2021’s Top Guide to Composition in Photography (17 Tips & Techniques)

Photography 09/11/2021 6 min read

Composition is the art of arranging your frame: what goes where, what is included, what is excluded, and how multiple elements contribute to a whole. To help understand what good composition is and how it works, you need to grasp and apply plenty of rules. 

While the idea of rules for composing a photo can feel quite restrictive, when you learn them and put them into practice, you see how knowing about placement, depth, balance, shapes, and lines, patterns and proportion makes for a stronger image. Understanding and mastering the rules of composition means that you can use them to their advantage, but also ignore or break them with intent when that’s the best thing for your image.

1. Fill the Frame

“Fill your frame” is probably the first rule of photography composition. And while getting closer to your subject is almost always a good idea, filling your frame isn’t just about identifying your focal point and giving it side-to-side and top-to-bottom coverage. The principle of filling your frame is that everything in your scene works to tell your story and to draw attention to your subject. There is nothing to distract from your subject and anything in the image is there for a reason and where it is meant to be.

2. Watch the Background

How many times have you taken a photo only to notice that there’s a dustbin growing out of someone’s head or an orange juice stain on an otherwise pristine tablecloth behind a food shot? It’s always worth giving a quick sweep around the edges of your photo to check for unwanted intruders, and right across it to make sure that you’re not unwittingly capturing anything a bit ugly. Check, and check again.

3. Use the Rule of Thirds

Divide your frame into nine equal-sized rectangles using two vertical and two horizontal lines. Use these lines to place key elements of your composition: horizons going across and people or trees running vertically, for example. The four intersecting junctions are known as powerpoints. Place what you want your audience to focus on, on one of these, for example, your subject’s eyes or face.

4. Balance Your Scene

Balance comes in all sorts of forms: maybe something positioned diagonally opposite your subject provides a counterweight in the frame or perhaps it is the use of contrasting colors within the scene. Balance isn’t just about objects and items, but also direction and intensity. Keep your scenes weighted.

5. Look for Frames

Frames ensure that your audience knows where to look and draw attention to the subject. You can use anything to frame your subject, from shadows and trees to doors, windows, or even your subject’s own limbs. 

6. Follow the Rule of Odds

Start with triangles. Look for three points in a frame and the relationship between them. Now try five elements. Maybe even seven. You’ll find that an odd number of things in a frame that works together will bring dynamism to it that can often be lost with even numbers. 

7. What’s in the Foreground?

Having an object in the foreground of your scene can help to provide a sense of scale for your viewers. By layering objects in the foreground, middle ground, and background of your scene you can create depth and different elements of interest in your photo. If you want to emphasize the foreground in a landscape, then keep the horizon in the upper third of the frame, which will suggest a vast expanse of space stretching out before you.

8. Notice & Capture Lines and Shapes

Leading lines draw the eye of the viewer into the scene, lead them through the story, and point them in the direction of the subject. Lines can be physical, for example, railways tracks or bridges, or imaginary, such as the eye lines. These lines might create interesting shapes in your photos, but shapes themselves are interesting: how do architectural features interact and what shapes do shadows form.

9. Go Pattern Hunting

The eye loves patterns: they are intriguing but can also be calming. You can find them in nature–for example in tree bark and insect wings–or they can be manmade, such as bricks in a building. Patterns, textures, and their repetition can make beautiful images. Keep an eye out for them.

10. Negative Space

Nothingness can be very useful in photography. It can give your subjects room to breathe. It can counterbalance an intense, busy element of your scene. It can act as a point of contrast. It can suggest what is about to happen. Do not be afraid of introducing acres of nothingness into a scene if it can set your subject in context and help to tell your story.

11. Make the Most of Color

Red against green. Purple with yellow. Blue and orange. Contrasting colors against each other can make for incredibly powerful images, whether you directly juxtapose them or you use a contrasting color to highlight your subject. Don’t be afraid of a monochrome image either, with your frame filled with varying shades of the same hue. Think shimmering seas or autumn leaves.

12. Pay Attention to Limbs

Deliberately close cropping can create very strong images, but do be careful of accidentally cutting off limbs. If you are getting in close so that not all of a human or dog or horse can be included in the frame, make sure that you don’t crop on a joint. It looks very odd.

13. What is the Golden Ratio?

Like the rule of thirds, the golden ratio is a means of dividing your frame. It’s based on Phi (a number like Pi that doesn’t end), which is roughly 1.618. You can use this number to divide up your frame into rectangles (it looks a bit like the rule of thirds but with the lines closer to the center of the frame) or imagine it as a spiral overlaid on your image. 

14. Juxtapose

Colors. Chiaroscuro. Weight. Size. Look for juxtapositions to make interesting compositions. We’ve already considered balance, color and negative space as key elements of composition in photography. By taking them further, and deliberately juxtaposing light and shadow or objects of differing sizes, you can create compelling photos.

15. Show Scale

Unless you can indicate just how vast a landscape is by providing a sense of scale, much of its impact will be lost on your audience. It might be a person or flower in the foreground, a barn in the middle ground, or a tree in the background, but there needs to be something to indicate size and scope.

16. Capture Interaction

Photos are stories. Stories are usually about relationships. Relationships normally involve interaction. Capturing moments of interaction makes for great photos. It can be the way a bride and groom look at each other. How a mother duck encourages her ducklings into the water. Or when the wind catches the petals of a flower. Learn to anticipate these moments of interaction and incorporate them into your composition.

17. Division

You might have heard of this referred to as “chunking”, but lots of the photography composition techniques we’ve looked at involve dividing the frame. By dividing the frame into obvious blocks, or chunks, you can highlight your subject (perhaps through isolation or juxtaposition), introduce layers and depth into the scene, or direct your leading lines. This helps to bring definition and purpose to your compositions and thereby strengthen your storytelling.

Composition techniques do not exist in isolation. You will use them in conjunction with your lighting, your aperture, and your shutter speed to create the image that you want. You will often find that multiple elements of composition in photography can be combined to make a creative effect.

Negative space works with color and balance. Leading lines can provide juxtaposition. The rule of thirds is a platform for working with so many other rules of photography composition. Don’t feel constrained by photography composition rules: see them as a springboard for where you can take your photos.

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