Photography Composition Tips to Make Your Photos Look Better
I started doing photography in 2011, and only a few months later I was convinced that I have a huge knowledge in that area, that all my photos are awesome, and that many people could benefit from my wisdom. Fast forward to the present day, I realize that was thanks to the Dunning–Kruger effect :). However, I believe that I have learned enough in the last 9 years to be able to share some useful tips & tricks with you.
This will not be a huge, detailed, deep, overly complicated “master class” about every single aspect of photography (mainly because I still have to learn many of them myself). Also, you don’t need to own the latest and the greatest photo equipment to be able to implement these tips in everyday life. Instead, I will share some easy-to-follow pieces of advice, which you can apply anytime, anywhere, even when making photos with your smartphone.
Keep the Horizon Straight
There is nothing worse than a great photo… which is crooked. That kind of photo just screams “You didn’t pay enough attention to me!!!”
Whether you are using a phone or a “real” camera, whether you are shooting from the hand or using a tripod, be sure to make your frame straight and level before pressing the button. The horizon should be horizontal (hence the name), people and buildings should be vertical (unless you’re taking a photo of the leaning tower in Pisa).
If, for any reason, you weren’t able to create the photo properly, you can always correct it in the post-processing, but you will surely lose a part of your image around the edges when you try to straighten it. So I really recommend that you take some time and to create the photo properly in the first place.
When I started doing photography, I also had this problem, and many of my photos were almost ruined because of this, so I know very well what kind of trouble this can be.
Rule of Thirds
This is probably the rule that you have already heard about. A long time ago, great artists have found out that a painting looks way more appealing if the main subject is not placed in the dead center of the frame, but slightly off to the edge. How “slightly” should it be? They came to the conclusion that the ideal position should be determined by the value called “golden ratio”. I won’t get into too much details, but the golden ratio has a value of approximately 1.6. This ratio can be found everywhere around us, because many living things in nature have it in their “design”.
Of course, you won’t have to carry a calculator and a ruler every time you want to make some photos :). There is an easier way to achieve the similar result, and that is to mentally divide your frame into thirds, vertically and horizontally. Then try to place your subject on one of the intersection points:
This way your photo will have a more dynamic feeling. Here is an example:
I decided to frame this photo in such way that a bee is placed roughly on the top left intersection of dividing lines.
If it’s not possible to place the subject exactly on an intersection point, at least try to keep it somewhere on one of the four dividing lines. For example, if you’re taking a photo of a landscape, try to use the horizon as a line which will divide your frame in 1:2 ratio.
Bonus tip for shooting landscapes: If the sky is clear and blue (or what the photographers would call “boring”), let it fill only the top third of your photo. It doesn’t contain anything interesting. But if there are some dramatic clouds, you can let the sky take up two thirds of the frame.
We still have to wait until someone invents a smartphone or a camera that will produce 3D projections of what we see, so unfortunately we have to make do with 2D photos for now. When you create a 2D image, more often than not it will lack a feeling of depth. Therefore, it’s useful to apply certain techniques which convey depth to the viewer, and this is one of them.
Basically, when you determine what your subject is, you should look for natural or man-made lines (both straight and curved) which will go into the frame, all the way to the subject. It would be ideal if the lines started from a corner of the frame. In that way, they will lead the viewer’s eye into the photo, to the most important part where the subject is located.
Reflections & Symmetry
People like reflections. They look interesting, they look intriguing. Whether there is a man-made surface, such as glass, or a nature structure, such as a calm lake or a sea, the reflections are always fun to look at, and of course, to photograph.
When photographing a reflection, it would often look weird to respect the rule of thirds. In that way, you would make a photo which neither looks nor feels balanced. In this case, it is better to split the frame in half, and to place the line of separation exactly in the center.
Foreground, Midground & Background
When I was talking about leading lines, I mentioned a problem that every photographer has — how to make a 2D photo convey the 3D feeling, and to have some sense of scale.
If you scroll a bit up and look at the photo of the sunset, where I demonstrated the rule of thirds, you will notice that there is only a mountain in the photo. You cannot really tell for sure how far away it is, or how large it is.
To cope with this issue, there is a useful composition technique. You should try to visually separate three parts of the space: foreground, midground and background.
In the foreground you should place a familiar object, something that everyone recognizes and knows how large it is. This will give your viewer a sense of scale.
Then, there should be a midground, which will be a “separation layer”…
And finally, there is a background, where you should place the interesting scene that you’ve found.
In this way I created the sense of depth in my 2D photo, and the viewer will also be able to figure out how large and how far away the mountain is.
Move Into the Frame
When you photograph people, animals or vehicles that are moving, you should definitely respect the rule of thirds. But even more important, frame the photo in such a way that your subject is moving into the frame, not out of it.
Can you imagine how this photo would look like if the runner was on the right third of the frame, facing outside? It would really feel uncomfortable to look at it. But in this way there is enough space in front of him, and you can probably imagine what was happening in the next few seconds after this photo was made.
