A beginner´s guide to composing a photograph

Branches coming out of people’s heads. Beautiful objects lost in too much background. Heavy reflections from the sun. Rid yourphotos of such problems with our beginner’s guide to composing a photograph...

Branches coming out of people’s heads. Beautiful objects lost in too much background. Heavy reflections from the sun. Rid your photos of such problems with our beginner’s guide to composing a photograph.

Composition – what is it and why is it important?

Composition is the difference between a good photograph and a bad photograph. It is how a picture is framed, taking account of the subject, the background and other factors before hitting the shutter release button. 

Getting the composition right takes time. But it’s worth it. It will transform your snaps into little works of art.

1) Get the orientation right – landscape or portrait

Portrait Vs Landscape

Photos are either portrait (vertical) or landscape (horizontal). Sometimes what you’d expect to be shot in portrait works better in landscape. Shoot both horizontal and vertical versions of the same scene and see which is best – you’ll soon get the hang of what works and what doesn’t.

  • Try landscape orientation when taking close-up head and shoulder shots of people.
  • Try portrait orientation to give natural landscapes more depth. For example, a path winding up a hill.

Give your photos interesting perspectives by shooting from different positions. Try capturing images from ground level, at the side or close up to create arty, distinctive shots.

2) Place your subject off-centre

Off Centre

Placing your subject – whether a mountain, man or mouse - off-centre when framing a shot, will give you professional-looking photographs.

The rule of thirds principle is a tried-and-tested way to give your photographs more balance. This means placing strong elements in positions one-third away from the edge of the frame.

Some DSLRs have a viewfinder grid you can use to aid your composition.

  • Landscape: As a general rule, a third of your composition should contain the sky, with the other two thirds land.
  • Portrait: When photographing a person it is usually better to position them in the right or left third of the frame rather than directly in the centre.

3) Look for natural frames


Tree branches, archways and other things can help compose your photograph. These provide a natural frame for your subject to be placed within.

Benefits of natural framing:

  • Don’t get lost: It prevents your subject becoming lost in the background – for example if they’re set against the sky, or a large green field.
  • Shows where to look: With your subject set within a natural frame it’s clear they’re the focal point of the photograph. Your viewer will know where to look instantly.

4) Make use of roads, paths and other diagonal shape

Winding Path

The shape of a road, the course of a river or a path, or a row of trees. These can help bring perspective to your photography.

Subtle, natural diagonal lines and triangles can help create a balanced composition, leading your eye to the subject.

If your image has diagonals, try composing it using ‘golden triangles’.

  1. Split your image diagonally from corner to corner.
  2. Draw an imaginary line from one of the other corners until it meets the first line at a 90-degree angle.
  3. Place the elements of your photograph within those triangles.

5) Be smart with space and colour in your photos


Take a close look at the scene in front of you and decide which elements are the most important.

  • Don’t overcrowd the frame. Zoom in to get rid of space that is not contributing to your picture.
  • Extremes can work well. Try using wide, expansive spaces around a small focal object for dramatic effect.

Colour is how you create mood in a photograph. The ways you use it can dramatically change perceptions of an image:

  • Cool hues such as blues and greens give a sense of calm and tranquillity.
  • Hot colours such as reds and yellows shout joy and excitement.
  • A bright splash of colour against a monochrome background can create striking images.

6) Don’t forget about the background

Bad Composition

The image above is an example of how not to frame a shot. Don’t neglect the background of your photograph. You might think you’ve taken a fantastic shot, only to discover the subject has been lost in a busy background. Uncluttered, subtle backgrounds will improve your pictures no end.

Things to avoid:

  • Comedy objects appearing to stick out of people’s heads.
  • Heavy reflections or bright sunlight that create burned-out areas.
  • Strong primary colours, which can distract from the focal point of your image.
  • Dead foliage, which can ruin beautiful close-ups of plants and flowers.

Top tip: Use a wide lens aperture and a longer focal length to blur the background.

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