Basic Composition Techniques for Better Photos

There are a lot of guides about how to make better photos. For the most part, they cover the same ground. While these tips are valid, it’s important to consider why they work. Knowing the words for all of these techniques is one thing, but understanding each is quite another. Why use the rule of thirds? When is symmetry useful? How can you control your viewpoint? Without understanding, we’re no better than Jeremy Clarkson hoping a hammer will solve all his problems.

This list of pointers is not exhaustive, and it’s also not our first foray into discussing technique and composition. We’ve talked about how to emphasize your subject, tips for shooting black-and-white, how to use macro filters, and more.

Today, let’s look at some of the more common composition tips as well as a couple that aren’t as often discussed, in a little more detail.


Rule of Thirds

The classic tip that everyone seems to know, rule of thirds is fundamentally simple; by placing your subject strategically in the frame, you can create images that are more natural for the viewer to interact with than if you’d centered the subject an equal distance from all sides. With central subjects, the viewer’s eye tends to fixate on the static subject, and it becomes harder for the viewer to move through the rest of the image.

By breaking the frame into thirds, both vertically and horizontally, and placing our subject on the lines that demarcate the thirds and their intersections, we can make more dynamic and interesting use of the rest of the frame where the subject isn’t.

For film shooters, this can be slightly challenging at first, as not all film cameras have compositional aids built-in. While some cameras offer interchangeable focusing screens with rule-of-thirds grids, this is not an option for all cameras. But there is a workaround. Our smart phone can be a valuable tool for practicing this compositional element, as most include rule-of-thirds guidelines. When you’re out shooting with your film camera, the odds are that your phone is still in your pocket. Before committing to a thirds-based photograph and possibly wasting an exposure, use the guidelines in your phone to make a test shot. Once you get comfortable visualizing this on your own you can stow the phone and just keep shooting.


Use Symmetry

What better than to follow the rule of thirds than a rule which is often incompatible with the rule of thirds. Symmetrical compositions are precisely what they sound like; images which match from side to side or from top to bottom.

In some ways, symmetry can be a more versatile tool than the rule of thirds, as it can be the basis for both the subject and composition, a grounding element for your main subject, or a secondary framing element. To get going with symmetry, try thinking of reflections in windows and mirrors, lakes and puddles, and see how these might help you create symmetrical compositions.


Use Leading Lines

The previous two tips are useful for composing your shot and positioning your subject in the frame. Leading lines are somewhat different, as they’re useful for directing the viewer through the image, similar to the way stripes or patterns on clothing direct the eye around the wearer.

Like symmetry, leading lines are versatile and can be both an aid to your subject or can comprise the subject on their own. Using leading lines as an aid to your subject is the simpler of the two. Using strong, linear elements can help to give direction to your subject if the subject is moving, or direct the eye to the most important part of a larger subject.

Critically, leading lines can be either actual or implied. An actual leading line, like the edge of a building or the dotted line down the middle of the road, can guide the viewer’s eye to your subject. An implied leading line, such as the line created between a subject’s eyes and something else in the frame they are looking at, can do much the same thing in a very different way.


Frames Within Frames

We’ve talked about the different places we can position our subject within the frame. Subframing is taking this to the next level; positioning your subject in a frame that is within the larger frame of your image. These images can be a challenge to make, as they require something standing either between the photographer and the subject, or something in the background of the subject which implies a frame around the subject.

Though tricky to implement, when these compositions come together they can be wonderfully immersive. Just ask HCB.


Isolate Your Subject

I’ve found that this is among the hardest compositional stumbling blocks for most people, myself included. Photographers often feel a strong impulse to fill the frame with lots of interesting things, and lots of detail. While this can sometimes create a dense, immersive image, it can also lead to compositions that make the viewer feel like they are looking at a “Where’s Waldo?” It’s also easy to miss what’s happening in the background, and only after it’s too late do you notice all that distracting stuff behind your subject.

There are numerous ways to approach isolating your subject, ranging from setting your subject against an empty background, using shallow depth of field, or getting so comically close to your subject that other elements simply aren’t apparent. But, what is truly important is using the tools you have to make your subject clear. The viewer shouldn’t be left guessing why you pressed the shutter button.


Be Conscious of Your Light Source

This is one area where photographers have every right to be envious of painters. A painter has the luxury of deciding precisely where their light source is. Much of the time, photographers do not. Considering how many shots are made in natural light, we’re usually making do with what we’re given. For this reason, it’s important to consider where to position both yourself and your subject to make the most of your light.

