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Basics – Part 1: Composition

31 Oct Posted by Mark in Basics, Guides |
Basics – Part 1: Composition

We’re kicking off a new series of posts on the basic skills of photography with something that can be used by every digital photographer, whether you have a top of the line digital SLR or the camera on your mobile phone: composition, or how you ‘layout’ your photo.

How you layout the objects that will appear in your scene is one of the biggest parts of photography. The most important thing is to look at what is visible in the frame and to decide how it will all fit together. The ideas below should help, but a lot of it will come down to what looks right for the photo you’re trying to create.

Focal Point

Valley Farm, West Wratting

The tractor is immediately the focal point of this image by Andrew Stawarz

Most pictures will have a main focal point, even if it isn’t actually the subject of the picture. Imagine a landscape with a building in or a brightly dressed person in a crowd – your eye is naturally drawn to them when you look at the scene. An image without any focal point can seem flat and lack scale. The position of the focal point is important when composing your picture – unless it’s the only subject of the photo then you might want to avoid placing it bang in the middle of the frame as this can make your photos seem static and dull. Try using the rule of thirds to position the main elements of your photo.


A very long road, Nevada

The lines of the road lead the eye to the horizon, which is about a third of the way up the picture.

Moving around when taking a photo is a good first step. Unless you have no room to manouver, are you in the best place to take a great photo? The angle of objects, both the subject and those in the background can make or break a photo. You don’t want to end up with trees coming out of people’s heads and all the other cliched mistakes you see so often. It’s also worth looking at the distance you are from your subject. Although with zoom lenses it can be tempting to stand still and let the camera do the work, this can affect your choice of aperture and the perspective of your photo. Moving closer or further allows you to control how much the subject fills the frame without these compromises. Just make sure not to walk around with your eye glued to the viewfinder or you might walk into something!

Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds

Try and get the main objects in your scene on the joins between the lines.

The rule of thirds is an artistic concept used in anything from painting to drawing to photography. It’s been around for hundereds of years and is really easy to use! When you’re composing your photo, imagine that the picture is divided into thirds horizontally and vertically, making up 9 squares. Then, arange you picture so that the main subjects land on one of the four joins of these lines.

In some cases, you can simplify things even further by just diving your picture horizontally or vertically. For example, if you’re taking a photo of a landscape then arrange things so the horizon is 1/3 or 2/3 of the height of the photo rather than in the middle.

Single Subjects

If you are taking a photo of a single subject then think about how it will fill the frame, but don’t miss out on opportunities to put your subject in context if it would add to the overall composition. For example, a portrait shot of a person in a studio will probably look best if the subject fills the frame. However, a building might look better if taken with it’s surroundings.


Hackney, London

The wall to the left acts as foreground interest to the view down the street.

Framing is how you choose what to include and what to miss out when taking a photo. For example, when you’re taking a photo of an old building you might want to avoid the car park next to it or the phone box just in front. Framing is closely related to the layout of the photo and can be adjusted by moving or using your zoom. If you can’t get the shot you want just by using the edges of the picture as a frame try using branches, walls or other objects. These can also add some foreground interest to your photos, especially if you are careful with your depth of field. Just don’t let them detract from the subject itself. For simple framing you may want the foreground out of focus but if the foreground adds to the photo, increasing the depth of field allows you to capture detail throughout the scene.

You can also change the framing of a photo by rotating your camera. Landscape is the usual framing, but by turning your camera on it’s side you can take portrait photos to emphasise height at the expense of width. You can also use other, less common angles, to add a more arty, vibrant feel if it works for the subject.


Hackney, London

The lines of the roads and building draw the eyes through the photo.

Lines cause the eye to follow them, so they can be very effective or very distracting depending how you use them! They can be especially good if they lead the eye towards the focal point of a photo. Different angles of lines have different effects – vertical lines can add excitement but could also make a scene look busy. Horizontal lines add a relaxed feel. Diagonal lines are best for leading the eye towards a point and allowing you to take in more of a scene as you follow them.

Just do it!

As we said at the beginning of this post, these are only ideas and guidelines. You’ll get an idea for what is a good composition as you take photographs even if it doesn’t fit anything we said here, but they can help you while you get started. Hopefully after a while you’ll find that you’re following at least some of these without even thinking about it!

<a href=”” title=”Valley Farm, West Wratting by Andrew Stawarz, on Flickr”><img src=”” width=”500″ height=”332″ alt=”Valley Farm, West Wratting” /></a>


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