How to Compose a Great Photo: 5 Simple Rules Noobs Should Know Before Breaking

How To  /  Photography
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If you’re a photo newbie like me, you might have wondered: what’s Composition, and why should I care? Fortunately, the concept isn’t complicated: composition just refers to how things are arranged within the frame of an image. You can see why that might be important. Good composition means you’ve arranged the things in your frame (or more likely arranged yourself and your camera) so that both the subject and the scene make the most sense — or have the greatest impact —  to the viewer. I’ll be showing you some examples below.

Composing a strong picture is a skill that definitely takes practice, and I’ve made my share of goofs. But since I want to set my photos apart from the trillion others on social media, learning the basics is important to me. I’ve also seen this quote more than once:


— Pablo Picasso

…and really, who am I to argue with that guy?

But where to start? All the do this/don’t do that information out there can be overwhelming to newbies. But I slogged through it so you wouldn’t have to — so let’s get started.

Ben Long, an excellent photography instructor who offers tutorials online (I recommend Foundations of Photography: Composition), teaches that for any image, there four compositional concepts:

  1. Clearly-defined subject and background
  2. Sense of balance
  3. Point of view (POV)
  4. Degree of simplicity

You may also have heard something about the Rule of Thirds. We’ll cover that too.

Clearly-defined subject and background

As you’re out and about shooting photos – before you even lift your camera to your eye – take a look at your surroundings. Then, ask yourself some questions: Is this setting even interesting? What’s the subject I want to capture? What in this scene (lines, light, objects) can I use to help me frame my subject, or lead viewers’ eyes to my subject? Are there distractions in the background or foreground? Will the setting allow me to test out multiple points of view (i.e., can I move my feet to frame my subject from different positions, and at different angles?) What is the photographic effect I’m going for? Am I keeping the scene simple?

Then look through your viewfinder to frame your shot. One way to practice noticing these things (until it becomes second nature) is to trace your eye around the edge of the frame. This will help you notice unsightly, distracting things you don’t want, or that cause imbalance, or just plain look tacky.

Like this shot, a good example of bad composition:

Example of bad composition by not paying attention to the background.

Can you see why?

In this case, I was guilty of poor point of view: it looks like utility pole is sprouting from my subject’s  head, and then there’s the nice yellow fire hydrant at the bottom right of the frame. There’s also just too much space behind her.

How could I have made this better? By moving! If I’d moved more in front of mom and baby, I’d probably have avoided the utility pole, and could have hidden the fire hydrant behind her body. Ignoring what’s in the background is a common mistake for untrained photographers.

A simple way to avoid background issues (and produce a great image) is to just blur it out. This effect is called bokeh, and isnt strictly speaking a beginner’s technique. To get it, you’ll need to use a camera with an adjustable lens and wide aperture.

Example of bokeh technique used to blur the background.

One of my favorite portrait photographers, Dani Diamond makes awesome portraits with lots of bokeh.

A tip I often overlook is to simply get closer. In many cases, just doing this helps eliminates a bunch of compositional distractions. Allow your subject to fill the frame, and notice the impact it makes:

Get closer to the subject.

Sense of balance

Sense of balance in a picture refers to the feeling that some elements within your frame have, visually, ‘compositional weight’. And this weight can be poorly distributed; for instance if you had a bunch of things on just one side of your frame, you might tip the scale of the image, causing the viewer’s eye to be drawn to that side of the photo and, potentially, away from your intended subject. Likewise, objects with strong highlights, bold colors or textured patterns might tip the scale in the frame causing the same effect. Other objects might carry a lot of compositional weight simply because of what they are (e.g., a human, a battleship, the moon).

This photo by R. Peyton Hale is a favorite of mine, and is a great example of the concept of balance (as well as the rule of thirds, which we’ll get into in a minute):

See how the darker toned elk, an element that carries a lot of compositional weight, balances out the large tree on the left side of the frame? Even the tree sticking up above the others in the background helps to balance the image.

Likewise, see how the large water tower in the background on the left is balanced by the large bail of hay in the foreground on the right?

Example of compositional balance.Point of view (POV)

Point of view refers to where you, the photographer, are positioned relative to your subject and scene. One way to keep this top of mind while shooting is to frequently ask yourself: Is this the most interesting angle? So move your feet! (Or as the pros say: Work the shot!) Get on your back. Drop to your stomach. Bend your knees. Climb a ladder. Or a tree. Or just move two feet to the right — you’ll be amazed at the new view, and how it affects your image compositionally.

In this shot, I climbed about eight feet high on a ladder and shot down onto the chalk art driveway below. What other point of view could produce this effect for my baby astronaut subject?

Example of playing with perspective.

See if there are elements in your scene that might act as a frame around your subject, like these trees  that act as a natural frame for my subject:

Using the background to frame the subject.Degree of simplicity

Finally, keep your image simple and clean. Remember, too much clutter in your frame only distracts the viewer from what you want them to see: the subject and a nice background.

Keep it clean.The rule of thirds

This is the most commonly referred-to guideline for photo composition. To understand what it’s about, pretend your image is covered with a 3 x 3 grid, so that your image is divided into even thirds both horizontally and vertically. Aligning your subject with these lines at any one of their intersection points creates an even flow for the viewer’s eye, and an aesthetically pleasing touch to your photograph: The rule of thirds.

The rule of thirds and bokeh in one image.

If you have a DSLR camera chances are good you’ll have a setting to superimpose these lines on your viewfinder as you frame your shot; smartphones have settings for this too. This can be helpful while you practice composing shots. The rule of thirds is not a hard-set, always-must-do rule (remember Mr. Picasso), but it’s a great place to start, and you’ll probably find yourself returning to it often because it’s so effective.

If you’re going for symmetry within your photo, you might break the rule of thirds. Tamara Lackey offers great tips on breaking those rules.

The number three is also a powerful compositional tool; something about including three compositional elements in your scene seems to make it whole — possibly because showing three elements creates a pattern or a system. This is referred to as the rule of threes. Repeating lines, shapes and patterns gives an overall sense of order to the image. Can you see (or, rather feel) the difference?

Three limes.      vs.     Two limes.





Something about three just feels better, right?

Additional elements of composition to consider:

How will you position your subject around lines, shapes or light? Using these elements appropriately around your subject can really make your photo pop.

Incorporating leading lines within your frame is a great way to compose a shot and guide viewers to your subject. Sometimes when viewing a photo you see a line or lines first, rather than the subject, but if these lines are leading the viewer’s eye to the subject, you get a powerful shot. This photo by Ansel Adams (The Tetons — Snake River) perfectly demonstrates leading lines. See how the S-shaped curve in the Snake River leads to the Grand Tetons?

Ansel Adams

Shooting in black and white not only makes for some striking images, but stripping out color can also help teach composition by reducing the world to tone, line and form.

And that’s what I’ve learned so far about composition — I hope it’s useful to you. Everything came from others, sharpened by practicing. Listed below are several resources I’ve used in my personal journey. Happy clicking!

Nikon Learn & Explore website (also available as smartphone app)
Adorama Learning Center


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