Will it suit your composition to put the sun behind the subject and blow out the background? Will the lighting allow you to face the subject into the light and place brighter, more even light directly on them? Will this create harsh shadows? If so, is this desirable?

I’ve personally found that I like strong back-light in a lot of situations. Since I don’t photograph a lot of people, I’ve found that placing my subject between myself and my light source works for me fairly often. Of course to make this work, I often need to choose my position carefully.


Your Feet Are Your Most Valuable Asset

In a way, I miss the era when the 50mm f/1.4 was the default kit lens. While you can do virtually anything with a fifty, getting the most out of it requires moving yourself, rather than relying on zoom or aggressive cropping. Before you even lift the camera to  your eye, consider your position relative to your subject. Can you be closer? Can you be higher or lower? Which way is the action in the scene moving? Will moving yourself allow the action to come to you?

While a zoom can take up a lot of this slack, and get you most of the way to where you want to be, it is not always the best solution, especially for film shooters. Long zooms generally mean smaller apertures, and less light. If you’ve loaded T-max 100, and the light starts to change, you may shoot yourself in the foot by relying on a long zoom.

Some of the first things I ever photographed were cross country motorcycle races with a Pentax Spotmatic. This meant moving in and out of light and shadow constantly, and at the time I knew almost nothing about pushing and pulling film. Out of frustration I often used a 50mm, and simply took my time optimizing my position for better shots.

Of course, when shooting racing your feet are also helpful for not getting run over, but that’s a different conversation.


Experiment

You can’t use all of these tips at once, which is why I don’t call them rules. It’s not necessarily desirable, or even possible, to do so. Each technique is more like a tool, and while there may be dozens of situations where a screwdriver is perfect for the job, once in a while you absolutely, beyond a doubt, need a hammer. Over time you will figure out which composition techniques you prefer, and that will take time. I’ve heard that the first thousand rolls are always the hardest.

For film shooters, this learning curve can have a very direct effect on your wallet. This is one of the great benefits of living in an age when both film and digital cameras are readily available, and relatively affordable. Take out your digital camera and take risks. Make bad photos. Figure out double exposures. Move during an exposure. Put the camera on the end of a stick and wave it around.

Making an entire body of work based on a single technique or perspective is nigh on impossible, and certainly not desirable. Experimentation is, and has always been, the most important tool for learning to be a versatile (and good) photographer. So get out there and shoot.


If you have any other top tips for composing better images, let us hear about them in the comments.

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8 Comments

  • Reply
    yashicachris
    September 18, 2017 at 5:20 pm

    Always good to review these important basics. Good stuff Chris!

  • Reply
    tito
    September 19, 2017 at 11:43 pm

    nice tips

  • Reply
    dan james
    September 21, 2017 at 8:32 am

    I think for me arguable the best tip of all here, when taking any photograph, is “The viewer shouldn’t be left guessing why you pressed the shutter button”… The biggest fear of many of us is probably making a photograph that people look at think “why did you bother?”.

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      September 21, 2017 at 12:01 pm

      Yeah, this part struck me as well. It’s probably the most valuable insight, but also the most difficult to implement. I’m guilty of being a bit trigger happy, I admit.

      • Reply
        dan james
        September 21, 2017 at 3:40 pm

        I wrote about it recently, how I ask myself the question “What’s the best possible photograph I can make in this situation, with the equipment and light I have – and is it worth taking?”…

    • Reply
      Chris Cushing
      September 21, 2017 at 1:32 pm

      Dan- that and “move your feet” are the two that I repeat the most to my friends who are just starting in the hobby. It’s very easy to project your intent on the image. YOU as the photographer always know what the subject was, but if you’re not staging the picture in a way that makes it obvious, other people might miss it.

      It can be hard, because sometimes I feel like I’m being heavy-handed with making the subject obvious when I press the shutter. Then when I review a day or two later, or even a week later after processing film, I usually feel better about my choice.

      Thanks for reading, man!

      • Reply
        dan james
        September 21, 2017 at 3:42 pm

        No worries, I enjoyed it, it always good to revisit the fundamentals – and hear other people’s angles.

        I’ve only very recently started to get into zooms – but even so I tend to use them as a set of primes, shooting one focal length at a time.

        Mostly I’ve shot vintage primes, so the tip about moving your feet (rather than standing and always zooming in or out) is one of my favourites too.

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