Have you ever looked at a very simple photograph and wondered what it is that makes it so pleasing to look at? Even abstract photos that have no obvious subject can have a sense of balance and calm. To understand what makes an image pleasing to the human eye, you must understand photography composition.
Why Is Photography Composition So Important?
If you ask skilled photographers what are the most important elements of photography, the large majority will list composition as either first or second (behind great light).
Why? What is it about composition that makes it more crucial to great photography than other factors like camera settings, lens choice, or post-processing?
It’s all about the human brain. The way our brains process what our eyes see is incredibly complex and has a dramatic effect on the way we feel about what we see.
The same way that some elements of human faces are pleasing to our eyes, the rules of photography composition can also be pleasing when applied well. When a human face is pleasing to our eyes, we feel much more positively toward that person. It’s the same with photography.
Although there are exceptions, just as with physical beauty, mostly the way people see, process, and feel about photography composition is universal.
The Basics of Photography Composition
Rule of Thirds
No discussion of photography composition would be complete without the rule of thirds, and for good reason.
If you study the work of master photographers, you will see the rule of thirds applied constantly. It’s not complicated, but composition doesn’t need to be.
Divide your frame into three equal sized rows and columns. This gives you two vertical lines and two horizontal lines. It also gives you four intersections of those four lines.
To apply the rule of thirds, simply compose your images with points of interest on those lines or intersections. Points of interest will depend on your subject. It could be the horizon in landscape photography. When you’re photographing people it will be a face or eye.
Don’t stress about making sure you’re following the rule of thirds exactly. I don’t follow it exactly, and often place the horizon a little above the top line, closer to the top of the frame. It’s more of a guideline than a rule.
Most cameras have the option of overlaying grids onto the frame when you’re composing a photo This can be a good idea if you struggle to visualise what thirds look like when you’re shooting.
The Golden Ratio
Another basic “rule” of photography composition that can be helpful is the golden ratio. It’s a little more complex than the rule of thirds, but once you get a grasp of it, you’ll be surprised how useful it is.
I won’t bore you with the background of the golden ratio, or the golden spiral as it’s often referred to. All you need to know is to compose your photos with lines or points of interest along the spiral, preferably with the main subject at the smallest part.
The easiest way to understand the golden ratio is to see how it can look.
The spiral can work in both vertical and horizontal images and can face any direction. It’s visually pleasing no matter how you use it.
One of the best ways to understand how photography composition affects how we process what we see is by looking at leading lines. There is virtually no symmetry in nature, yet there are lines everywhere we look.
If you learn to see these lines and use them to your advantage, you can ‘lead’ the eyes of the viewer through your photos. You might think your eyes go straight to the middle or the subject of an image, but it isn’t that simple.
Your eyes will search an image and be attracted to elements in a very predictable way. It happens so quickly that you don’t know you’re doing it. If the viewer’s eyes don’t find something to focus on, they’ll feel nothing towards the image and move on.
You may be asking how this applies to photography composition. Well, if you know that a viewer can be ‘led’ through an image, you can decide how by composing your image in a pleasing way.
If you can use lines to point or lead towards the main point of interest, the viewer’s eye will travel through the image and land where you want it to. This is much more satisfying for the viewer and they’ll feel more positively towards the photo.
Beyond Photography Composition Basics
Something I read a long time ago has always stuck with me. I don’t remember now who wrote it, but they said “put a great foreground in front of a great background”. This transformed my photography.
There are some breathtaking vistas that will stand on their own as a subject, but they will make even more impressive photos when an interesting foreground is included in the frame.
A great foreground not only adds interest to the image, but depth. We don’t live in a world of mountain ranges and ocean views. Everywhere we look there’s depth. From the ground we stand on to the sky above us and everything in between.
If you’re photographing the beach, look for objects or textures in the sand. If you’re photographing a lake, find a jetty on the lake to include in your foreground. Even if you’re photographing people, foreground elements can transform your portraits and add depth.
When you learn to include interesting foregrounds in your photography compositions, you’ll start to see them everywhere. You’ll even realise that interesting foregrounds can stand on their own as the subject of the photo.
