Lessons for Beginning Photographers: Tips on Good Composition

Composition is the arrangement of visual elements within the area covered by the photograph.  When that arrangement is visually pleasing, we say that the photographer has made a good composition.  The arranging may be done by any number of methods, such as moving forward or backward (thus including less or more area in the photo), tilting the camera, taking the subject from above or below, changing the lens so as to view the subject differently, and moving the camera right and left, up and down, in order to place the elements in the frame in different positions.

So, how does one know which of the above methods should be used on any particular shot to achieve good composition?

Well, here are ten tips:

  • First of all, photographs, like artistic paintings, need to be about something. They require something that draws the viewer’s attention, even if it’s nothing more than a pleasing curve, or an interesting contrast. Before you snap the picture you need to ask yourself, “What do I intend to show with this photo?” “What’s my subject of interest here?”
  • Second, sometimes, in order to have a center of attention for a landscape or street scape, you may need to patiently wait for a person to enter into the frame, to give the eye something to anchor upon, so that an otherwise uninteresting collection of colors and shapes takes on a unity. The photo will not be about that person. It will be about the whole scene, person included. But without the person, the scene does not hang together, and is uninteresting.

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  • Third, if your subject of interest is a person or collection of people, get close enough to them so that they occupy a large area in the frame. The most frequent mistake of beginning photographers is that they do not get close enough to their subjects. Move up close!
  • Fourth, in most cases, obey the Rule of Thirds, which will help move the viewer’s eye around the whole frame.  Here’s how the Rule of Thirds works:  Imagine that you are drawing two lines horizontally and two lines vertically so that you divide the frame of the picture into three equal strips, horizontally and vertically.  The lines you drew in your imagination intersect at four points.  The Rule of Thirds says that to achieve good composition you should place the elements of prime interest in your photo at or near those intersections.

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  • Fifth, if there are objects that make diagonal lines in the frame, such as a receding fence line, or a path leading to the horizon, use these in your composition. Diagonals provide dynamism in photographs. They invite the eye to explore the whole frame instead of getting stuck at one part. Diagonals often invite the viewer to take a journey, from foreground to background. And what about horizontals? They tend to put the viewer’s eye at rest. They are appropriate if you want to convey a feeling of calm and peace. Finally, what about framing your photo vertically? Use vertical shots if your subject is tall and you have no other way to get its essential features in the frame. Also, keep in mind that vertical shots often connote power and majesty.

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  • Sixth, dramatic contrasts of light and dark, or varied textures (rough versus smooth) also make interesting compositions.

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  • Seventh, if your center of attention is a moving subject, (such as a person running or an automobile driving), leave the greater amount of space in your photograph on the side toward which the subject is traveling. Otherwise, the subject will seem cramped in the frame.

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  • Eighth, consider using natural features for framing your subject. For instance, landscapes which use tree limbs in the foreground to make a natural frame over or around the center of attention in the background are often very attractive.
  • Nineth, repetition of a certain shape, such as similar roof tops on a street from foreground to background, can make a pleasing composition, provided that the repetition is a prominent and obvious feature of the photo. In this case, the overall design becomes the center of attention, not any particular part of it.

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  • Finally, be aware that colors, as well as shapes and patterns, attract a viewer’s attention. Beware how you use the color red in a photo, because even if the red area is small it will attract attention to itself and perhaps distract attention from other parts of the photo which you deem important. Certain colors compliment each other, making pleasing combinations. Others clash. Colors are very important in conveying feelings and moods. The details are too complicated to explain in this lesson, but just be aware that color is an important factor in composition, as well as design.
  • And as a postscript it must be added that the above are recommendations and not hard and fast rules. Learn these and practice them, but don’t be afraid to break them if you have the urge to. Then you will be exhibiting the courage of an artist!

2 thoughts on “Lessons for Beginning Photographers: Tips on Good Composition

  1. On the fourth point. Consider showing exactly the grid the two horizontal and vertical lines make within the existing boarder lines. Just a pattern.
    Or mention there will then be a total of nine small rectangles to lay on top the photo’s composition.
    When a person does not have easy mental imagery the description could be harder to visualize.

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