How to compose a photo
If you want your photographs to be consistently good then you need to think carefully about composition. If you compose a photo deliberately rather than just snapping away you will get more satisfying results. In this article we are going to look at a few basic introductory tips for photographers who want to learn how to compose a photo. We will not cover everything, but hopefully you will begin to understand why some of your pictures look better than others. None of these are 100% fixed “rules” that you have to use all the time. For artistic reasons you may choose to break them or ignore them. However, it is best to be able to understand the compositional techniques that help to create a strong image. That way you won’t have to guess and you will also clearly understand why you’re doing something different for a particular effect, should you choose to do so.
What do you want your viewer to look at?
We take pictures for a reason – we want to share what we are seeing. So, the first thing you need to do is to decide consciously what it is that you want to share and how you can make it obvious. The various different compositional tools are all about directing someone’s attention. Whether you use leading lines, the rule of thirds, strong colours, selective focus or whatever compositional technique, you must first know what it is that you want to highlight. If you are vague about what you want to share then techniques can’t really help you. So, decide what the subject of the photo is and then think about how you can draw attention to it.
Simplify the scene
One simple way to draw attention to something is to make it appear large in the image. This might mean zooming in or walking closer. It might mean positioning the camera so that it appears prominently. You may need to ensure that others things aren’t in the photo that could risk competing for the viewer’s attention. It can be difficult to have more than one subject in a photo as your eye may not know where to stop. So, much of the time, compose your photo so that your chosen subject is obvious by its size. Remove ambiguity by keeping to just one subject where possible.
Place your subject carefully
You can draw extra attention to your subject by where you place it in your image. One of the most well-known tools for photography composition is the so-called “rule of thirds”. This is a very common device to use when you compose a photo as it is based on lots of research as to where people’s eyes tend to look when analysing a picture. However, don’t let it become so much of a “rule” that you never do anything else. It is very helpful, but it does have its limits. The rule of thirds is based upon the idea of dividing up the frame into equal thirds like this:
The green dots on the third diagram show where the lines intersect when you divide the frame into 3 both ways. The idea is then to put your subject on one of those 4 spots. It has been shown that this helps to draw the eye, whilst also making the image look more balanced. You can choose which of the 4 spots you use when you compose a photo. Obviously you need to imagine roughly where these spots would be when taking the photo. Some editing software will allow you to crop afterwards using a grid that will help you find the 3rds more quickly.
Here are some images based on the rule of thirds:
Use leading lines to direct the viewer
I have written previously on using leading lines, but will mention them here, too. Leading lines are quite simply lines within the scene that lead you somewhere – preferably towards your subject. These can be roads, rivers or fences, for example. If you think creatively, then you can find all sorts of opportunities to create lines in your images to help emphasise the subject. For example, here is an image that uses light trails as leading lines:
These are just a few initial tips to help you think about how you compose a photo. You can also use these tips to help with painting and drawing too, of course. Indeed, photographers can learn from master artists about composition!
© Joe Lenton, January 2016