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21 Photography Composition Tips For More Interesting Pictures
Partly because photography is such an instant thing, it can be easy to slip into boring habits when it comes to composing pictures. But if you slow down a bit and think more about the end result, you can start to think a bit more creatively. In this article I'm going to share some tricks for bringing photos to life with more compelling composition. So here are my 21 top photography composition tips:
1. Lead-in lines
Lead-in lines are one of the photographer's best friends! They are simply a line, of any kind, that catches the viewer's eye and draws it deeper into the image. This simple compositional device brings dynamism, depth and interest to pictures incredibly effectively.
Lead-in lines can come into play in any kind of image: landscape, portrait, still life, architectural and so on. It's also worth exploring different depth of fields with lead-in lines. For example, a wide depth of field often works with lead-in lines for landscape pictures, but a narrow depth of field can draw attention to the texture of foreground subject, without the out of focus background simply becoming static and boring.
2. The frame within a frame
This is something that many photographers use to 'round off' their main focal point and sweep aside distractions. By including some kind of framing, within the actual image frame, the viewer is left in no doubt where their attention is being drawn, and the subject gains added impact.
What constitutes a frame? It can literally be anything! I once saw an awesome black and white photograph of a white horse, looking straight at the camera, framed by its stable door with a pure black background. Portrait photographers often frame their subject with surrounding objects, people, or even the subject's own hands, or hat and clothing.
3. Don't trap moving subjects in a cage!
When photographing dynamic, moving subjects, we want to convey a sense of excitement and the direction of their movement. This requires allowing them a certain amount of space in the frame. You might be able to see the entire field that your dog is running in, but if you don't show some space in front of him/her to run into, then the edge of the frame can have a trapping effect.
4. Have a clearly defined focal point
What's the focal point of your shot? Try to answer this question in as specific a way as you can. The more precise you are in your own mind about what a given shot is about, the better you will be able to focus and compose.
For example, something like a street scene can easily become a messy 'nothing' kind of image, if you don't know why you are taking the picture. Is it a compelling moment unfolding, is it an interesting character, is it one person or several...? Don't just photograph a 'scene', pick a subject and make them the key focus of attention.
5. Look for repetition
I love photos that make use of repeated patterns, colours, shapes or lines. It always helps to pull the image together into a coherent whole that has a point. One of my favourite kinds of repetition is, in street photography, where several people all make the same gesture (e.g. a yawn, a wave, a skip etc) at the same moment.
Repetition can also appear in features of a landscape, designs on a building, details in food photography, arranged articles in a still life, or wherever you try to find it!
6. Fill the frame
Filling the frame with a subject is usually a pretty safe bet for producing a strong image. Clearly, no shot should have wasted space, that doesn't contribute in any way to the strength of the image. But some images 'fill the frame' more dominantly than others.
For example, a close up portrait where the face really covers almost the entire frame is a nice style to explore. Be wary of cramping your subject too close up to the edges of the frame though. It's usually worth either leaving some breathing room around the edges or cropping the subject so that it overlaps the edge of the frame.
7. A million choices of angles
You can approach every subject from a huge range of possible angles. There's no law that you're stuck with the shooting from your standing eye level! Often people choose to just raise the camera to their eye and shoot as a default option. Why!?
It usually makes for quite dull images. You're free to explore perspective, scale, lines, texture etc. by crouching down, lying flat, kneeling, climbing on top of something, moving around the subject and so on. So whilst shooting a subject - be on the move and use and have fun testing out the effectiveness of different angles.
8. The good old rule of thirds
The rule of thirds is a very simple and easy to remember aid to photography composition. Imagine a grid dividing a scene into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. The major areas of an image should fall roughly into these sections (e.g. foreground, centre and background). Meanwhile focal points are best positioned at the intersection of the lines.
This is just a way to help you remember that placing a subject smack in the centre of the frame is rarely a good idea. Always give the viewer's eye a chance to roam around the image. Dividing a picture into thirds helps to balance the space and create depth. We like to travel through a photo as we look at it and settle somewhere just off-centre.
9. Try to avoid messy backgrounds
A cluttered and confused background is something that can really kill a shot. Having chosen what the focal point of your picture is, you need to draw attention to it and not confuse the viewer with other things going on. There are several ways you can do this:
Change your or the subject's position, so the background is clearer; use a really narrow depth of field to isolate the subject by throwing the background out of focus; take complete control (if possible) and produce your own background, like a white sheet.
10. Use a telephoto lens for a flattened perspective
Long lenses, in the region of 80-100mm a very popular with portrait photographers because they compress the background and draw attention solely to the subject. This creates a really clean, simple composition that works especially well with portraits. There's nothing to distract from the emotion of the face.
This flattened perspective can also be effective in certain other situations. Even landscape photography, which typically involves a wide angle of view, can be given a fresh approach with a telephoto lens. It emphasizes lines, patterns and shapes, replacing depth with an almost abstract two dimensional style.
Minimalist photographs take a very simple conceit and give it lots of space, so the viewer can look at it without any distractions. I love this technique because it seems to produce a really calm, settled mood that's very satisfying to look at.
