A Little more on Composition

The Ubiquitous – and Much Derided – Rule of Thirds

It’s been the favourite ‘rule’ of camera clubs since photographs started to imitate ‘art’. Imagine that your image is divided into nine equal segments by two vertical and two horizontal lines. Try to position the most important elements in your scene along these lines, or at the points where they intersect. Doing so will add balance and interest to your photo. Will they look old-fashioned and appear to have been set up in some way? Yes, very possibly. Some cameras even offer an option to superimpose a rule of thirds grid over the LCD screen, making it even easier to use. Worth noting that, historically, there was no ‘rule of thirds’ but many pictures did follow some rules – and science has discovered something known as, among other things, ‘The Golden Ratio’ (aka the ‘Fibonacci Number’). This is not a simple division in thirds, but a much more accurate ratio of 1:1.618. Check this out. The Golden Ratio is found in ancient buildings and in all kinds of places.… See this. A mystery or a sample of ancient knowledge?

Balancing Elements

Placing your main subject off-centre, as with the rule of thirds, creates a more interesting photo, but it can leave a void in the scene which can make it feel empty. You might try to balance the ‘weight’ of your subject by including another object of lesser importance to fill the space. Portraits or other pictures where the subject, human or other animal, is looking to one side, appear to work better when some extra space is given for that subject ‘to look into’. That’s not to say you mustn’t have a person close to the edge and ‘walking off’ or ‘looking out to’ the nearer edge of the image. That can add a different dimension…. when the remainder of the pictures has something to balance it or to note for its own sake.

Leading Lines

When we look at a photo our eye is naturally drawn along lines. By thinking about how you place lines in your composition, you can affect the way we view the image, pulling us into the picture, towards the subject, or on a journey ‘through’ the scene. There are many different types of line – straight, diagonal, curvy, zigzag, radial etc – and each can be used to enhance our photo’s composition.

Symmetry and Patterns

We are surrounded by symmetry and patterns, both natural and man-made., They can make for very eye-catching compositions, particularly in situations where they are not expected. Another great way to use them is to break the symmetry or pattern in some way, introducing tension and a focal point to the scene – perhaps a quite different element or colour. Patterns can include repetition of a line or shape.


Before photographing your subject, take time to think about where you will shoot it from. Our viewpoint has a massive impact on the composition of our photo, and as a result it can greatly affect the message that the shot conveys. Rather than just shooting from eye level, consider photographing from high above, down at ground level, from the side, from the back, from a long way away, from very close up, and so on. This isn’t so much a ‘rule’ as a basic requirement to find the best angle.


How many times have you taken what you thought would be a great shot, only to find that the final image lacks impact because the subject blends into a busy background? Worse still, the proverbial ‘tree growing out of his head’. The human eye is excellent at distinguishing between different elements in a scene, whereas a camera has a tendency to flatten the foreground and background, and this can often ruin an otherwise great photo. Thankfully this problem is usually easy to overcome at the time of shooting – look around for a plain and unobtrusive background and compose your shot so that it doesn’t distract or detract from the subject. If you have the ability (i.e. the lens) to shoot with a very wide aperture, you can usually throw the background so far out of focus that it can ‘dissolve’ into a soft, unobtrusive pattern.


Because photography is a two-dimensional medium, we have to choose our composition carefully to conveys the sense of depth that was present in the actual scene. You can create depth in a photo by including objects in the foreground, middle ground and background. Another useful composition technique is overlapping, where you deliberately partially obscure one object with another. The human eye naturally recognises these layers and mentally separates them out, creating an image with more depth. The best landscape images include depth – if not, they are in danger of being quite dull ‘record’ shots even of the most spectacular scenery. So the most interesting landscape images tend to have a point of interest in the foreground – not just that range of mountains ten miles away.


The world is full of objects which make perfect natural frames, such as trees, archways and holes. By placing these around the edge of the composition you help to isolate the main subject from the outside world. The result is a more focussed image which draws your eye naturally to the main point of interest. If there’s absolutely nothing that can help to frame your subject, consider adding, with your photo-editor, a slight vignette for the edges of the frame.


Often a photo will lack impact because the main subject is so small it becomes lost among the clutter of its surroundings. By cropping tightly around the subject you eliminate the background ‘noise’, ensuring the subject gets the viewer’s undivided attention. Do not take sweeping images with a lot in the scene and then rely on cropping with your editor – you may need to crop so much away that the remaining area doesn’t have sufficient resolution to make a quality image.


With the dawn of the digital age in photography we no longer have to worry about film processing costs or running out of shots. As a result, experimenting with our photos’ composition has become a real possibility; we can fire off tons of shots and delete the unwanted ones later at absolutely no extra cost. Take advantage of this fact and experiment with your composition – you never know whether an idea will work until you try it. Consider bracketing your shots for the best exposure.


