Photography Tips: The Basics of Composition

As I explained in my beginning photography tips article, one of the most important parts of photography is how you put your shots together. The human brain responds positively to various patterns and color alignments, and by learning these, you can create shots that viewers will find more pleasing.

In today’s post on the basics of composition, I’m going to explain some of these rules. If you look back through your photos, you will likely find that many of your favorite shots have already followed these rules, because that’s just how the human brain works. Once you have learned them and start applying them naturally, you will find your photography will improve greatly.

The rule of thirds and subject placement

This is one of the most important rules of composition, and also one of the easiest to remember. It requires you to think of your photograph in terms of three parts, either vertically or horizontally, splitting the different parts of the composition into “thirds.”

The easiest way to imagine this is with a shot of the sea and the sky. You want either one third sea and two thirds sky, or the other way around.

Athens cloud and temple rule of thirds

Photos via findingtheuniverse.com

Many cameras come with a feature where you can put an overlay on your screen that allows you to visualize these thirds. Something else to bear in mind is that a great image often has the subject at the intersection points of the lines. This is particularly applicable to taking photographs of people — you want the person’s eyes, for example, to be at the intersection of the lines.

Use of color

Color is an important photography tool. Different colors work well together. An easy way to think of this is to think of Christmas, and how you would match different colors that complement each other, like red and green, blue and yellow or purple and silver.

Usually colors work well with their opposite colors as found on the color wheel. Contrasting colors are pleasing to the eye — although you need to find the right balance in terms of how much of each color to use. Often a splash of one color like a yellow sunflower against a blue sky will suffice to highlight your subject.

Leading lines

When composing an image, it’s good to give your viewers hints as to what the subject is and where to look.

The brain naturally likes to follow clues, and a line is a great clue to lead your viewer to a subject. Think for example of a shot of a mountain. If you can include a path that leads up to the mountain, then the eye will naturally start at the foot of the mountain and follow the path to your subject — the mountain.

Leading line example mountain trail

This also works with railway tracks, light installations, wires, rivers, etc. You’d be amazed how many lines you can find out there once you start looking!

Framing

A photo always looks better hung on the wall in a frame, doesn’t it? Well, we can take advantage of this when composing a photo as well, to highlight our subject by framing it using natural scenery.

Good examples of frames include windows or door frames, tree branches or fence posts, but the only limit is your imagination when it comes to framing.

Framing example photography thailand temple

Focus points

Deciding which parts of your shot are in focus and which are not is a very powerful photography composition tool. Our eyes are naturally drawn to the focused part of an image, so that’s a very easy way to make the subject clear.

This is controlled by manipulating the depth of field of your shot and works particularly well with single subject shots such as portraits or wildlife, rather than a landscape shot which usually requires more of the subject to be in focus.

These guides should help you to take better photos — although my last piece of advice today is to also not be afraid to break the rules when you think it will make a great shot. Some of the greatest photos are as a result of throwing these rules to the wind. Don’t be afraid to experiment!

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