We’re limited by the rectangular shape and straight lines of our camera sensors, but that doesn’t mean you need to limit yourself to straight lines and right angles in your compositions.
Diagonals are everywhere in nature, and are incredibly pleasing to the eye. Especially when they intersect with each other and the frame of your photos.
Look for diagonals when you’re exploring compositions and try to line them up against each other. Move around to make the angles sharper if possible.
Diagonal lines that intersect with the corners of your frame work well. Moving the frame just a little can go a long way to place diagonal lines in a better location in the frame.
It seems counterintuitive, but including large amounts of empty space in your images can actually bring more attention to the subject.
This works because as the viewer’s eye searches the image and finds empty space, there is tension until it finds the subject. Because of the empty space, the subject is much more clearly the subject, and the tension is released. This release of tension is also found in other art forms, such as music, and is immensely satisfying.
There are countless ways to introduce negative space to your photography compositions. It’s difficult to do if the area surrounding your subject is busy, because it will distract your viewer. If there is an area that won’t be distracting, try to zoom out or use a wider lens to include it.
Where possible, using a narrow depth of field to blur the area is a great way to include negative space that won’t distract from the subject.
If you’re not sure how much negative space to include, go back to the rule of thirds. Applying negative space to two thirds of the image should work well. If in doubt, add more and crop later.
Finding elements in a scene that you can include as a natural frame is a great composition technique. Think of it as a frame within a frame.
It could be a man-made object such as a window, doorway, or arch. Often the best frames are created using natural elements like overhanging trees.
Don’t think that a frame needs to be complete. Including some natural framing to fill only part of the image, such an empty sky, can have the same pleasing effect.
Another way to create depth in your photography compositions is to look for layers. This means layering a variety of elements in the image that are different from each other.
The layers can vary in colour, brightness, texture, clarity, shape, even focus. It doesn’t matter what’s different between the layers, what matters is that there are enough layers to create the layered effect.
Mountain ranges are a great subject for capturing layers. You can also create a beautifully layered photo just with the transition of colours from the ocean to the sky during blue hour.
I mentioned earlier that you rarely see symmetry in nature. There are exceptions. The most common is with reflections. If you can find reflections in natural scenes such as a calm lake or in man-made objects like glass, take advantage of them.
Symmetry is incredibly pleasing in photography the same way as it is in human faces. Although we don’t see it a lot in purely natural scenes, luckily we’re not limited to those. You’re much more likely to find it in cities or scenes with man-made elements.
If you want to practice including symmetry in your compositions, explore an inner-city area and try your hand at shooting street and architectural photography.
Any time you can include a sense of scale in your photography compositions, your images will immediately improve. When our eyes can perceive what they’re looking at and better understand how the scene looks in real life, we feel more positively towards the image.
The easiest way to include scale in your photography is to add elements that the viewer can attribute size to. The most obvious is a person. It can be difficult to know how big something like a waterfall is on its own, but with a person standing at the bottom, it’s a lot easier.
There are countless things you can include that will portray scale. Anything from a friend to a boat to a seat. Think outside the box.
Crop In Post
Don’t make the mistake of thinking you need to get it perfect in-camera. No matter how good you get at creating pleasing photography compositions, you’re not going to get it right every time.
That’s one of the joys of post-production, we can crop later. I regularly crop or straighten my images in Lightroom to fine-tune my compositions. I will often re-crop aggressively if I want to change the aspect ratio of a photo or switch between horizontal and vertical crops.
There’s no right or wrong here. You have full creative license to do what you like with your photos.
Applying The Rules To Your Photography Compositions
As I’ve mentioned, these aren’t really rules. They’re guidelines to help you better understand some of the elements that can make more pleasing images.
Don’t get caught up in thinking you need to understand and apply all of this to your compositions. If you get too scientific you’ll lose your creative expression.
Try taking one or two of these principles and finding ways to apply them for a while. Don’t worry about all the rest, just focus on one or two until they start to become second nature. The more you use them, the less you’ll need to think about it.
Eventually, you’ll start to get a feel for composition and it will become intuitive.