Good picture composition is the starting point for visually compelling images. Its purpose is to arrange different subjects and visual elements into a well balanced and attractive form within the picture frame.
The elements a photographer uses in a composition include lines, forms, textures, balance, symmetry, depth, colours, perspective, scale, and lighting.
Be spontaneous. The best way to improve your composition is to take lots of shots and develop the eye for a good picture. But there are a few basic principles that are really useful to have in the back of your mind when you frame your subject. Think of them as guidelines rather than rules that can never be broken.
- 1 Identify your subject and its focal point
- 2 Harmonise colour, brightness and contrast
- 3 Apply the rule of thirds
- 4 Keep your subject’s eyes in the upper third
- 5 Balance your main subject
- 6 Use lines
- 7 Use diagonals
- 8 Frame to enhance your subject
- 9 Symmetry
- 10 Create texture
- 11 Choose your viewpoint carefully
- 12 And finally, don’t be a slave to the rule book
Identify your subject and its focal point
Some photographers will always attempt to put their subject at the centre of the picture. However, you can often achieve a much more pleasing picture composition by placing the focal point elsewhere, but away from the extreme edges of your picture.
By cropping the right hand side of this picture, Aled Jones is moved to the right, subconsciously emphasising his relationship with the audience rather than his other surroundings. For a better understanding of where to place your subject, see Apply the Rule of Thirds below. Have a go at placing them in different parts of the image and discover what picture composition works best.
Harmonise colour, brightness and contrast
Differences in brightness and colour create the boundaries between the objects in your picture. Colour harmony can be a matter of trial and error, but opposite colours, such as red and green, or blue and orange, usually complement each other. Try to avoid colours that clash. Excessively strong colour contrast may produce a vivid, but artificial effect. Subtle colour contrasts can work better. Save the bright, dominant colour for the foreground or focal point so it draws interest. In black and white pictures, you have only one colour, so you must rely on differences in tone to create the shape boundaries between objects.
Apply the rule of thirds
Imagine two horizontal and two vertical lines drawn through your image. Like the gridlines on a noughts and crosses board, they break up your image into nine smaller rectangles. The best positions to place the main points of interest in your picture lie somewhere along these four gridlines. Ideally you should attempt to position your focal point on one of the four intersections of these lines. Experience shows that when you’re viewing a picture, your eyes usually go naturally to one of the intersection points rather than the centre.
Keep your subject’s eyes in the upper third
If you’re taking a portrait picture, run your subject’s eye level two thirds from the bottom of the image – in other words, somewhere along the top horizontal line. It’s the ideal spacing for a portrait. By applying the Rule of Thirds, you reinforce a person’s natural way of viewing an image, rather than undermining it. Try to keep this rule even if you’re going for a close-up and it means cutting off the very top of a person’s head.
Balance your main subject
You can achieve a more striking picture by placing your main subject off-centre, as with the rule of thirds. But this can leave a large void in the background. Fill the empty space by positioning another less conspicuous object to restore the balance. The asymmetrical contrast will avoid drawing too much attention away from the subject.
When you look at a photo your eye is naturally drawn along lines. Keep in mind that any line used in a picture is at its most potent when it originates outside the frame and leads to the focal point. Lines draw attention to your subject. For instance, brickwork makes an excellent background for a portrait.
Lines add creative interest. They can be straight, zigzag, radial or curvy. They can affect the way you view the picture, taking you on a journey into the scene itself.
Make your picture livelier by setting your subject matter on a diagonal. This works well for many subjects, especially landscape pictures. Diagonals accentuate the perspective and depth of the picture. Linear elements, such as roads, waterways, and fences, are generally perceived as being more dynamic when placed diagonally, rather than horizontally. However, there’s one exception. It’s best to keep level the natural horizon otherwise your shots may appear skewed.
Frame to enhance your subject
Don’t remove the interesting surroundings. Use them. Doorways, windows, pillars, arches, each can be brought into play creatively to frame the subject and heighten the visual impact. Think creatively in picture composition.
We are surrounded by symmetry and patterns, both natural and man-made. They can make for very eye-catching compositions, particularly in situations where they are not expected. Another great way to use them is to break the symmetry or pattern in some way, introducing tension and a focal point to the scene.
If the background is garish or distracting and you can’t easily eliminate it, why not use it imaginatively to your advantage? You can draw your subject away from the backdrop and shoot on a wider aperture and shorter exposure to reduce the depth of field. Focus manually on your subject which will come out clear and sharply defined against a blurred background. The human eye is drawn to the elements that are in focus, and this method allows for artistic texture without completely removing the creative interest of the wider shot.
Choose your viewpoint carefully
Your viewpoint has a massive impact on your picture composition. So, before photographing your subject, take time to think about where you will shoot it from. Instead of simply taking your picture from eye level, try to find unusual angles by changing your position. Question whether you want to be a long way from your subject, or close up. Consider positioning yourself higher or lower, down at ground level, from the side or from the back. Don’t shoot everything standing up.
Sometimes getting rid of a distraction is simply a matter of moving your camera to another place. Often a small movement is enough to completely eliminate a distracting tree branch or a lamppost that appears to be growing out of someone’s head.
And finally, don’t be a slave to the rule book
Photographic rules are meant to be broken. They are guidelines, not tramlines. Once you’re aware of them, take a risk and ignore them from time to time.
Be open-minded. In the real world, you’ll be working with a wide range of subjects and scenes. Rules may help you to compose pleasing photos. But a really striking picture often has a blatant disregard for the conventional principles of picture composition.
What works for one photo won’t necessarily work for another. Digital photography enables you to experiment with different compositions until you find the perfect one. Keep clicking.
You may also find my article on news values of interest.