Minimalist photos are quite tough to create (though good ones always look deceptively 'easy'). Very few things in the world around us are free of surrounding clutter. How often do you see a lone tree on a grassy hill with nothing else. The landscape, people, places and things are rarely isolated enough to make for a minimalist image. So you'll need to spend plenty of time searching for a good subject, or - an easier option - create a minimalist still life. You may well find that the Photoshop clone stamp tool (and Lightroom equivalent) comes in very handy for tidying up minimalist shots in post-production.
When you do find a subject that could work, really labour over the way you arrange it in the frame. Ask yourself what kind of image you want to create, and how you want the viewer to feel about the 'visual balance' of the picture.
12. Avoid awkward cropping in people pictures
Have you ever taken a great picture of someone and then later noticed that they seem to be sprouting a telephone wire from their left ear, or growing a road sign from the crown of their head? It's not a good look, but when you're focusing purely on the subject, these infuriating background distractions can slip your attention.
So, keep an eye out for this kind of thing. If you're struggling to deal with a particulalry troublesome background, an easy fix is simply to narrow the depth of field right down so that the unwanted objects are blurred out. As with the minimalist style, the good old clone stamp tool can be a useful post-production rescue for this compositional hazard.
13. Straighten up those horizons
Most of us took lots of pictures with wonky horizons before we started exploring photography in earnest. It's a mistake that results from a casual, laid-back way of taking pictures that's more about quickly grabbing and storing a memory than doing so with a good quality photograph in its own right.
Often the viewfinder in DSLR cameras has an optional grid overlay that can help you compose images. This is really useful for lining up the horizon with the horizontal lines on the grid. It doesn't take much care to get straight horizons, but not doing so can ruin pictures, so always keep it in mind.
14. Be careful where you position the horizon
Following up on the previous point and point 12, the horizon is very prominent background line, and if you're not careful it can distract from the main subject in the foreground.
The classic example of this is the holiday photo, with your friends/family standing on the beach on the last night of the trip and the final throws of sunset in the sky behind. A great picture, were it not for the horizon positioned exactly in line with the subjects' necks, having an unfortunate decapitating effect!
15. Think about visual balance
Visual balance is the way the various parts of an image hang together as a whole, creating either a harmonious or unsettled impression. A well balanced picture somehow just looks right, with different sections and points of interest coming together in a coherent overall impression.
Meanwhile, a poorly balanced photo might include something that pulls your attention over to one side of the frame, with nothing to counterbalance it on the other side. This looks awkward, lopsided and provides no 'journey' for the eye to go on. Try to compose your photos with a sense of visual balance, so that one part of the frame does not 'hog' all the interest!
16. Be ruthless in culling unneeded details
This is an extension of the need for a clear subject. It can be tempting to want to show lots of things all in the same photo. I find this temptation especially strong when taking travel pictures, when I'm so keen to photograph all the interesting things around me that I try to cram too much into a single shot. But this never works out well, so be strict about sticking to your main subject and cutting out unnecesary extras.
17. Look for S curves
S curves are basically another kind of lead-in line, but they're especially interesting. An S curve is, literally, a curving line that roughly forms an S shape. Whereas a straight lead-in line is striking in its simplicity, cutting directly into the image, an s curve meanders through the scene, taking you on a slower, longer journey.
A classic example of an S curve is a coastal landscape shot that traces the bending shape of the shoreline. But you can also find them elsewhere, for example with roads, modern buildings, flower close-ups and constructed still lifes.
18. Shoot at eye level
When photographing children, babies and animals, get down to their eye-level for a more compelling and initimate shot. There's nothing worse than flat, dull and characterless pictures that are taken down on the subject. You'll notice an immediate and massive improvement if you make the effort to get down low and shoot at their level.
19. Avoid awkward framing in people pictures
We've looked at the dangers of distracting backgrounds and horizon lines in people pictures, and another thing to look out for is choice of framing. A good rule of thumb is not to cut off the frame at people's joints. For example, if the edge of the frame falls just above/below the knee, or the wrist, or the hips, it will likely look awkward.
You have to just get a feel for where does work as a suitable place for cropping. But steering clear of joints generally leaves you with a better chance of getting it right.
20. Look for symmetry
One of the simplest but most compelling techniques of photography composition is to find points of symmetry. A bit like repetition, symmetry always provides an interesting and clear 'point' to an image. Plus, it can be a very straight forward or more subtle theme.
On of my favourite uses of symmetry is in action shots or street scenes, where a moment of symmetry arises only momentarily, is captured, and then disappears again. This could be 2 people standing either side of a bench, sportsmen competing for a ball in a match or 2 people mirroring each other's movements in a conversation.
21. You create the composition
Hopefully the above 20 tips will help you out. But it's important to remember that composing pictures is a creative process, and the best shots come about when you trust your own instincts. The pleasure of photography is in experimenting and composing things in a way that you think looks cool, not that fits some 'rule' you've read about in a book/on a website! The best quote I know that expresses this comes from Edward Weston:
Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk.
If you have some thoughts on the article, or have some good photography composition tips to pass on, please share in the comments....