Speaking about the movement… When you want to convey motion, look for the diagonals. There is something in the diagonal lines that makes your viewers feel that the things are really moving in the photo.
Look at the photo above. The light trails move “into the photo”, and converge in the distance. In this way I could display the movement much better than if I shot the photo while holding the camera parallel to the path of the bus.
Avoid the Edges
Placing your subject using the rule of thirds instead in the very center of the frame is preferred in most cases. However, be careful not to overdo it and not to place the subject too close to the edge of the frame. In that case, your photo will feel unbalanced and the subject won’t have enough space to “breathe”.
Look at the following example (a cropped version of another photo):
Does this feel weird? The plane is too close to the edge, and it also looks like it’s trying to fly outside of the photo. Now look at the original version:
Much better, right? There is enough “breathing space” around the plane and the photo looks much more pleasing.
Fill the Frame
Robert Capa, a Hungarian-American war photographer and photojournalist, once said: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”.
And that’s true. In this huge and busy world, sometimes it’s hard to figure out what is important and what we should focus on (and I’m not talking only about photography).
So, the next time you decide to make a photo of anything, try getting really close and filling your frame with the subject. If you don’t have technical or physical possibility to do so, try cropping your image, to simulate the same effect.
Most people find it quite normal to take snapshots while standing up straight. You know, you see something on the street (a flower, a cat, a kid), you take out your phone, point it towards the subject, press the button and move on.
However, in that way you will create an average-looking photo from the perspective which makes your subject small and less important.
Next time, try to get down on your knees, and to place your phone or camera at your subject’s eye level. In that way, you will give the subject more importance and make it look much better.
To take this to the next level (pun intended), get even lower, and shoot bottom-up to make your subject look even larger and more important. If you’re doing corporate photography, apply this when photographing a CEO ;)
People love patterns. For some reason, a photo with repeating elements will be rated as very interesting by many viewers.
Again, you can look for either man-made or nature-made patterns. Think about leaf patterns, windows, arrays of street lamps… Anything that repeats can make an interesting scene.
Frame Inside Frame
Sometimes it’s worth finding a natural or man-made structure which will serve as a frame for a scene that you want to photograph. Yes, you will already have a rectangular frame (the borders of your photo), but the photo itself can be much more interesting if it contains another frame inside.
You can use a window frame, a bridge, adjacent trees, or ask two friends to hold their arms together and to make a heart shape :)
When someone mentions contrast, you probably think about the contrast between dark and bright parts of the image. But there’s more. You can also use colors to create a contrast. For example, you can pick a simple background with only a few different tones of one color, and place your differently colored subject in front of it (or, as I’ve done in the photo below, point your camera towards the background and wait for the subject to enter the frame).
This is not really a composition tip, but if you understand different types of light, it will help improve the look of your photos.
During the day you will experience many different types of light. A so-called blue hour starts approximately 1 hour before the sunrise. It will give you a pleasant blue glow in the atmosphere, which is perfectly complemented by the orange and yellow street and window lights and it’s great for street photography.
It’s followed by golden hour, for 1 hour after the sunrise. As the name says, there will be a warm golden light in the air, and it will be perfect for landscape and portrait photography.
After that, you will have strong mid-day light for hours. It creates very bright areas with harsh shadows. It might be good for making some architectural photos. If you want to photograph people, try taking them to the shadow, to avoid having strong sun light bursting into their faces, which will cause them to make ugly facial expressions.
If you are lucky, there will be some clouds in the sky. They will either create an interesting scene which can easily be incorporated in a landscape photo, or there will be a thick overcast layer of clouds which will act as a gigantic light diffusing panel. That type of clouds will provide much more pleasant light and you will have much more possibilities for photography. I personally like to photograph nature and cityscapes on overcast days.
Of course, you won’t always have awesome clouds in the sky and you won’t be in the mood to get up before the sunrise to catch perfect light. However, you can always think about switching to black & white photography if the light is not good. When you shoot black & white (or make your photos black & white in the post-processing), you won’t be affected so much by the imperfect lighting conditions.
As the day comes to the end, another golden hour will happen, before the sunset. It will be followed by another blue hour, just after the sunset.
Finally, when the night falls, you will be able to get creative using the artificial lights that come from vehicles, street lamps, windows, neon signs… Use them to create interesting effects or to light your subject in a creative way. If it’s a rainy night, you might also be able to shoot some great reflections in puddles. Try making your night photo black & white. Play with different options and see what works best for you.
Go through the whole text once again and read it carefully. Did you notice that I didn’t give any advice anywhere about how to “take a photo”, but how to make or create a photo? Of course, I won’t discourage you and tell you not to take any quick snapshots, but I really believe that photos should be made and not taken. If you really want your photos to start looking better, try to spend a bit more time on planning and composing each shot. You will see the results very soon.
And most important of all, have fun while creating your art! :)
You can see my whole portfolio at https://www.instagram.com/vladimir.tomic.photography/