There are no unbreakable rules when it comes to how you should compose your photographs After all, who likes rules except for your old school principal or heads of H.R. departments? There are however, several guidelines you can use to help improve the composition of your photos. In this tutorial, I’ve listed 20 of these guidelines along with examples of each. I’ve started with the most basic ones and finished with some of the more advanced composition techniques.
First of all we have to define what is meant by ‘composition’. Composition refers to the way the various elements in a scene are arranged within the frame. As I’ve already mentioned, these are not hard and fast rules but guidelines. That said, many of them have been used in art for thousands of years and they really do help achieve more attractive compositions. I find that I usually have one or more of these guidelines in the back of my mind as I’m setting up a shot.
We’ll start with probably the most well known composition technique: The Rule of Thirds.
1. Rule of Thirds
So I’ve just told you that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to composition and then the first thing I write about is the ‘rule’ of thirds. In my defence, I didn’t come up with the name. The rule of thirds is very simple. You divide the frame into 9 equal rectangles, 3 across and 3 down as illustrated below. Many camera manufacturers have actually included the capability to display this grid in live view mode. Check your camera’s manual to see how to turn on this feature.
The idea is to place the important element(s) of the scene along one or more of the lines or where the lines intersect. We have a natural tendency to want to place the main subject in the middle. Placing it off centre using the rule of thirds will more often than not lead to a more attractive composition.
In this photo, I’ve placed the horizon roughly along the bottom third of the frame and the biggest and closest trees along the line to the right. The photo wouldn’t have the same impact if the larger trees had been placed in the centre of the frame.
In this photo of the Old Town Square in Prague, I’ve placed the horizon along the top third of the frame. Most of the buildings sit in the middle third and the square itself occupies the bottom third of the frame. The spires of the church are placed near horizontal line to the right of the frame.
2. Centred Composition and Symmetry
Now that I’ve told you not to place the main subject in the centre of the frame, I’m going to tell you to do the exact opposite! There are times when placing a subject in the centre of the frame works really well. Symmetrical scenes are perfect for a centred composition. They look really well in square frames too.
This photo of the Ha’penny Bridge in my home city of Dublin was the perfect candidate for a centred composition. Architecture and roads often make great subjects for a centred compositions.
Scenes containing reflections are also a great opportunity to use symmetry in your composition. In this photo, I’ve actually used a mix of the rule of thirds and symmetry to compose the scene. The tree is positioned off centre to the right of the frame but the perfectly still water of the lake provides the symmetry. You can often combine several composition guidelines in a single photograph.
3. Foreground Interest and Depth
Including some foreground interest in a scene is a great way of adding a sense of depth to the scene. Photographs are 2D by nature. Including foreground interest in the frame is one of a number of techniques to give the scene a more 3D feel.
In this photograph of a waterfall in The Netherlands, the rocks in the river provided a perfect source of foreground interest. Adding foreground interest works particularly well with wide angle lenses.
took this photograph in the Dublin Docklands. The dock cleats along the quay provided the foreground interest in this shot. I think it adds a real sense of depth to the composition. The dock cleat in this scene was only a few metres in front of me when I took this shot. Including it in the frame portrays a sense of depth in the scene by including an element that I was quite close to as well as the bridge and buildings in the distance and everything in between them.
A friend who was with me that evening tripped over one of the cleats and almost ended up getting a very close up view of the River Liffey. That’s one way of adding depth to the scene I guess.
You can find more easy to follow tutorials on exposure, camera settings, composition and light in my eBook titled Outdoor Photography Essentials: