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Composition: The Basics


This article is designed to provide basic photographic concepts in a simple, easy-to-understand format. It is not intended to make you a professional photographer. It will probably not be of much, if any, help to a skilled amateur photographer. It is intended to give simple but accurate explanations of one of the key elements of photography, composition.

This article is also not about how to use a specific camera. To use the information presented here, you will have to know at least the basics of how to use your camera or read the manual. In this post, I will really not talk about cameras themselves very much.

The little things to improve your photos

If one were to categorize photographs as Portraits, Landscape, Sports/Action, Macro, and Wildlife as just general categories, each has it’s own set of important factors that must be considered in composing the shot. Yet they have certain elements in common.

I will list a lot of “rules” and suggestions, but I also want you to understand that in photography, many of the rules are meant to be broken. Part of the art of good photography concerns creativity and using techniques and ideas not commonly used or applying them in new ways. Learn the rules so that you can take better photographs in general, but you should be eager to experiment with creative ways to break them. Sometimes the results will be catastrophic, but every once in a while, the experiments will yield a unique photograph that looks absolutely wonderful. After all, as I have been reminded numerous times … “in digital photography, the “film” is free, so experiment!”

Eliminate Distractions from your photos

No matter what the subject or what category of photography, you always want to avoid including distractions in your photograph. If it does not contribute to the concept you are trying to convey, it should not be in the picture. Including extraneous elements detracts from the message and makes your photograph less effective and less appealing. You should always crop out those unnecessary elements, preferably as you compose the photograph conceptually and then in your viewfinder, or if necessary, you can crop it on your computer using any number of software programs, including several excellent free ones.

Focus is a key element to better photos

Unless you are doing an artistic interpretation, you ALWAYS want the main subject to be in focus. Or, in photographer lingo, you want it to be “Tack Sharp”. Almost in focus isn’t good enough. Crisp, sharp focus is one critical element that will help catch the eye. But of course, that doesn’t mean the entire photograph must be in focus, just the main subject. An out-of-focus background is an easy way to lead the eye directly to the main subject of the image. But in composing your shot, you must carefully consider what your topic will be, and how to make the eye see that subject quickly and clearly.

Using Depth of Field to your advantage

The larger the aperture opening (smaller number), the less depth of field you have. So when you see those great portraits with just the person in focus and the background blurred, that was done by controlling the aperture. When you see landscape photographs with the whole scene amazingly sharp, that was also done by choosing the appropriate aperture. 

There are two other factors that effect depth of field. The focal length of your lens and how close you are to the subject. A telephoto lens can be used to reduce the depth of field. You can also decrease the distance from the subject to reduce the depth of field. Conversely, if you use a wide-angle lens or move farther away, you can increase the depth of field.

Whatever the depth of field based on your equipment and settings, two thirds of the area in focus will be behind or beyond the point of focus, and one-third of the area in focus will be in front of the focal point. This is an important point to remember when composing a photograph. You don’t always want to focus on the obvious subject when composing a photograph; otherwise, you may have important areas that end up out of focus. Sometimes you will have to just choose an imaginary point partway into the photograph as your focal point in order to achieve the proper focus.

Good Lighting or Good Shadows?

Some say photography is all about the right lighting. Others say it is all about shadows and how they enhance the overall feel of the image. But in reality, good lighting and proper use of shadows are just different ways of looking at the same thing. One needs good lighting to get the best shadows; too much or too little light from the wrong place will spoil the photograph. But good shadows only exist with appropriate lighting. Whichever way you want to look at it, good lighting and judicious use of shadows can make the difference between a good (average) photograph and one that has that “wow factor.” The use of flash can make a huge difference. It allows you to manipulate the shadows to either fill them in with the right amount of light to allow details to be visible or to create shadows of your own to enhance the photograph.

The rule of thirds

If you read any book on photography that discusses composition, you will likely read about the rule of thirds. Basically it goes like this:

Divide the image into three sections horizontally and vertically, like a tic-tac-toe grid. This rule then says that the main subject should be placed along one of those lines, ideally along the intersection of lines.

But this rule is an oversimplification of an older rule used by artists for centuries. To simplify the explanation and avoid the math, let me just say that if you shift the main subject slightly (about 1/3 of the way toward the center) from each of those lines you drew for the tic-tac-toe grid, you will get an even more appealing photograph.


Bee on a sunflower, example of macro photography

The Eyes have it!

When shooting portraits, it is essential that the eyes be sharply focused. It is human nature to have our attention directed to the eyes, and if the eyes are not in focus, the entire image will seem out of focus. This applies whether the main subject is a person, a pet, or some other animal. In portraiture, the face is sometimes considered the main subject, with the remainder of the body out of focus. Other times the entire person is the main subject, and the rest of the image is out of focus. Yet other times, there is an appealing or beautiful background, and the entire photograph is in focus. In portrait photography, the eyes are critical. Sometimes the depth of field is set to be so shallow that nothing but the face is in focus, and that includes objects as close as the ears. As long as the eyes are sharp, the subject is usually perceived to be in focus. 

Elements of a Good Picture

An important part of composition is having depth to your images. Cameras take two-dimensional images, but our eyes and brains work together to show us life in three dimensions. Your pictures will look more appealing to the eye if you include foreground, mid-ground and background elements. This can be done by how you compose the picture, by providing truly separate elements, or by the depth of field you use and how the different parts of the image are focused. 

You want the eye of the viewer to be led into the picture and to find the main subject. There are several ways of doing that, and any of them is acceptable. You can use what is called leading lines that bring the viewer to the subject. Examples include railroad tracks, fences, roads, tree lines, building edges, and anything that points the viewer to the main subject.


Black and white photo of a Steam engine train as it approaches

Another method of causing the viewer to see the subject is by using depth of field and focus. If you use depth of field to make the image out of focus, except for the subject, the viewer will automatically be drawn to the subject. 

You can also use color as a way to lead the eye of the viewer deeper into the image, and then to the subject. Brighter colors will stand out and attract the eye. 

Sometimes, the subject is a little less obvious; for example in a landscape picture, the subject may be the entire scene. Having the entire scene be both in focus, and interesting is a way to attract the viewer. The uniqueness of some sort, something unusual or unexpected, can also help make the viewer stop and look.


Head shot of a bloody lion


Extreme beauty, grace, or a commanding presence will catch the eye. This picture of a lion attracts the eye for several reasons. The beauty, the selective focus created by limiting the depth of field, the color, the majesty. 

Good composition is more about listening to your inner artist than following a set of rules. Sometimes it is about that inner voice that almost shouts, “do it this way!” rather than doing what others have done before you. The things in this post are about ideas that can contribute to a good image but developing an eye for beauty and a feel for what looks best will serve you in the future as you progress down the path of photography.


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