Picture composition

boy jumpingGood picture composition is the starting point for v­isually compelling pictures. It­s purpose is to arrange different subjects and visual elements into ­a well balanced and attractive form within the image frame.

The elements a photographer uses in a composition include lines, forms, textures, balance, symmetry, depth, colours, perspective, scale­, and lighting.­

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.

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.

Aled Jones at Ely Cathedral

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.

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.

Use 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. Brickwork makes an excellent background for a portrait. The lines add creative interest, but they also draw attention to your subject.

Use diagonals

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 concentrate all attention on your subject

Don’t remove the interesting surroundings. Use them. Doorways, windows, arches, each can be brought into play creatively to frame the subject and heighten the visual impact. Think creatively in picture composition.

Create texture

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.

Change your angles

Don’t shoot everything from a standing position. Try to find unusual angles by changing your position, and the camera’s. Sometimes getting rid of a distraction is simply a matter of moving your camera to another place. Often by positioning yourself higher or lower, to the right or to the left, you can 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. They help you to compose pleasing photos, but you’ll find a really striking picture often betrays a blatant disregard for the conventional principles of picture composition. Once you’re aware of them, take a risk and break them from time to time. Know what you’re doing and why.


You may also find my article on news values of interest.