The Simple Guide To Photography Composition—For Beginners

Photography has come a long way from pinhole cameras and film photography. Today, smartphone cameras allow us to create images with a simple tap of a button. Much of the decision-making that photographers once engaged with is gone with modern digital photography. However, there is one crucial decision that still remains—which you’ll get the answer to in this simple guide to photography composition: where to point the camera?

Image by Jesse Hebert © All Rights Reserved.

Where to point the camera?

This decision is one that engages photographers in the act of composition. Composition is the arrangement of elements within an image. How you arrange the elements in your image will not only determine the effectiveness of your picture’s graphic design. It will also contribute to how well its message is conveyed. Effective composition enables an image to tell a story, captivate a viewer, direct the eye, and so much more.

This article will explore everything that a beginner needs to know about composition. The first section of this article focuses on understanding composition from a theoretical perspective. The second section focuses on how to use composition practically. The third and last section is dedicated to the concepts that can further develop your compositional skills and hopefully spark some creative thinking!

Table of Contents

  1. Understanding Composition
    • A. Why is Composition Important?
    • B. What is Good Composition?
    • C. The Foundation of Composition
  2. Using Composition
    • A. How to Approach Composition: Visualization
    • B. The Rules of Composition
    • C. Bend the Rules with Intention
    • D. Composition and Focal Length
  3. Developing Composition
    • A. Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!
    • B. Consider Your Viewpoint
    • C. Tips & Tricks to Get You Started

Understanding Composition

Understanding composition is the key to learning how to see like a photographer.

Any time that you take a picture you are engaging in the act of composition. By pointing your camera in a certain direction you are doing two very important things:

  1. Telling your camera what to capture
  2. Telling your camera what not to capture

These two ideas are the building blocks of composition.

Photo by Raban Haaijk on Unsplash

It’s useful to think about the image as a frame into the world around you. Not everything can squeeze in so consider what must be included and what is unnecessary. The fewer unnecessary elements that you include, the better your composition will be.

What sets apart an amateur and an expert of composition is ultimately intention.

The expert understands that each element in the frame plays a significant role in the overall composition and should in some way serve the narrative, purpose, or focal point of the image. Therefore, the expert will purposely place elements in their frame to either direct the eye, support the narrative, or elicit a response.

Why is composition in photography important?

Without composition your image will lack a point-of-view.

The viewer may not understand what it is that they’re looking at, they may get bored quickly and move on, or, in the worst cases, it may cause uncomfortable tension for the viewer.

Composition is a powerful aesthetic tool. One that can create overall balance and harmony, a focal point, and movement through an image. Beyond this, composition can provide context for a subject, moment or point in time. It can infuse themes, motifs, narratives and connections into your images.

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

Composition can also be used to express your personal voice. Thoughtful and original compositions allow an audience to peak into the vision of a photographer and for a moment, see the world as they do. When this is done effectively, people can form deep connections with your work and look forward to seeing more through your unique point-of-view.

Even viewers with little understanding of photography can naturally discern good composition from bad. They may not be able to pinpoint that as the problem or describe the specific issue but they will likely recognize that there is an issue. This makes it all the more important to ensure that your composition is working in your favour and encouraging viewers to engage longer with your work and ponder its details.

What is good composition?

It’s important to note that there is no composition in photography that is inherently right or wrong. Later on in this article we will look at the “Rules of Composition” but even these are not fool proof.

A good composition…

  • Engages the viewer
  • Is aesthetically pleasing
  • Directs the viewer where you intend.

A composition that does not engage viewers and is unclear or confusing is not effective and what you should learn to avoid.

Photo by Mauricio Artieda on Unsplash

Learning good composition is about control.

In every instance of good composition, the photographer engaged in some form of control over the elements of that image. It could be moving closer to your subject so as to make them larger in the frame or shifting to the left in order to remove a distracting element. Whatever it may be, the photographer is exercising control over the elements within their frame with each little decision.

Without control, there is no order—only randomness, disorganization & the viewer will have difficulty discerning the subject or focal point. Simply by understanding how to control elements within your frame you can massively level up the quality of your photos.

The foundation of composition

In order to effectively control the elements within your frame, it helps to understand what those elements are. These elements form the building blocks for understanding, using and developing composition.

