Photographic Composition

Learning where in the frame the subject should be is very important in photograph



Composition in photography is a subject that I enjoy teaching and talking about the most. I’ve seen so many students over the years that are lost when seeing through the viewfinder of their camera because they have no idea what is important in the scene that they are capturing.  I hope to give you a strong instinct of how to see the world through the viewfinder of your camera.

Composition is not something that comes naturally to many of us, we have to learn it! From time to time I find some students with a natural understanding of what is important in a photograph and how to arrange the different elements to create a good image. But as I mentioned, it is rare. Composition is something that we can all learn, from the core principals to the technical aspects of good composition. Some photographers argue that the person has to have this innate ability from birth because photography is an art form.  That may be the case if you want to become a fine art photographer but, the principals, the techniques, the way of seeing the world can be learned.

Composition is subjective, even if the composition in your images is bad; there is always someone that is going to tell you that it is cool. This is bad for a person that wants to become a photographer because you cannot listen to the average Joe, of course, unless he/she has an art degree.  To capture truly great shots a good composition is key. A well-composed photograph doesn’t have to be explained, almost every person that sees the image is going to approve it.  So with that being said, here are the fundamentals to taking strong compositions:

The Rule of Thirds.  An image should be divided into thirds, horizontally and vertically, as to create nine equal parts and important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections.

In the world of art a painter chooses what to include in a painting, a photographer must choose what to exclude. What you leave out, is just as important as what you include in your image. For this to be effective, you need to selectively include ONLY the things that are important or interesting in your images by selectively framing what is important. For this to be done right, the photographer cannot be lazy. They must walk around the subject, study it, look at it from different angles and then decide what and how much to include in your picture.  

What the heck does this mean? It means that when you photograph any subject you should never place the main subject in the middle of the frame, you should place the main subject in any of the intersections of these imaginary lines. Most good photographers know that this technique of aligning a subject within these points creates more tension, energy, and interest in the composition than simply centering the subject like a mug shot.

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A straight horizon in a scene is a must

Many subjects in photos that I see may be interesting but the horizon is slanted to one side or the other and that makes the images to look like is going to slide right out of the frame.

Look at the image on the above. Vertically and horizontally it has been divided into three parts. Notice how the main subject, (the twigs encased in ice) are placed to the left side of the frame off center and the horizon line is placed on the upper third of the frame. This is how good framing and composition is created.

Use ‘Lines,’ vertical, horizontal, diagonal or a combination of all, to your advantage 

In the photograph above, I use a combination of vertical, horizontal and strong diagonal lines and in the middle a human figure for contrast. The balance and tension in this picture is very strong and every single element is needed to keep the image engaged with the viewer. Even the lamp acts as a spherical counterpoint to the round shape of the man’s head.

Don’t leave large empty spaces. Leaving large holes in the composition such as uninteresting expanses of water or dark or very bright elements should be avoided. Change perspective by moving from a different point of view or maybe move your tripod up or down to compress large gaps in the mid to near foreground. Conversely, elements should not be cluttered; raise the height of the camera to increase the distance between elements. Don’t forget that the lens that you use on the camera is very important to give you the perspective that you want it in your photographs.

In this photograph again I am using lines to create a strong composition. I included a post from the fence to break the repetition of the smaller iron bars and then simply waited to see what happened. Since there are many birds in my courtyard I did not have to wait too long. Note: in this image, the three birds are unified by the triangle that they form with their bodies.

Once again I am using lines for a strong composition but this image has the added element of a spiral which is something that is found in many things in nature.

Cut seashell (sample)

  1. When you go out into the field looking for images, concentrate on one or two different composition techniques and purposely look for items that fit your desired images, this, of course, will help you develop the way you see. Do not just go out and shoot anything and everything, doing that will not help you become a good photographer.
  2. Make sure that both the foreground and the background are interesting or at least that the background does not compete or intrude with the main part of your image.
  3. The background is just as important as the foreground. Pay very careful attention to what you photograph and the angle of view you take.

Take a look at this next image:

I could have created this image with the orchid perfectly straight but that will make a very static composition. By tilting the camera sideways I created a strong diagonal composition making the image that much more interesting. Because you have the camera in your hand, you can decide how and why your images should be the way you record them.

Use leading lines such as rails or lines created by shadows, fences or anything else to lead the eye into the main part of the image.

The lines from the rails, road, and sidewalk are leading into the silos which are the main subject in this photo.  Lines can always help you make your images much more interesting.

Avoid distracting elements in the composition. This is done by paying careful attention to what is close to the frame in the picture. You have to check the edges of the frame to make sure that nothing is coming into the picture, for example; a distracting branch of a tree, or someone’s part of a body, or a portion of a colorful car, etc. etc. Many things can destroy the composition if the photographer is not careful and ignores the edge of the frame.

This is a very good photograph with good composition, unfortunately, the photographer neglected the edge of his frame and the graffiti on the very edge of the image is very distracting. In fact, when you look at the entire image the very first thing your eye goes to, is the graffiti and not the cat. Just a little attention from the part of the photographer and this image will be great.

One of the great masters of photography was so careful with the composition of his images that it took him a few minutes to compose every image (on a 4×5 or 8×10 camera). But for him, those few minutes of composing an image was how he became a master photographer. The fact is that when a person has a real interest in becoming a very good photographer, you have to have lots of patience and take the time to always compose your images correctly.

In this photograph entitled;

“Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine” 1944

Adams made use of the rule of thirds and masterfully darken the middle mountain and lighten the trees in the bottom making the horse stand out. Great picture, great composition, and a great way of using contrast to help the viewer look at the entirety of his photo.

A frame within a frame. Look for objects that frame other things. In nature, there are many things that a photographer can use to frame an object and make it look more interesting. Look at the following image so you understand how this works.


Harry Callahan – Eleanor and Barbara, Chicago, c. 1953

Look at the composition in this image. The photographer (Harry Callahan) uses light and shadows to frame the image of his wife and child. His use of light is amazing and as many great photographers know, using anything that is available in nature to make your photographs more interesting is not something you do lightly.

One other thing that I recommend to all my students is to, be critical of your work. Capturing good images from time to time does not make you a great photographer, but it’s a start. And when you do, always ask yourself, “How can I improve this image?” Whatever it is that you photograph, there is always a way to make it look better. Sometimes it’s just by getting closer to the object, sometimes eliminating part of the image, sometimes by placing it in a different part of the frame. There are many ways of improving images.  Do not be content with mediocre work, if an image that you create looks bad to you, admit it and go shoot some more.  Look at other photographer’s work, something similar to what you like to shoot and see how they compose their photos. Good composition in your photographs could be a long learning experience, but don’t despair, eventually, you will learn how to see through the viewfinder of your camera.

 -Ignacio Alvarez

© February 2016

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