You can find the most striking landscape in the world and stunning light to boot, but poor photo composition will mean you walk away from that wonderful turn of luck with nothing but a poor image.
You’ve probably learned about the Rule of Thirds, but once you’ve been shooting for a little while it’s time to start using a few more advanced photo composition aids that will help you take your photography to the next level.
Photo composition doesn’t have to be rocket science. There are many different schools of thought when it comes to composing images, but if you ask us, the more adherence you pay to rules, the less spontaneous and genuine your images will seem.
What works in one image doesn’t necessarily work in another, even if many of the conditions are the same. Each subject and scene needs a fresh set of eyes, and so in this tutorial we’ll explain how things like focal length, perspective and framing all affect how your image will look.
Below we round up our best photo composition tips for the photographer who is looking to get a bit more creative.
Photo composition tips: 01 Golden Ratio
The Golden Ratio is sometimes called the Golden Mean, and it forms the basis of the Rule of Thirds which provides a simple approximation.
The Golden Ratio can sometimes seem confusing, but the main thing to understand about it is that people typically prefer to look at asymmetrical images. And the Golden Mean offers a way to find objects within a scene that you can use as focal points to suit this innate desire.
Plenty of studies have shown that viewers prefer when an object situated between two other objects divides the space between them into two unequal spaces.
So how that translates into practice: the ratio between the shorter distance and the longer distance is the same as the ratio between the longer space and the overall distance. Still with us?!
The Golden Ratio can help you decide where to locate an isolated object within an otherwise empty frame as well as where to position additional points of interest.
Like the Rule of Thirds, the guiding principal of the Golden Ratio is that your frame can be divided into nine rectangles.
Key elements within your frame, such as the horizon, should be positioned along the lines that divide the rectangles. And you should position other important parts of the image being where the lines cross.
As we said, it’s a lot like using the rule of thirds.
Photo composition tips: 02 Golden Spiral
Sometimes your subject will be a group of objects that are arranged in a spiral, and when this occurs the Golden Spiral rule of photo composition is a simple guide to translating these types of scenes into pleasing images.
In short, the guiding principle of the Golden Spiral is that images usually look better when the spiral gets wider as it gets longer and further away from the centre of the frame.
Think of a spiral staircase, which is the classic example of this photo composition technique. As the spiral grows, objects become farther apart and give us a better sense of depth in the scene.
What’s more, the outer-most point of the spiral should start in a corner of the frame and then curve to hit the long edge of the frame at the Golden Ratio point.
Naturally, mathematicians have attempted to define the rate at which the spiral should grow – by a factor of Phi (1.618…) for every quarter turn. But we’re not suggesting you bring your calculators with you on your next shoot!
Photo composition tips: 03 Leading lines
OK, you can put your calculators away now! We addressed two of the more complex photo composition techniques first to get them out of the way. The others on this list rely less on math and more on your creativity!
Leading lines are a great way of drawing a viewer’s eye into an image, and what’s great about these simple photo composition devices is that you can use almost anything: roads, sidewalks and walls are common examples, but you can also use cloud formations, even lines of people.
Leading lines are particularly effective in landscape photography. For instance, rather than shooting a landscape from the middle of a field, try setting up close to a fence or footpath and frame it as a leading line to draw attention to the view.
Leading lines are also quite effective still life and macro photography by careful positioning elements within the frame.
Photo composition tips: 04 Direction of gaze
Another more subtle leading line is the direction in which a person is looking within your frame. If a subject is on the right side of your frame and gazing to the left side of the frame, your viewer is going to follow the line of their gaze.
A really simple way to strengthen a photo composition sometimes is, instead of asking someone to look at your camera, have them look out at the main view. Not only are you creating a leading line but you are establishing a connection between your human subject and the landscape.
And beyond the landscape, the direction of one’s gaze is also very powerful in couple or group portraits, as the person being looked at is instantly elevated in importance within the scene.
Photo composition tips: 05 Foreground interest
We often hear about foreground interest in the context of landscape photography, but having a strong focal element in the front of your frame is equally important in other genres.
A blank, dull foreground can be a barrier between the viewer’s eye and the elements throughout the rest of the frame. And it can spoil an otherwise interesting scene.
As well as ‘interest’, including a focal point in the foreground of your scene adds a sense of depth and scale, which helps to draw a viewer’s eye into the image.
You can use pretty much anything for foreground interest, too: rocks, plants, even people are common examples.
And what if you can’t find any foreground interest to compose? There’s nothing wrong with adding something! Maybe it’s a brightly coloured fallen leaf or simply your own footprints in the sand.
Photo composition tips: 06 Frames within frames
Just like a frame around a photograph, a natural frame within the scene around your main subject can help focus the viewer’s attention and stop their eye from roaming around the picture, away from what you want to emphasise.
Over-hanging trees are a classic example of using a frame within a frame, as are doorways, windows and archways. Natural frames work particularly work particularly well with portraits, as well as landmarks where the frame can provide a new view that people haven’t seen before.
Sometimes, if your subject is quite far away, you can even use a relatively small object as your frame, which will seem larger because of its closer proximity to the camera.
Photo composition tips: 07 Break the rules
If you followed all the rules of composition to the letter all your images would be asymmetrical and there would always be at least one element closer to one edge of the frame than the opposite side.
However, some scenes really suit a symmetrical composition with equal space on either side of your main subject.
A pier stretching out into the sea or a lone-tree landscape are common examples.
On the other hand, pushing the imbalance within an image and positioning the subject far over to one side can also really work well.
A thin slice of land under a huge threatening sky, for example, can build drama and convey a sense of isolation and exposure to the elements.
The key to breaking the rules, whether you are taking a symmetrical or extremely assymmetrical shot, is that absolutely every element is correctly aligned.
You need to make it clear that the position of the subject in the frame has been considered and it is a deliberate act of compositional rebellion.
A few people are lucky enough to have an innate sense of good composition, but most others can learn it.
It’s important to understand the ‘rules’ before you break them to avoid producing images than look like ill-considered snapshots.