The 7 Elements of Photography are adapted from the generally recognized Elements of Art. These elements consist of shape, form, line, texture, colour, value and space.

  1. Shape: refers to any two-dimensional, enclosed space. Since photography is a two-dimensional medium, shapes are found everywhere in photos.
  2. Form: refers to the apparent three-dimensionality of objects. Although photographs are flat, objects in them are perceived to have three-dimensions or “form”. This is typically emphasized through lighting and composition.
  3. Line: lines come in many different forms in photography that can perform several functions for the photographer.
  4. Texture: a powerful element of photography that communicates to the audience how an object physically feels. Lighting can emphasize or minimize the appearance of texture.
  5. Colour: a powerful element that can be used to create visual contrast, direct attention and evoke certain moods.
  6. Value: also known in photography as ‘tone’ & refers to the lightness or darkness of a colour.
  7. Space: can be regarded as either positive space or negative space. Positive space is the subject or area of interest in a photograph and generally what stands out. Negative space is the empty space surrounding the subject or area of interest.

To learn more about these 7 essential building blocks of photography, read: The 7 Elements of Photography You Need to Know.

Using Composition

As a beginner, you may concentrate solely on your focal point but you should also take into account the surrounding objects. Consider if they can add to the composition if, for example, you change your shooting angle to better place them in the scene.

Photo by Taylor Brandon on Unsplash

Before anything, it’s important to consider the boundary or frame of your image. Everything that you photograph is going to appear within this frame. This is your canvas. You can control the placement, size and relationship of objects within this frame.

The frame itself can also inform your compositions:

  • A vertical aspect ratio lends itself better to capturing tall objects or scenes
  • A horizontal aspect ratio lends itself better to capturing wide objects or scenes

It’s also important to realize that an image is really quite different from our eyesight. Cameras record light from a three-dimensional scene and translate that onto a two-dimensional plane otherwise known as an image. There is a transformation that happens in this process which changes certain properties of what is being captured. The photographer must then learn to see how their camera sees through a process of visualization.

How to approach composition: visualization

It can be difficult for many beginners to see a scene as an assembly of lines, shapes, texture, etc (the Elements of Photography) and then visualize how to manipulate those elements to achieve a better composition.

Acquiring this skill happens over time through the repetition of taking photos, recognizing how your camera transforms the real world into an image and studying photography to understand what’s possible.

Photo by Venrick Azcueta on Unsplash

You don’t always need a camera to practice the skill of visualization. You can strengthen your understanding of the elements of photography by simply classifying objects that you see in the world.

For instance, I can classify a tree trunk as follows:

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash
  • Shape: Organic
  • Form: Cylinder
  • Line: Organic, thick, vertical
  • Texture: Rough, rigid, bumpy
  • Colour: Brown, Warm/Advancing
  • Value: Dark, Shaded/Low-Contrast Light
  • Space: Positive

By repeatedly engaging in this process, you will begin to see objects as elements which will allow you to manipulate your composition with much more ease.

The rules of composition

The rules of composition dates back centuries. Artists with an innate sense of design created works that were perceived by other skilled artists as having good composition. Analyzing these works showed patterns and trends in the organization and relationships of the elements we previously talked about. Others found they could then employ these patterns as techniques in improving their own works. Eventually, when they were defined, they became known as the rules of composition.

Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

The rules of composition are useful to amateur and master photographers in equal stride. However, the rules of composition should be considered guidelines rather than hard and fast rules.

The rules of composition can help train us to not only identify a scene’s key components, but also to arrange them in a visually-pleasing manner that expresses our feelings about the subject.

Just remember, these are guidelines and there are many successful images that violate all of the rules of composition. First, you should know the rules. Then, you’ll know how you can break them.

Rule of Thirds

Photo by Ameya Sawant on Unsplash

The rule of thirds divides an image into three equal columns and rows. This guideline suggests that objects or strong lines should be placed on one of the lines that separates the columns and rows.

For example, it’s often recommended that the horizon line should be placed on either the top or bottom third line.

According to the rule of thirds, the four points where the vertical and horizontal third lines intersect are of special importance. By placing important elements in these areas of the frame, you will create a stronger composition.