One ingredient that can mingle in with all the above is Colour. There can be some striking contrasts in colours, e.g. yellow with blue, red with green, that can turn some pictures into abstracts or make them memorable. The colours in an image and how they are arranged can make or break a shot. Bright colours can add vibrancy, energy and interest – or they can distract from focal points. Colours also greatly impact ‘mood’. Blues and Greens can have a calming soothing impact, Reds and Yellows can convey vibrancy and energy etc. It’s very difficult to find objective rules on the use of colour. Nature has its own way of using colour that we become accustomed to and feel comfortable with – the blues and greens – while other colours tend to be unnatural to some extent. All other ‘rules’ of photography can be applied to black and white photographs – once colour is introduced, all kinds of things happen.

Composition in photography is far from a science and, as a result, all of the ‘rules’ above should be taken with a pinch of salt. If they don’t work in your scene, ignore them; if you find a great composition that contradicts them, then go ahead and shoot it anyway. But they can often prove to be spot on, and are worth at least considering whenever you are out and about with your camera.

If you want to really immerse yourself in the theories of composition there are many links on this site, while one highly recommended book would be Michael Freeman’s ‘The Photographer’s Eye’.

A Little more on Composition

It’s easy to forget that what you see in your viewfinder is what you’re going to capture, so it’s worth scanning the scene thoroughly first. When you’re composing your shots, don’t fret about getting everything in. Instead, focus on capturing the essence of the scene by following these tips, and try putting contrasting elements together to create a striking shot.

  1. Think before you shoot
    It’s easy to forget that what you see through the viewfinder is what you’ll capture when you press the shutter, so it’s essential to scan the frame with your eye before you take the picture, moving carefully around the edges of the viewfinder and into the scene. Look at the elements in your photo and ask yourself whether they’re working in harmony with one another. Where is your eye being led? Are the colours and tones balanced? And what’s happening with the lines, shapes and textures – are there any visual distractions? Is there any dead space that detracts from the image as a whole? Take a walk around (when possible) to look for different viewpoints – you may be able to find an angle that allows you to cut out something that would detract from the composition or something to include that improves it. Most D-SLRs don’t show the whole scene: you’ll only see about 95% of what will be recorded. 5% might not seem like much, but it’s enough to change your composition.
  2. Capture the essence
    You don’t always need to shoot the whole scene to capture its essence. In fact, it’s often impossible to fit the entire scene into a single shot. A good example is when you’re trying to photograph an entire bed of flowers in a garden. Landscape photography, for example, doesn’t always need a wide view…. you can find isolated views which can still sum up a whole mountain range. Rather than fretting about trying to squeeze everything in and cursing your lens, compose your shots to fit in the most essential parts of the scene. Use the Av mode on your camera and set your lens for a wide aperture, such as f/2.8, to focus on the foreground but blur the background.
  3. Abstracts
    Stunning abstract shots can often be found in the most mundane locations, but you need to look for them. If you’re used to taking sweeping views of landscapes and cityscapes, try adopting a different attitude when you’re looking at a scene – look for shapes, colours and textures that will make abstract patterns. Get in really close if it needs it – and get rid of unnecessary elements. It’s not easy…. but one trick is to think of pictures that you could use in a “What’s This?” photo competition. Concentrate on only the composition and you’ll take the picture to a new level.
  4. Contrasts
    To help you to think differently about your compositions, try bringing contrasting elements together. Capture the atmosphere of a city, for example, by focusing on the top of an old building, while keeping contrasting modern towers in ‘balancing’ positions in your composition. Or vice-versa. Not only colours work with each other, or provide contrast – it can be achieved with perhaps two styles of the same basic object – an office block and an old church, or a “Poker Run” boat with a sailing ship. A young fashionable student with a very ‘proper’ senior citizen.
  5. Odds and evens
    Photographers (probably based on the works of other artistic styles) have worked out that it’s easier to make a pleasing composition with an odd number of objects or elements. Naturally, when you’re out and about you won’t always be able to move objects around, but you can move yourself and your camera. This concept can be applied to portraits, too. Try to shoot groups of threes at a wedding, for example. Three or five trees really do work better than four or six.
  6. Leading lines
    An effective way to draw people’s attention into – not out of – your images is to use leading lines. Look out for them when composing your shots. Lead lines can be anything from a fence to a river or a shadow line, and can be used to improve composition and draw attention to your subject.
  7. Eyes have it
    Portrait photography doesn’t always have to be about traditional head-and-shoulders shots. Don’t be afraid to compose your shots by zooming in to make more of your subject’s face. Positioning people’s eyes in a top corner can make for a more striking composition, too. If you include eyes, they really must be sharply in focus.
  8. Frame within a frame
    Look for features that can work as a frame in your composition. The branch of a tree, the arch of a door or a window frame are all effective devices.
  9. Don’t fixate on eye contact
    You could get creative and try some portraits without any direct eye contact. Try getting your subject to sit on a chair, looking out of a window. This makes for a nice composition, plus you’ll get better light falling on their face. Get them to rest their chin on their fist to bring another interesting element to your composition.

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The members of the Kingston Photographic Club, of Ontario, meet twice-monthly or more, September to May. The membership broaden their photographic interest from the knowledge of speakers, competition judges, our meetings, other members and this website.

Kingston, Ontario