Composition Essentials in Photography

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by Gene Rimmer

Though we refer to them as rules, the following are guidelines to help photographers produce better images. Every image cannot contain every element listed here. And remember, rules can be broken and a wonderful photograph produced, but it is important to know how to take the guidelines and apply them or ignore them intelligently and purposefully. If you do not know what to look for in your image to make it better, you can’t improve on your work. Some issues are more important than others in a particular photograph. Composition essentially means a good placement or arrangement of the subject(s) of the image. The photo shows harmonious proportions and a dynamic symmetry in the placement of the most important objects plus attention to details. The following points help to explain this concept further.

The “Famous” Rule of Thirds

Picture a Tic-Tac-Toe layout of two lines dividing a frame horizontally and two lines dividing it vertically. “The Rule of Thirds” holds that your main subject should be placed on or near one of the four points where the horizontal and vertical lines intersect. This does not need to be done exactly or inflexibly, but it tends to create a more interesting, dynamic, and visually appealing photograph. The rule also favors a one-third, two-thirds balance between background (or foreground) and subject. For example, usually the horizon of a landscape does not look best centered. The same applies to vertical compositions.


Before photographing your subject, take time to think about where you will shoot from. Our viewpoint has a massive impact on the composition of our photo. Rather than just shooting from your first position and at eye level, consider photographing from high above, down at ground level, from the side, from the back, from a long way away, from very close up, and so on. As a general rule, shooting something like children or small animals should be done at their eye level. A more unique shot can be gained in an image if a subject is photographed from an unusual angle instead of just the usual viewpoint. So definitely consider using your feet, at least initially, rather than your zoom lens. Pretend you’re shooting with a big 4×5 view camera with heavy film plates, so rather than firing many shots and hoping for the best. Weigh your choices carefully. Changing your perspective and angle of view will change the relationship of the foreground and background elements differently than zooming your lens can do. Getting closer will create more depth than the compression of elements which happens when using a long focal length. Finding the right angle from which to shoot can make or break a photograph, so spend plenty of time moving around and making conscious decisions about your placement and your focal length.

Center of Interest

There should usually be a dominance of primary subject matter so that one center of interest prevails. A group of flowers may not hold as much interest as that a single primary subject surrounded by more subtle objects. Your attention is usually drawn to the lightest or most colorful area. The center of interest should always be in sharp focus. For a person or an animal, the eyes are the most crucial. The image may be complex and entertain good eye movement throughout, but the primary subject should bring the attention back to itself. Also, the human mind finds that odd numbers like 1, 3, 5, etc. create more satisfying tension and interest than do even numbers.


Watch it! Depending on your subject, the background can help the eye focus on the main center of interest, or it can be very distracting. There generally needs to be a point of focus for the eye to go to. Having a darker background, possibly out of focus, can bring the eye to the primary subject. Vignetting, or framing with darker tones, is also a way of keeping attention within the frame. Lens focal length strongly impacts how the background is perceived. In a broad landscape, a wide-angle lens may help in showing all of the scene desirably sharp. A macro shot of a flower will be much more appealing with the background blurred and out of focus. You may also need to pay attention to the background behind the subject; the classic example being a limb growing out of someone’s head.

Leading Lines

When we look at a photo, our eye is naturally drawn along lines. By thinking about how you place lines in your composition, you can affect the way we view the image, pulling us into the picture, towards the subject, or on a journey through the scene. There are many different types of lines – straight, diagonal, curvy, zigzag, radial, etc. – and each can be used to enhance a photo’s composition. We read left to right, so lines tending that direction are more natural to us.


The world is full of natural items which can be used as frames, for instance trees, archways, bridges, etc. Consider placing a natural frame around a subject, if feasible, to help isolate it from its environment outside. The result can help draw the eye naturally to the main point of interest. Mild and subtle vignetting helps keep the eye within the image.


Allow “breathing room” around a primary subject by not cropping it too closely. Some space between it and the edge prevents a cramped feeling. On the other hand, leaving too much sky, ocean, dark shadow, etc. leaves the viewer observing too much “negative” empty space than is not pleasing. Crop out nonessentials to bring the viewer’s eye to the primary subject. Don’t cut through interesting elements of a picture since this will tend to draw the eye out of the frame. You may not always find the best crop in the viewfinder’s ratio, but you can use your program’s crop tool to fit the individual photograph. Some people crop to standard dimensions like 4×6 or 8×10 while others customize the crop to meet the needs of the specific image.


In this category, I am including a number of facets:

Consider how the image conveys contrast of light against dark and how it use tonal ranges. It also may be high key (bright, light) or low key (dark & heavy) to convey the intended mood.

The use of color impacts a composition by having the subject either more saturated or muted, or by having subjects and backgrounds contrasting versus complementary colors.

The lighting is extremely important in bringing balance to an image. Normally the eye tends toward the brightest, lightest subject and the one with the sharpest focus. Soft versus hard subjects will draw the viewer’s eye differently.

A sense of depth can be conveyed by overlapping subjects, partially obscuring one object with another. In a landscape, a stepping of foreground, midground, background is pleasing and natural and should lead the eye through the image.

Good rhythm in repetitions or patterns can be interesting, but may need to be broken up to introduce tension or a visual focal point.

Subjects should be looking or moving into a frame rather than leading the viewer out of it.


Now go out and break some rules!


by Gene Rimmer

taught May 19, 2010 at the 3rd Wednesday Education & Support meeting

Caveman Camera Club, Grants Pass, OR.