Composition Tips For Better Photos...

Updated: May 21, 2019

Composing your photos requires a conscientious effort; good composition does not occur in a happenstance fashion. You are trying to create a visual flow, an engagement, that will take the viewer’s eye into the photo.

The first step in composing is visualizing your scene before pushing the shutter; take a mental inventory of the elements in the scene, i.e. trees, rivers, mountains, rocks, flowers, etc. and arrange them to create a visually connected flow from your camera to the main subject of the photo. An important aspect of composition is creating depth and scale (such as a boulder in the foreground with a large mountain peak behind it) in your photos.


You can arrange the elements in your photo physically by choosing to move the point (your tripod) where you are taking the photo from. Or shooting from a higher or lower position which changes the perspective of the photo and how the viewer sees it.


I moved my tripod to the left to include the sagebrush and grass in the foreground. Foreground, middle ground, background elements are apparent without clutter giving the photo depth.

You can also change the perspective visually by adjusting your camera. Zooming in or out with your lens is one method, changing the size of your main subject. It is also possible to move the scene within your camera’s viewfinder with a small adjustment of the camera.


The third way to adjust the composition of your photo is during editing. You can modestly crop the photo to move your main subject closer to the points of greater impact, where the grid lines intersect. You can also add a vignette to bring attention to an object or area with the caveat that these objects of interest have to appear centrally in your photo. This is one of the few times your subject can be central in your photo. The dark vignette shading around the outer perimeter of the photo will bring your eye to the lighter central area. 


The original photo was just a scatter of flowers with the ridge in the background. Adding a vignette pulls it together in the center and draws your eye from the edges to the orange flowers, what I was trying to emphasize.

Composing is where the “Rule of Thirds “comes into play. You should know how to enable the grid lines in your viewfinder or Live View screen; they divide the screen into thirds horizontally and vertically. Where these grid lines intersect are points of “greater impact “; this is where you want to place your main elements. You should in most of your photos avoid placing the main subject in a central position. Doing this equalizes the right and left scenery and reduces any tension in the photo, makes it bland, less engaging, and without the impact you are attempting to achieve. 


Look for lines, often called leading lines, that start in the foreground and lead the viewer’s eye into the photo. They can be straight, like a highway or railroad tracks, or curved like the waves rolling in on an ocean beach. Diagonal lines across the scene impact energy into the scene and can take your eye quickly into the photo. 


The curved lines of the waves sliding in leads your eye to the rocks in the back and the solitary person in the back right.

The diagonal edge of the flowers adds energy to the foreground, and takes your eye to the base of the spire and the beach; the waves create a leading line all the way to the distant hills.

The horizon in your photo is a straight line; place it higher in the scene to emphasize the land. Placing the horizon lower in the scene will emphasize the sky. Use the top horizontal grid line in your viewfinder or Live View screen to get the horizon level. Position your camera so the lines are parallel. A crooked horizon is readily apparent in your photo, and one of the first things viewers check.


Train yourself to go beyond looking at objects, such as trees, boulders, as they literally are and look at them as shapes. Repetition of these shapes into patterns can be visually engaging.


These barnacles and mollusk shells lose their individuality and blend into this interesting pattern.

Change your point of view. Taking a photo from a low height gives a different perspective than one take at normal height or above. Sometimes how something looks depends upon your point of view, literally. 


A low perspective on this 1906 wreck of the Peter Iredale makes it seem more looming; filling the frame made it look larger.

Know how much empty space is in your photo. Too much open space can make your main subject look small; too little open space can make it look too large, or out of proportion. 


In certain situations, filling the frame with the subject can be dramatic. This works well with wildlife, birds, and flowers. 



When shooting large landscapes, know that you need a foreground, a mid-ground, and a background. These should not be cluttered with unnecessary elements. See more on this in my blog “Is It A Snapshot Or A Photograph?”


This photo has a foreground in the reflections, a mid ground with the darker pine trees, and the Tetons in the background. This photo also shows leading lines, the edges of the waterway, taking your eye into the photo.

The people who write these blogs, such as myself, do not come by this knowledge out of thin air. We have gotten much of what we pass on from other photographers, along with our experiences. I have gotten much of my knowledge on composition from 2 sources I want to share with you, paying it forward.  


I heard Brenda Tharp talk at a workshop in Salt Lake City. Her message was so insightful and stimulating that I went home and ordered her book from Amazon. I read it then, and I re-read it whenever I need a shot of photographic excitement, like before any road trip. Her book, Expressive Nature Photography…  design, composition, and color in Outdoor Imagery is a must read for any photographer wanting to take their photos to the next level. Her website is https://www.brendatharp.com/ 


My other mentor has been Anne McKinnell. Anne is a great writer on many photographic subjects. I have most of her ebooks, but for composition and image design, I recommend her two ebooks, “The Compelling Photograph” I and II. I have also used her “Launching Into Lightroom” course and it made my intro to LR so easy. Her website is https://annemckinnell.com/.

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