frames can be basically any item that encloses or surrounds your subject. This could be branches of nearby trees or even a solid frame such as a cut-out in a wall. Take note of your surroundings, and keep an eye out for objects that would make for an image-enhancing 'frame'. Take shape, texture, and color into consideration, frames which contrast sharply with the subject of your picture can make for beautiful photographs. Use frames with care, as misuse can create cluttered or visually unappealing pictures.

Photographic Framing
A good example of framing, this picture would be rather bland without the frame. With it, however, it is a stunning picture. Photo by mnadi.


Obtaining the right balance between your subject and other aspects of the picture is extremely important. You don't want other parts of the photograph distracting from your subject. Things that you should pay attention to are color, contrast, size, and symmetry. Generally speaking, asymmetrical photographs are more appealing than symmetrical photographs. Placing your subject off-center usually has more of an impact and is more pleasing to the eye than having your subject smack dab in the middle, which brings me to the Rule of Thirds

Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is a photographic composition technique that most if not all advanced photographers employ quite a bit. The basis of this rule is that a photograph is divided into 9 equal sized sections, with 2 lines vertically and 2 lines horizontally. The four intersections of these lines are a good guidepoint for where your subject should be centered. These points (and lines also) also work as guides for other aspects of the photograph, for example, a horizon may look better when lined up with one of the lines. Also, when photographing people, a good use of the rule of thirds in many circumstances would be to line a person's body up with a vertical line, and line their eyes up with a horizontal line. This is likely one of the most important compositional techniques, as many photographers feel that a centered subject is not as interesting (in most situations). It is, however, recommended that you treat this 'rule' as more of a guideline though, as there are many circumstances where a more appealing photograph can be produced without the use of this rule. The rule of thirds goes all the way back to 1845, where it originated as a rule for composing scenic artwork.

Rule of Thirds
A good example of employing the use of the Rule of Thirds in a landscape photo.

Color and Contrast

A subject which is light will have much more impact when placed against a dark background, but a dark subject against a light background may be distracting. The only way to get a feel for colors and contrast is to experience it first-hand, as there are so many different situations which have different applications of this.


A photo may be able to improved many measures by just taking a few steps forward or backward, or to one side, or by moving up or down. If you have good accessibility to the location, you may want to consider getting the shot from a completely different angle. In still life shots, positioning the subject also can work wonders. In pictures in which a subject is moving, it is generally more pleasing to have a subject appear to be moving into the scene instead of moving out of it.


Lines and edges of all types can be worked into a photograph to increase the effect. Diagonal lines are beautiful and visually pleasing and can have a large impact on your photograph. Diagonals are also generally considered more visually pleasing than horizontals. Repeating lines and parallel lines can also have beautiful effects. Lines which are leading to an object are generally more appealing if you get that object in the shot. For example, if you are photographing a field enclosed by a wooden fence with horizontal lines, you may want to attempt to get one or more of the fence posts that the lines lead to in the shot.

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