Basics - Composition

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Sample image showing different composition. Ashley Beolens -

Sample image showing different composition. Ashley Beolens -

With most modern cameras capable of exposing images almost perfectly, the one thing that makes an experienced/good photographers work stand out is composition. Anyone can take a snapshot that captures a moment, and if this is all you want then great, but for those who want pictures that make other people stop and look, the greatest aspect you can learn is good composition.

With this addition to our how to shoot - basics collection, I hope to teach you some of the tricks to turn your photos from snapshots into photos that will impress your friends and family, and with time and practice even the more experienced, picky, photo viewer.

This isn?t a short tutorial, but it is also not as in depth as it could be (whole books have been written on composition alone) this is hopefully an overview that will give you the basic starting point where composition is concerned.

Portrait or Landscape

The first choice any photographer is likely to make when composing their photograph is whether they are going to be shooting in portrait or landscape, or even for a cropped square (some large format cameras actually produce square images), each has its own merit, so this is not something to learn, but it is important to use the right format that compliments your image. (Don't be fooled into thinking all portrait photos must be in portrait format or that photographs of landscape scenes MUST be shot in a landscape format, photography is about expression and if something different works then use it).


Most people will photograph things straight on from head height, this is a natural way we see things and so people assume it will be the best image, unfortunately (or fortunately for those of us looking to take better photos) this is not always true, changing your angle will give you a much more interesting view, and can create an amazing image.

Move around, practice taking shots from behind, above, below, get in close, move further away, anywhere but straight on, once you have been doing this for a while you will find you naturally start seeing the photo in any situation. Learning to find the different angles is what changes people from snapshot producer to photographer (I?m not saying it will make you Ansel Adams but it moves you away from being the average Joe). This does NOT mean that straight on from head height will not be right though, sometimes that IS the best shot.

A few combined

Combined composition styles

This image combines different angles, lead in lines, the rule of thirds, it tells a story and there is space for the subject to look into İAshley Beolens

Tell the story

Composition is all about finding the story in the photo you are taking (I know this sounds a bit pretentious, but it works). Snapshots are just that they are a memory jogger; a decent photograph will not only remind you but talk to other people (who may not have been there) as well.

When it comes to telling a story with your image context becomes all important, a photo of someone?s head can tell one story but panning out and showing they are an athlete partaking in a sport shows context and tells the whole story. Neither is wrong but that is where choosing the context comes into the image process, which "story" are you trying to tell?

Check your background

Sometimes the subject of your image can be lost if there is a distracting element in the background, when you are composing your image don?t just concentrate on the subject make sure there are not odd things appearing behind (or in front) your subject, these can distract the eye of the viewer and totally alter how your image is viewed. Learn to compose, check, then re-compose if necessary. This obviously only works if the image can be re-composed, a sports or wildlife shot you may only get one chance so pre-planning may help here.


Often you will find, that when taking a photo (especially of a living subject, people, wildlife etc.) you will want to leave some space around your subject. Now while the picture is going to be static it is often a preferred choice to leave room for your subject to move into, or look into, this gives a more natural feeling to an image, but it is not compulsory and sometimes having the subject looking out of the picture can create a feeling of speculation, what are they looking at etc.

It is known as "photographing space" and it can be one of the hardest aspects in photography to get right.o much mped, or uncomfortable. The best advice is to practice, and keep practicing.

Depth of Field

In composing an image you will also want to consider depth of field (See our Understanding aperture page for information how to achieve your desired depth of field) Do you want lots of the image in focus or just a small amount, do the surroundings matter? Or would you like them to be blurred out. Think about these things as the chocie may well affect the story your image is trying to tell.

Lead in Lines

When we view a picture our eyes wander, it is a natural thing, everyone does it; one way to get people looking at your picture in the way you intend is with lead in lines. If an image, photo, drawing whatever has lines coming from and edge, our eyes will naturally follow them. Your best bet for using these sorts of lines will be to place them so that they lead into your image rather than out of your image.

If this sounds confusing it really isn?t take a look at an image with strong lines, where do your eyes end up? If they leave the picture it hasn?t worked to direct you towards the focal point, if they lead you into the image, bingo, this is what you want to see. (The image of a young girl, above and too the right, is a good example of lead in lines, in this image they lead you straight to the girls face).

Rule of Thirds

Rule of thirds/Goldern Rule

Golden rile and rule of thirds

As you can see the rule of thirds is marked by the green lines the Golden rule by the red spiral İAshley Beolens

I have saved this for last as it will profoundly change the way you look at photos! Not a statement to be made lightly I know, but please read on.

If you look at most images that are in magazines or displayed on walls in galleries or those stunning coffee table photo books they will conform to the rule of thirds. Simply put it is a way of dividing up the image into three (3) smaller rectangles you then place your subject on the dividing lines and it will instantly look like a thought out picture. Taken further you can imagine nine (9) dividing lines (creating a grid) placing your subject on conjoining lines will have an even better appeal.

At first this might seem a strange idea, but the more you look at them the more you will see that these make much more naturally appealing images. However it is just a simplified version of the greatest compositional trick you will find, the Golden Mean (also known as the golden ratio, a ratio that occurs naturally throughout the entire universe!) there is not a photo that ?works? that does not follow this rule. Please if you do find one let me know, even the most unusual composition will only work if it follows this pattern.

The golden ratio when used in conjunction to photography is actually a golden spiral, (see the gold spiral in the image on the right labelled rules), I am not going to explain it in full here, as to be perfectly honest it is a bit beyond me! But have a look at the Wikipedia page linked above, and put it to the test look at any photograph that looks good (works) and you will see how it fits, it is quite remarkable.The image to the right of jelly beans shows both the rule of thirds and the golden rule line.


My final tip is to get your work critiqued by other photographers and listen to the advice, you may find some harsh, others will not tell you anything (as an aside I hate critical comments that just say ?I don?t think it works? without an explanation) but often you will be given invaluable advice as to why an images is not quite working, or what you could do in future to change the image for the better. It can be hard to take but if you don?t get this advice you are unlikely to improve (there are plenty of groups and websites who will help, or even join a local camera club).


Clear backgrounds

Another image showing different angles with clear backgrounds İAshley Beolens

Unfortunately friends and family are not usually good critics, they either don?t want to hurt your feelings or are impressed that your image is better than theirs. Your peers on the other hand will have experience you may not and are likely to tell you the truth.

Oh and ignore people you know who make comments like great picture you must have a good camera etc. the camera does not make the photograph, YOU do!


There are two final aspects to consider, firstly be your own worst critic, if you are unsure of a photo chances are it is not quite there, but don?t get click happy and delete the image, have a break and go back to it (I have often found images from weeks ago or even longer are not as bad/good as I first thought, revisiting them can be a great exercise).

Secondly look back over your old work (I?m talking a year or more) not only will you see how much you have improved, you will also be able to see where you went wrong and what you would do to improve the shot now, this gives you a great excuse to revisit the subject ad try again and then compare the images.


Although this all seems quite complex and there seems to be a lot to consider after a while they become second nature and you will find yourself doing these things in a split second (as hard as that is to believe now it is true).

If you follow these tips, keep learning and don?t be afraid to seek advice your photography will move on in a way you may never have thought possible. I hope you have found this advice of use, and I would love to hear from you.

Oh and one final thing, remember rules are made to be broken! If you find your image works without any of these things going your way, then that is even better. Good luck.

For more detailed information on how to shoot various genres please go back to our How to Shoot page and look at what we have there already.

Ashley Beolens