Photo by Niranjan _ Photographs on Unsplash

Many beginners will concentrate on the centre of the frame and compose their subject centred almost exclusively. The rule of thirds is a way to break that habit by shifting the subject, forcing the inclusion of negative space and ultimately encouraging more dynamic compositions.

Leading Lines

Photo by Ben Allan on Unsplash

Leading lines refers to any lines in an image that “lead” the viewer’s eye to the subject or focal point of an image.

Leading lines can create a sense of direction, purpose and focus for viewers. They can also increase the amount of depth in an image.

Lines come in many shapes and forms:

  • Straight
  • Curved
  • Converging
  • Intersecting
  • Long
  • Short
  • Thick
  • Thin
Photo by Patrick Metzdorf on Unsplash

With enough creativity, any type of line can be used as a leading line.

Balance

Photo by Paulius Dragunas on Unsplash

Balance is a compositional technique that emphasizes equal visual weight of different objects within a frame. When looking at an image and different parts of the frame are commanding your attention equally—that is a balanced image.

Balance can be achieved in many different ways but is most commonly either symmetrical or asymmetrical (otherwise known as formal or informal balance).

Photo by Junhan Foong on Unsplash

Formal or symmetrical balance occurs when two halves of your image are mirrored or identical to one another. A symmetrical image will typically feel tidy, professional, and technical. Symmetrical balance can also be used effectively when you intentionally break symmetry with the subject or focal point of your image.

Photo by Jack French on Unsplash

Informal or asymmetrical balance is when dissimilar elements are balanced across an image. It’s arguably a tougher concept to fully grasp and employ as a beginner. However, it can be much more readily available and impactful.

Layering

Photo by Lucas Ludwig on Unsplash

Layering is a compositional technique that breaks down an image into foreground, mid-ground and background.

  1. The foreground refers to the elements closest to the camera.
  2. The background refers to the elements furthest away.
  3. The mid-ground refers to the elements in between the two.

You can introduce and emphasize depth in your images by incorporating elements throughout these three layers of your image. Elements that cross through these layers from the foreground to the background will lead the viewers eye into your image. Elements that are placed in separate layers with little crossover will emphasize the shape of the objects.

Simplification

Photo by Kyaw Tun on Unsplash

Simplification aims to include “only” what is necessary in the image.

This is a compositional technique that is often confused with minimalism. Rather than a physical attribute, simplification is more of a conceptual way of composing your image. In certain cases this may result in a minimalist image with one dominant object. It’s also true that in certain cases perhaps twenty objects are necessary for an image to work.

In order to use simplification you must consider what is necessary and, even more importantly, what is unnecessary in your frame. Then you can remove or cover all of the unnecessary elements in order to achieve a simplified composition.

Bend the Rules with Intention

Once you understand the rules of composition, experiment and break a rule here or there when you feel the image will work better without it. That’s called individual style and the creativity that stems from it produces some great images. Through practice and use of the rules of composition, you will learn when it makes sense to break a rule of composition. As you develop your skill, you will use these rules of composition less and only fall back on them when you’re struggling to control or make order out of a scene.

Photo by Rene Böhmer on Unsplash

If you are pleased with a composition that conveys the meaning that you want in your images, even though it completely violates the rules—then just ignore them! Go for what pleases you and go for what you feel portrays your image’s message best. If applying the rules would negatively impact your picture’s meaning, the rules should be broken.

Composition & Focal Length

The focal length of your lens determines the angle of view that your camera sees upon the World.

Photo by Seif Amr on Unsplash

Wider lenses will fit more of the world into your image and require more work to create effective compositional arrangements. As you use longer lenses, you will need to capture your subjects from a much further distance which alters the relationships between the layers in your image making them appear much closer to one another.

The 50mm focal length is widely regarded as the closest match to the human eye. To a certain degree this is also a matter of personal preference. A good amount of photographers regard the 40mm or 35mm focal lengths as closer matches to their vision. I tend to view the world even more distant, preferring the 70-100mm range.

Photo by Mitchell Luo on Unsplash

With all that being said, the 50mm is a great place to start as a beginner. It’s a tried and true focal length that has made possible some of the most highly regarded photography in history. It’s a great idea to learn photography with this focal length and go wider or longer from here depending on the images that you want to create.

