Simple Composition Techniques That Could Vastly Improve Your Photography (plus a bonus video)
Updated: May 1, 2022
In my opinion, there are three main types of photographers.
There is the professional photographer who makes a living, or a partial living, from photography.
There is the ‘snap-happy’ photographer who takes lots of photographs, mainly with a phone camera, to share on social media.
In between there is the photography enthusiast, the amateur who wants to do more than just post images on social media yet does not aim to become professional.
I consider myself to be in this middle bracket.
For me, photography is a passion, something that I love and that gives me great enjoyment. To get the most from this great hobby, I want to learn and improve and make the best images that I can make.
It is for this reason that I want to learn more about composition.
I want to learn what makes a good image, what draws a viewer to look at an image and see its strengths.
I want to aim for more than a cursory glance and a quick ‘like’ on Instagram.
I want the viewer to look at my image for longer than a few seconds, to move around the frame and see what it is I am trying to convey.
Paying close attention to composition is one way to try and achieve this aim.
What is Composition?
Put simply, composition is the way in which we put together an image in the frame. It is how the subject is placed in relation to the other elements in the photograph.
Learning how to properly compose an image is not easy. There are many considerations involved in creating a strong composition and we need to be aware of what these are and carry them with us when out making images.
The goal of a strong composition is to create an impact with the image and have the viewer linger for a while and really look at the image.
It should be clear from the composition what the subject of the image is. Without a clear subject the viewer won’t know what to focus on.
The composition should also lead the eye around the image, and certain compositional techniques help us to accomplish this.
A leading line such as a path serves to lead the viewer's eye through the image. It can point to the subject or lead on through the image creating a sense of mystery as to where it leads.
Many of us, even if we are relatively new to photography, have heard of compositional tools such as the Rule of Thirds, Leading Lines, Including a Foreground, Midground and Background, and Natural Framing, to name a few.
I wrote an earlier post in which I discussed some of these tools.
These tools are commonly mentioned in articles about composition and if we include at least some of them we will ensure that we improve at composition.
Recently I took a walk in my local park and woodland with the intention of focusing on 5 elements of composition.
1. KEEP IT SIMPLE. One of my most common mistakes has been to include too much in the frame. My images can often be too cluttered, and the viewer doesn’t know what to look at or focus on. I am learning to simplify my images, to isolate a subject and allow it to become a main focus in my image.
Shooting in a woodland setting gives lots of opportunities to practise isolating a subject or subjects as woodlands are by nature chaotic places.
I consider this image to be too cluttered, with too much going on and nowhere for the viewer to focus. The viewer's eye will go from side to side not knowing where to look.
I took this image in the same location, yet simplified it somewhat.
2. CREATE BALANCE IN THE IMAGE. When I look at the images of other photographers, I like to feel that there is a sense of balance in the image, that there is equal visual weight on both sides of the frame. Yet this is something I can neglect in my own images. At times I have come home with images that have all the interest confined to one side of the image and they are not visually pleasing.
One solution to this problem is not to rush when working on composition. Taking time to look through the viewfinder, check that there is equal visual weight on both sides of the image and if there is not, move the camera to look for an element that will balance the initial subject.
In this image I think that the stone on one side of the frame balances the tuft of grass on the other, while the plant on top left is balanced by the greenery on the bottom right of the frame.
3. FOLLOW YOUR INSTINCTS - NOT RULES. When I first learned about the Rule of Thirds I followed it slavishly, fearing that if I produced an image with a subject placed centrally in the frame, I would be considered a bad photographer. I have now come to realise that the Rule of Thirds is not so much a rule to be followed as a guideline which makes the image more visually pleasing to the viewer. It is a tool to be used when required rather than slavishly adhered to. There are times when placing a subject centrally in the frame makes sense, so I have learned to follow my instincts rather than rules.
This vibrant colour of this tree caught my eye as it stood out among the others. It made more sense to place it in the centre of the frame.
4. WORK THE SCENE. What is called ‘working the scene’ is an important aspect of getting a good composition. A mistake I have often made is to stop at a location, find a subject, and make my image without checking if I had the best composition possible at the location. I have started to check to see whether there is a better angle to shoot from or a better subject in the same location. I ask myself whether I am getting the best light, the best perspective, the best supporting elements or whether I could do better by waiting for an interesting cloud to pass over the scene or light to appear or whatever it might be that could turn an ‘ok’ composition into a good or even a great composition.
One common mistake that I have become aware of is having overlapping elements in the image or not giving the subject or subjects breathing room within the frame. Sometimes all we need to do is move left or right, up or down a few inches and that can make a big difference to the composition.
In the image below I moved around the trees until I was at an angle where I thought each tree could stand without having its branches partially covered by another tree.
5. CHECK THE FRAME FOR DISTRACTIONS. There is nothing that spoils an otherwise good composition more than a distraction, either within the frame or at the edges. While many distractions can be removed in post-processing, sometimes that can prove difficult and I believe it is better not to have them there in the first place. It can save a lot of trouble and disappointment if we just move a fraction to the right or to the left or adjust the angle that we are shooting at so as to avoid the distraction in the first place.
The partial branch on the bottom left distracts from the three trees.
A slight crop might make a better composition. The main subject is the beautiful yellow tree at the back, which stands out against the green. The trees left and right mirror each other and serve as supporting elements.
While it is important to learn from the best photographers by reading, watching videos and joining workshops, there is no substitute for getting out with your camera and practising composition techniques.
Capture images of anything that catches your eye.
Look for images in places where you previously didn’t see any.
They are there if you look for them.
Spend time planning your shot, checking the image in the frame, moving if necessary or waiting for a better moment.
As you practise you will find that you are noticing compositions that others miss, and you will begin to elevate your photography to a new level.
Below is a link to ‘The Only 4 Rules of Composition That You Need to Know’.
In this video, professional landscape photographer, Nigel Danson, sets out 4 composition ‘rules’ which he believes are the most important guidelines to follow.
These are the techniques he tries to incorporate in his images and what he looks for when asked to evaluate an image.
I hope you enjoy watching it and that it helps to improve your photography.
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