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Getting a better picture – some tips for improving the composition of our images.

Updated: Apr 9, 2019

Before I started to study photography I had the idea that if I found a beautiful view and took a snap of it, the result would be a beautiful photograph. If I was lucky, it was a pleasing image, but, more often than not, the result was nothing like I had imagined and I had to learn the lesson that beautiful scenes don’t automatically translate into beautiful photographs! What I wasn’t paying attention to then was composition, the fact that good photographs have to be ‘made’ by the photographer, they don’t just happen! What I had been taking were snapshots, not photographs.

At an earlier stage in my photographic journey I took a look at the area of composition and began to incorporate some ideas on the topic when making my own images. Composition refers to how the elements are placed or arranged in the frame, as distinct from the subject itself. The particular way in which the image is composed will affect how the viewer sees or feels about the image, therefore we should try to arrange the visual elements in such a way that we create as dynamic an image as possible. Composition is important in smartphone photography as well as in camera photography. In fact, it is almost more important in smartphone photography as almost everything will be in focus therefore it is essential to place all the elements to the best possible advantage and to make careful choices as to what to include and what to exclude.

As good composition is widely considered to be one of the key elements required in order to produce good photographs, almost every photography book or online tutorial that I read tells me how to better compose my shots, and there is general agreement as to what works in terms of composition. At the same time there are some differing opinions on the subject, with some writers suggesting that we follow rules such as the Rule of Thirds or achieving Diagonal Balance, while others will suggest intentionally breaking the rules once in a while. My fear of the latter is that in amateur hands such as mine the result will not be as intended, but nonetheless I decided to have a go at improving my composition by incorporating some of the suggestions.

Each of the following photographs was taken with the aim of applying one or more of these composition techniques to my images. Some were taken with my phone camera.

Having a clear focal point

I think it is important to focus on a particular subject otherwise the point of the photograph will be unclear and the viewer will be unsure of what to look at. Before framing the shot we need to ask, ‘What is the focal point of the shot’?

In this photograph the focus was the dog and the aim was to capture him jumping in the water. I used my phone camera on burst mode.

Change the point of view

Most people tend to shoot from eye level which gives a similarity to many images. When we change viewpoint we can add interest to the image by showing the subject in a way that people don’t usually see. Getting down low can provide a more unique viewpoint, as can shooting from above. This could mean sitting down, kneeling or even lying down to take the shot, or finding a higher vantage point from which to shoot.

I took this photo by getting down to the level of the seat, rather than taking it from eye level. I think it gives more balance to the image.

Filling the frame

Filling the frame with an image is another technique recommended to give images a greater impact. This approach can focus on detail or patterns and eliminate distracting elements in the background.

Including a foreground interest

In this composition technique, the foreground interest leads the eye from the front to the back of the image, thereby giving a sense of depth. It can also add visual interest to the overall photograph.

Framing the subject

An approach that I try to use as often as possible is to ‘frame’ my subject by using objects in the foreground, for example an overhanging branch. I think this can give greater emphasis to the subject and draw the viewer into the frame. We can get creative with our frames and look around for various ways to frame our subject.

A variation on this is to shoot through something.

Leading lines

Using leading lines is suggested as a good way of leading the eye into the image. Our eyes will usually follow a line to its end. Leading lines can be roads, railway tracks, paths, rivers, coastline, anything that leads the viewer’s eye, ideally towards the main subject. In some images there may simply be a suggestion as to where the lines are leading, for example, a railway track leading to the railway station ahead.

In this image, the lines lead the eye to the sea beyond. To me, the curved lines in this photo suggest a gentle stroll to look out to sea!

Using symmetry, reflections, shadows to aid composition

I like the way the trees fill the frame and throw their reflections onto the foreground of the image, and the little bird to the bottom left is an added bonus in the image!

Negative space

I like simplicity in images, which often results in having negative space. These images have an uncluttered feel and can give a sense of calm to the photo. A simple image from nature isolated in this way can emphasise the uniqueness of the subject in a way that seeing it in its cluttered surroundings may not convey.

Follow guidelines, not rules!

As we become more creative with our photography we need to pay attention to guidelines but also take risks, be bold with our shots, follow our own instincts so that we produce our own individual style of photography rather than slavishly follow the style of others.

If an image is purposefully brimming with elements, chosen carefully, that too can provide interest. The image above may appear cluttered but I wanted to capture the houseboat yet lead the eye towards it using the leading line of the towpath. I could have cropped the image but felt that the other boat put it into context and provided a contrast. There is no real negative space in the image yet I like the fact that it is full of detail. The houseboat was my main focus yet I don't feel that the other elements are competing for the viewer’s attention, rather they give an overall sense of the scene.

The image below is taken in the same location but the subject is pared down to reveal greater detail and less of an overview of the scene. One location can give lots of opportunities for different compositions.

There are many suggestions for improving composition, and not all of them are relevant in every situation, but by experimenting with these techniques we come away with a ‘toolkit’ of ideas to try out and which will hopefully strengthen the composition of our images, leading to more pleasing photographs.


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