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Our top 15 tips for digital photography composition
All digital photographs consist primarily of two factors -
In a GREAT photograph these two elements are deliberately controlled to create a final result that satisfies the INTENT of the photographer.
All good photographers therefore need to develop what I like to refer to as good
COMPOSURE – the marriage of COMposition and expOSURE
This article deals only with the composition element. For tips and information on exposure please see
This article outlines 15 Tips for digital photography composition.
There are no rules of composition – only guidelines.
Within these tips you will find plenty of advice that may help you create better photos. Please do not treat any of these tips as rules that must be followed. Photography as with Art should be unconstrained and expressive. So whilst there are good reasons for incorporating these tips into the way you approach composition – it is equally important that you occasionally break all the “rules” and experiment with alternative ideas.
Before you speak - think what you wish to say!
When we communicate by talking, before the words are uttered we form an intent for their meaning to the listener – and the reaction that we wish them to provoke.
Try the same approach with your photos. Consider in advance what you wish the photograph to “say” - maybe it's to tell a story in which the viewer can spontaneously determine the before and after events of the captured moment? Or
perhaps you wish to provoke a strong or even shocked reaction – or maybe humour, awe, compassion or sympathy. Or maybe you want the image to be symbolic – of beauty, serenity, good or evil.
Simply by having an intent you will find your photos start to express themselves more eloquently.
Check around the frame.
Your eyes and a camera viewfinder tend to see the world differently.
When our eyes see – we scan the view in front of us and our brains construct an image that isn't necessarily real – I am sure we have all experienced some of the well known optical illusions that prove this fact.
Our cameras image sensors tend to things as really are.
It is very easy for us to be so intently focused on what we WANT to see the the final image that we fail to notice all that is actually there.
Getting in the habit of scanning around the entire image as framed in the viewfinder will often result in you noticing unwanted or unintentional detail in the composition
Less is more
When someone views a photo they will (subconsciously) be scanning for a point of primary interest. We call this the focal point.
If the photo is cluttered – the viewer may miss the “point” of the photo - or lose interest in it too quickly because of the distractions. So keeping compositions simple actually makes images more powerful and memorable.
Lead the viewer to where you want them to go.
Humans tend to be naturally inquisitive and we tend to follow pathways to see what lays at their end.
Compositional pathways are known as “lead in lines” and provide the viewer a natural and pleasing visual journey to the main focal point of the composition.
Lead in lines can be actual pathways, fences, power lines, streams etc. etc. or more subtle via areas of contrast, shadows or bands of colour.
Novice photographers tend to centralise the main focal point of their image.
For example, people will be placed slap bang in the middle of the frame and horizon lines tend to neatly divide the image in half!
Now, whilst doing the above is not “wrong” per se – often the placement of the main subject or elements which divide the image “off centre” gives a more pleasing result.
The rules of thirds and golden section provide an compositional aids to this off centre placement of points of focal interest.
With each system the width and height of the rectangular image area are divided by three to create a grid. The grids each contain 4 points of intersection. Points of focal interest within the composition are then aligned with one or more of these points.
Areas which tend to divide the scene – horizons for example – are placed so that they fall on either the top or bottom dividing line.
The world is full of frames – windows, doorways, arches, gaps between branches etc. etc..
Try composing your shot so that your subject is viewed through one of these existing frames. This can add significant punch to the composition as viewers such frames add intrigue and curiosity to the image.
Focus on details rather than the big picture
Rather than try and include everything within a scene – try focusing on some smaller detail from which the viewer can determine the full picture.
This is a useful tip when photographing large and famous architecture – giving the viewer the “challenge” to solve the puzzle of recognising the landmark, holds the attention and therefore makes the image more interesting
The majority of subjects are photographed from the same place and in the same way.
To add interest to your photos try changing the viewpoint from which you take them.
Try getting low – literally lay flat on the ground if necessary – especially when shooting subjects that we normally look down on, such as flowers and children.
Or find a higher viewpoint than normal and shoot down on subjects normally viewed at eye level.
Basically using a different from average viewpoint will make your images more distinctive and therefore carry more impact.
Give your subject room to breathe or move.
If taking a portrait photo where the subject is gazing to an unseen point outside of the frame – leave a little space in the composition in the direction of their gaze.
Not doing so can make the subject appear “crowded” and this in turn leaves the viewer feeling uncomfortable.
If shooting a moving subject – a galloping horse for example – leave a little space in front so the viewer senses that the action continued uninterrupted after the moment of the photo. This again avoids the viewer feeling uncomfortable about the image.
If your intent is for a particular shot – then some forward planning may be necessary in order to achieve it.
This may involve being aware of the time and direction of astronomical events such as sunrise and sunset or moon rise or phase. Perhaps the weather conditions are a key factor – maybe your shot needs stillness from movement caused by the wind or maybe you need clouds or rain for a dark and broody effect.
Some locations may only be open at certain times, or you may need a permit to shoot photos (particularly using a tripod)
At popular locations you may need to arrive early, to beat the crowds and secure the optimum viewpoint for your planned shot.
Don’t stand still
Be prepared to move around to change your composition.
Often moving just a few paces can dramatically improve a composition by eliminating unwanted elements from the scene – or introducing new ones which enhance it.
Moving closer to your subject (or zooming in) may remove unnecessary or distracting elements that would otherwise reduce the impact of the photo.
Abstraction and ambiguity
Humans are naturally inquisitive, problem solvers.
You can hold the interest of the viewer by providing a composition whose subject isn’t immediately obvious or has some deliberate ambiguity.
is not to say the shot should be haphazard – the composition is
likely to be much stronger if it still is composed by your deliberate
intent rather than simply left to chance.
After the event
With digital photography you have many tools at your disposal to alter composition or even add or detract from it during post production.
This may simply be cropping your photo to improve the composition or actually constructing the composition itself by blending and merging a number of photos together to form a composite.
Some “purist” photographers believe that post processing should not be used to “tamper” with photos. Personally I believe that you are entitled to use all the creative tools at your disposal to create your photographic art. However there are circumstances – such as journalistic style photographs where I would agree post production should be limited.
Learn from others and practice
One of the best ways to develop a better technique for composition is to look at the work of others.
Examine the works of famous photographers and see if you can understand why the photos are so appealing.
Look at photography competitions and see what types of photos are grabbing the judges' attention – or simply browse through online photo resources such as flikr or I stock photo and see which photos you find compelling and then examine and identify their composition.
And finally – take lots of photos and be honest about your results (or seek opinions from others) and learn as much from what DOESNT work as what does.