Developing Composition

In order to express your unique vision, composition should come from your own intuition and creativity. This is something that you can grow into and develop as you practice photography.

Photo by Marcelo Quinan on Unsplash

When composing your images, take it slow. Search for intention with each compositional decision that you make. Don’t be afraid to engage in a process of trial and error. With digital photography, there is no limit to the amount of photos that you can take. Experiment with your compositions and use the shooting process as a learning exercise.

Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!

For the majority of us, composing images becomes second nature after we have done it time after time. In the age of smartphone cameras you may ask yourself why everyone then isn’t making great compositions…

The key is intention.

A thousand photographs taken blindly will not develop your skill as much as a hundred photographs taken intentionally.

Photo by refargotohp on Unsplash

Shoot with a purpose and consider the lessons outlined in this article while you’re shooting. Afterwards you can reflect on the images taken and make a plan to improve upon your images the next time that you’re out shooting. Over time, this process will surely improve your compositions and images in general.

Consider your viewpoint

If I could teach only one lesson to a budding photographer about composition it would be the concept of viewpoint or positioning.

Viewpoint is quite simply the position that you stand when you take a photograph. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it is! Yet, so often I notice beginner photographers struggle to move their feet.

Photo by Simone Daino on Unsplash

Let’s say that you stumble upon an object in beautiful light and it stops you dead in your tracks. You pull out your camera, point and shoot. Later on, you discover that the image just doesn’t seem to do justice to the beauty that you saw in real life.

It’s very rare that we stumble upon something and happen to be in the optimal position for capturing it.

When you understand viewpoint you know that from any one position you can move closer-further, left-right, or up-down. A change in camera position, sometimes even a small one, can result in a huge difference in the presentation of a scene, especially where there are a number of elements on different planes (foreground, middle ground and background)

Bringing the camera closer, for example, will cause objects in the foreground to appear larger than objects in the background. You can further alter the relationships of elements in your frame by changing the shooting angle. Pointing the camera straight ahead from an eye-level position will lend a much different result when compared to crouching and shooting up toward the sky.

Zoom lenses further complicate this issue for beginners since they allow you to make objects appear larger in your frame without even moving your feet. This ability is great when used appropriately but it is not a substitute for moving closer or further away from your subject.

All of this may seem a little exhaustive for such a simple concept. Of course, where you stand and point your camera will impact what’s in the frame. However, in my experience, this concept needs to be reminded of time and time again.

Here’s what you should do:

  1. When you come upon a scene, identity what about it appeals to you.
  2. Then, consider what your best viewpoint is to capture that specific attribute.
  3. If it helps, physically walk around the subject so that you can see first hand how that subject looks from all different positions & distances.

Practical tips & tricks to help beginners master photography composition

Above all else, remember to move your feet, shoot intentionally & experiment!

Below is a list of more tips and tricks to help you compose better images:

  1. Shoot in Black and White.
  2. Consider your image as a “frame” into the world around you.
  3. Have a clear understanding of what you want your picture to say.
  4. Be present and aware of what’s going on around you.
  5. Dedicate time to take pictures intentionally.
  6. Look out the window of a moving vehicle. Notice when elements align in a pleasing arrangement.
  7. Apply the rules of composition until it becomes second-nature to you.
  8. Change camera angle to eliminate distracting background elements.
  9. Think about the elements in your frame graphically: as lines, shapes, colours, etc.
  10. Study the experts of composition. (Get started with: Ansel Adams, Fan Ho, Henri-Cartier Bresson, Saul Leiter)
Photo by Matteo Catanese on Unsplash

Ready to practice what you’ve learned?

Here are some exercises to get you started…

  • Exercise 1: Take pictures from a certain vantage point exclusively. What did you learn?
  • Exercise 2: Capture a single subject from as many different positions as you can. How does it change the way that you view that subject?
  • Exercise 3: Shoot with a prime lens or resist the urge to zoom in on your subjects. Move your feet! How did that focal length feel to you? Too tight? Too wide? Just right?

The simple act of thinking about your compositions more intentionally will already make a huge improvement in your photography. Employing some of these tips and tricks will be that added step that will surely make a noticeable difference. Let us know what trick you find most useful in the comments below. Do you have a favourite compositional technique?

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