Tips for better photo composition

by Henry B Posted on September 06, 2010

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What is photo composition? Simply, it’s the things in the photo. Yet, a more complex question is “what is good photo composition?” I cannot really answer this because it’s highly subjective. However, the fact is that every part of the photo will contribute, either positively or negatively, to the way the photo affects the viewer.

Here are four basic techniques which I have found to be easy to use and which do a lot to improve photo composition. Please keep in mind that the techniques I give are suggestions and not rules. This is because breaking the “rules” can be very effective in some situations.

1) Frame The Subject
The above photo is of a very cooperative Song Sparrow because it was framed beautifully by the brush it was in. Thus, my first suggestion is to “frame” the subject of the picture. This means to use the existing elements, usually in the foreground, to lead the eye toward the subject of the photo. Trees are very useful for doing this. However, mountains, clouds, building or anything else can work. The framing elements are usually most effective if they are out of focus and underexposed. The following example uses a tree branches and its shadow for the framing:

Please notice that, in addition to framing the photo, the tree branch breaks up the featureless blue sky.

While framing with scene elements is the most common method, lighting and exposure can also help to frame the subject as with this sunset photo:

2) Isolate
My next tip is to “isolate” the subject. This is very useful with single objects. Also, lighting can be very effective in doing this especially in high contrast scenes as shown it the following example:

3) A Place To Stand
Give the viewer a place to stand if it makes sense. That is, give the viewer a place on dry land rather than require them to stand in water or space.  Here’s a photo of a view from above the Golden Gate Bridge:

Notice how the edge of the cliff gives you a place to stand in viewing this photo. Now, contrast this with the following photo of a boat on San Francisco Bay:

Although there is no place to stand in this picture, it’s not really needed because the viewer could be on land or in another boat. It’s my experience that photos looking down benefit most from having a place in the photo for the viewer to stand.

4) Symmetry
The final rule is to “use the symmetry” to make the photo more pleasing to view. This means to have balance in the photo, which can be done using the natural lines of the subject to force the eye to the center. This is especially true of man made structures because they are usually symmetrical. Thus, where possible, change the picture angle to take advantage of it. Here’s a photo of a bridge superstructure taken through the windshield of the car while crossing the bridge:

Also, remember that reflections are very good at increasing symmetry. Here’s a mountain example:

As a final example, here a photo of some horses which were as curious of me as I was of them. The resulting photo is symmetry in motion:

Using these techniques is sometimes very simple – as easy as shifting your picture taking position by a few inches. The key is to control the scene as much as possible to give you the opportunity to obtain the photo you desire.

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  1. Earl J Says:

    Great photography and filled with good information. Thanks for all the work you put into this.

  2. BarbaraJ Says:

    Henry, thank you for such great information in this article. As I read and review each photo it brings back the times I have taken a simular photo situation and how I could make it more appealing to the eye! Thank you for sharing. BarbaraJ

  3. Joey Says:

    Henry, I really liked this article as I have always heard of Photo Composition but never really knew what it was or how to apply it to my photos I take. Its always helpful to have a picture to look at and to see what exactly you are try to say. Thank you for sharing these tips!

  4. AnnAbbott Says:

    Great food for thought! Love the framing the subject with surrounding details..g.reat! I also love the mind set of being the viewer and standing to view your subject. Both of these rules are simple and effective…

  5. shannonr Says:

    i learned alot from reading this article, thanks for the tips.

  6. TonetteB Says:

    Henry,
    Excellent tips and beautiful photos! Your article was so helpful! Thanks for sharing! :)

more about Henry B

I first became interested in photography in 1969 when I purchased my first 35 mm SLR. I switched to digital photography in 1999 and bought my first DSLR in 2003. I retired in 2004 which means I can spend more time doing what I like. I got involved with photo books because they allowed much more than merely organizing photos. Additionally, stories can be created or documented much more clearly with a combination of photos and text.

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