Composition Tips for Better Images

February 29, 2016

Composition Tips for Better Images

In my last post, I shared a link to a video about the basics of composition.

As a follow-up to that, I wanted to talk about my four favorite composition guidelines. These are the ones that I find myself using most often. They are the most basic of the composition guidelines, but learning about these and understanding how to apply them can make a startling difference in your images.

The Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is probably the best-known compositional rule in photography and one of the first that beginning photographers learn.

The Rule of Thirds is so popular and well known for good reason–it really can make your photos better. The Rule of Thirds provides a quick and easy way to compose an image that is appealing, well balanced and energetic.

With the Rule of Thirds, the subject is placed along or at the intersection of imaginary lines set up as a tic-tac-toe pattern superimposed on your image frame.

Here’s how it works. Imagine breaking an image down into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, by placing four imaginary lines on the image, so that you have nine parts. Like this:

Composition tips for great images

To use the Rule of Thirds, place the important elements of your photo along these four lines or, better yet, at the points where they intersect (sometimes called the sweet spots or golden points). The result is a composition that is stronger, more dynamic and balanced.

Consider the image below:

Composition tips for great images

The photo is improved in terms of energy and interest when the vase is moved off-center.

Composition tips for great images

And, in the image below, the centered composition is good…

Composition tips for great images

But moving the subject off-center is better because it gives the photo energy and draws the viewer in.

Composition tips for great images

In applying the Rule of Thirds, here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

  • When photographing a person, especially when you are capturing a portrait shot, place the center of your subject’s face or their eyes along one of the one-third lines or at their intersection.
Composition tips for great images
  • Consider the Rule of Thirds when you are composing an image that includes a horizon, tree line or mountain tops.
  • If your subject is looking or moving in a particular direction, try to frame them in a way that has them looking or moving into the scene rather than out of it. This will help to direct your viewer’s attention into the image.
Composition tips for great images
  • If your image includes a secondary focal point, or a supporting element that helps to tell the story, consider placing that secondary point at the diagonally opposite thirds position.
  • When working with the Rule of Thirds, don’t get too worried about placing your image elements precisely on the one-third lines. The positioning doesn’t have to be exact for the rule to be effective for your image. Just be sure to move your main subject off-center.
Composition tips for great images
  • And, finally, the old adage about breaking rules certainly applies here. While following the Rule of Thirds will usually improve the composition of your images, there are also going to be times when centering your subject will be the way to go. For example, scenes with symmetry—the image of a calm lake where the surface of the water reflects like glass—often lend themselves to a centered composition, as do photos that include a strong pattern. In other words, just like all compositional rules, consider the Rule of Thirds to be more of a guideline and don’t be afraid to experiment and follow your instincts.

The Rule of Space

While shooting close can create intimate images and help you eliminate clutter and distracting backgrounds, there are times when giving your subject some space can also work.

Leaving room in your composition "ahead" of your subject can give them space to move through the frame of your picture or even look through and beyond it.

This is called the Rule of Space and it says that if you are photographing an object in motion–a moving car or motorcycle, a running child—you can add an element of excitement and interest to your photo by adding empty space, sometimes called negative space, in your composition in front of that movement so that your subject appears to be moving into that space.

The same holds true when you are photographing a person who is looking across the view of your camera. By leaving empty space in your composition for your subject to look into, you engage the viewer by leading them to wonder what it is that your subject is seeing.

So the Rule of Space helps to add interest, energy and tension to your photo by prodding your viewer into questioning what else there is. By leaving empty space in front of your subject, you are suggesting that there is more to the image than your viewer can see. As a result, your viewer is drawn into your photo as they wonder what lies beyond its edge.

In practice, this usually means that your subject is positioned to one side of the image frame with the larger area on the opposite side in front of them. In other words, if you are photographing a person looking towards the left side of your image frame, it’s usually best to position that person on the right side of the frame to give them space to gaze into. If you are photographing a runner heading towards the right side of your viewfinder, you can give them space to move into if you position them in the left part of the photo.

Composition tips for great images
Composition tips for great images
Composition tips for great images

The Rule of Odds

Odd numbers are better than even in photography.

Images that show an odd number of subjects are more visually appealing than ones with an even number. And this is especially true with the number 3.

This is known as the Rule of Odds.

There are a number of theories on why this is works:

  • People are naturally drawn to odd numbers because the human eye perceives uneven compositions as balanced and natural. To the human brain, odd compositions evoke a sense of harmony and symmetry.
  • The human brain naturally tries to pair things up. But when your photo has an odd number of objects, that pairing can’t happen. There’s always one left over. And, so, your eye keeps moving through the image trying to create pairs. This engages the viewer and makes for a more dynamic and interesting composition.
  • The human eye has a tendency to move to the center of a group. With an even number of objects, there is no center. But uneven compositions do have a center and that makes them feel more natural and appealing.

Whatever the reason, you will often get a stronger composition if you arrange your shots to include an odd number of objects.

Composition tips for great images
Composition tips for great images
Composition tips for great images

Obviously, the rule of odds isn’t always practical. After all, you can’t just add in a third person when you’re photographing the happy couple at a wedding and you can’t conjure up an extra sibling on the fly when you’re photographing a family of four. But if you are in a situation where you have control over the number of objects in your composition, keep the Rule of Odds in mind as a way to add interest and appeal to your photos.

Simplify

Simplify. It’s sounds easy enough. But this might actually be the hardest of the photography guidelines to put into action.

It comes down to this: Keep your images clean and simple. Keep them direct and to the point.

Clean, simple, uncluttered pictures work best for highlighting your subject and keeping your viewer’s interest. Make the subject of your photo the main star and leave out anything that may be a distraction.

Composition tips for great images

Reduce what is included in your image to only the things that need to be in there. Keep just the items and objects that help to tell your story and enhance your image.

So what’s so hard about that?

Our human brains have the ability to focus on what is important in a scene. Mentally, we’re focused on the subject and the distractions don’t register. But our cameras can’t do that. They capture everything that’s in the viewfinder.

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

The picture of the snowman below is nice….

Composition tips for great images

But it gets a lot better when we move in closer and eliminate some of the unnecessary background.

Composition tips for great images

And this photo of a old stone wall…

Composition tips for great images

…becomes stronger and more interesting when we zoom in to reduce some of the distractions.

Composition tips for great images

Try to get into the habit of doing a quick scan around your image before pressing the shutter. Momentarily take your focus away from your main subject and instead look at what else is in the viewfinder. Consider each element and decide if it adds to the story.

If you have elements that don’t work to tell your story, leave them out. Reframe your image by changing your position to change your angle of view or to get closer. Try shooting from up high or down low to eliminate a busy background. Zoom in. Rotate your camera to shoot vertically. Use a shallow depth of field to soften and blur distractions. If it’s not possible to get a better composition as you’re shooting–sometimes you just have to take the shot or miss the opportunity–take it and crop out distracting elements in post production.

Next Steps

We’ve talked about rules and guidelines that can help you create better images. But, really, these guidelines and rules are just a first step. The next step is learning to find your image. That means figuring out what you want your image to be about and then working the scene to find a way to create it and tell that story.

It sounds a bit vague, but this video might help.

Until next time…




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