How to compose a photograph
From framing the scene to mastering the rule of thirds, expert results are easy to achieve with our handy beginners’ guide to composing a photograph…
Composition – what is it and why is it important?
A little planning can be the difference between a good photograph and a bad photograph. How a picture is framed, taking account of the subject, the background and other factors, is crucial before you press the shutter button
Good composition takes thought. Put in the effort and be rewarded with photos that resemble works of art.
1. Get the orientation right – landscape or portrait
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.
- When taking close-up head and shoulder shots of people try landscape
- Use 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
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. Imagine four lines splitting your image into thirds – leaving you with three horizontal spaces and three landscape spaces. Place the focus of your image where the lines intersect to give your snap more interest.
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 add focus to 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 overwhelmed by 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 shapes
The shape of a road, the course of a river or a path, or a row of trees – these lines 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’.
- Split your image diagonally from corner to corner
- Draw an imaginary line from one of the other corners until it meets the first line at a 90-degree angle
- 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. By cutting out the bits you don’t want before you take the photo, you won’t have to crop the image afterwards – this means you’ll save valuable pixels.
- 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
- Why not try a lens filter for impressive results
6. Don’t forget about the background
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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