Inside: This article will teach you the basic principles of composition in photography and includes a downloadable principles of composition in photography pdf.
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Great composition can improve any photo, no matter what camera you have. Learning the principles of composition in photography will take your photos to the next level!
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What Is Composition In Photography?
Composition in photography refers to a set of principles a photographer can use to
- draw the viewer’s eye to her subject,
- make her photos more pleasing and interesting,
- and “put together” (ie, compose) the elements in a photo so they’re in harmony.
When you’re a beginner, it’s helpful to have a set of rules or principles to follow.
But keep in mind, while it’s great to be mindful of the principles of composition, sometimes rules are made to be broken.
Personally, I’m a rule-follower, so I love a good set of rules to help me know I’m getting things “right.”
Learn the rules of composition in photography in the beginning so you can break them in creative ways as you grow.
These principles are often called the “rules of photography.”
Don’t miss the Principles of Composition In Photography PDF:
10 Principles of Composition in Photography
1. Rule of Thirds Composition
The Rule of Thirds is one of the most well known principles of composition in photography. It’s a simple way to add interest to your photos.
A photo can be divided into thirds horizontally and vertically. When you compose your photo place your subjects so they line up along one of the thirds of your frame.
Better yet, try to place your subject(s) where two of the lines meet on your rule of thirds grid.
In photos involving a landscape, compose your image with 1/3 ground and 2/3 sky…
or the opposite, 2/3 ground and 1/3 sky:
- It’s easier to compose your image while shooting if you know how to change your focal point.
- If you don’t perfect your composition while shooting you can always use Lightroom to adjust your composition. This article –>> on Lightroom Photo Editing Techniques shows you how to use the Lightroom crop tool to improve your composition.
2. Composing With Framing
Another one of the principles of composition in photography involves looking for frames for your subject. A frame could be made of architectural elements, natural elements or even light.
In this example, my subject is framed by the lines of the window frame as well as the light and shadow areas of the image:
In this image my subject is framed by the door frame:
And in this image, my subject is framed by the pavilion over him. I chose to center my subject (I broke a rule!) because if I didn’t I would lose the symmetry of the architectural frame:
If you break a photography rule, do it with intention.
3. Composing With Leading Lines
A third principle of photography composition is to look for leading lines in the environment where you’re shooting.
Leading lines in an image guide your viewer’s eye through the image to your subject.
In this example, the lines on the bottom of the pool lead your eye right to the subject because they converge just beyond her.
Note how this image also employs the rule of thirds.
The shot is roughly 2/3 pool and 1/3 reflection from the underside of the water, and my little swimmer is located at the point where two of the rule of thirds lines meet in the frame:
Extra credit if you manage to combine two principles of composition in one photo!
In this image, the lines of the kitchen cabinets direct your eyes toward the subject:
Leading lines don’t have to be straight. Consider this example:
The lines along the edge of the water converge just beyond my subject and serve to lead your eye toward him.
4. Composition With Symmetry And Reflections
Symmetry is often used in architectural photography. It’s a bit easier to find in man-made structures, though it does exist in nature.
Here’s an example of symmetry in photography:
In a perfectly symmetrical photo you could draw a line down the middle of the image and all the lines would be the same on both sides.
Here’s a great article on the types of symmetry in photography.
Reflection Photography Ideas
My favorite way to use symmetry in my photos is to look for reflections.
It’s easy to find reflections around water.
In my early days of learning photography, I often failed to step back far enough to capture both the subject and her reflection.
Remember to take a step back to get both the subject and the reflection in the frame.
A normal family photo is transformed by a reflection:
Any reflective surface can produce a great reflection, like a shiny table or glossy floor.
Want to jog your memory on the go? Download the Principles of Composition in Photography PDF:
5. Compose To Simplify The Frame And Eliminate Distractions
Decide what the subject of your photo will be, then compose your shot so there’s nothing in the frame that distracts from the subject.
Here’s an example where I had to decide what I wanted the subject of my photo to be:
I wanted to capture the tender green leaves on this tree. At first I moved in close to capture the leaves, but the photo ended up looking jumbled.
It’s hard to tell which leaf I intended as my subject, and it’s not clear where I want someone viewing this photo to look.
So I backed up and tried again. This time I made the subject of my photo the tip of the branch. I was able to better capture the details of the leaves and berries, and it’s now clear where I want my viewers’ eyes to focus.
Here’s another example, but in this case I chose to simplify the frame in editing.
Here’s the photo as shot:
And here’s how I cropped it in Lightroom. The crop eliminated some distractions that draw the eye away from the bloom and made it clear where I want the viewer to focus:
Pro Tip: If your photo contains distracting elements that can’t be cropped out, use the Lightroom Spot Removal Tool to remove distractions from your photos.
Use A Wide Aperture To Simplify The Frame
A powerful tool for simplifying the frame is to use a wide aperture.
A wide aperture setting will produce a blurry background, which makes your subject stand out as the clear focal point of your photo.
The lower your f/stop number, the blurrier the background of your photo will be.
Check out How To Use DSLR Camera for a fuller explanation of how aperture affects your image.
The image below was shot at f/3.2. Notice how the flowers stands out against the blurred background.
6. Composition With Depth
You can add depth to your photos by including some of the foreground in your frame.
My favorite way to do this is by getting down low.
In this example the small flowers in the foreground on the left add a sense of depth to the image:
When I shot the image below I got down low enough to include the raised beds in the foreground, adding interest and depth to the photo:
and in this image I made sure to place the flowers on the table in front of my lens while placing my camera’s focal point on my little subject:
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7. Composition Rule – Remember To Avoid Limb Chops
Be mindful not to cut off your subject’s arms, legs, fingers, toes, or ears when shooting.
As a rule of thumb, don’t crop your photos at a joint – at the elbow, ankle, or wrist. If one of your subject’s limbs is outside the edge of your frame, make sure you adjust the crop so it’s not on a joint.
Here’s an example of a limb chop. The edge of the frame cuts my subject off at the ankle:
A better crop for this image would be mid-calf:
The best way to avoid limb chops is to “shoot loose.”
Leave space around your subjects while shooting. You can always crop in editing later but it’s impossible to add an ear or an arm back to a photo.
In this example I shot the photo “loose,” not cutting off any limbs:
but I felt the shoes detracted from the photo, so I cropped it closer in Lightroom and chose a crop that was mid-calf – below the knees but above the ankles:
8. Compose Photos With Negative Space
Negative space is the area around your subject that’s unoccupied. Negative space has the effect of drawing your eye to your subject, which is considered your photo’s “positive space.”
In it’s purest form, the space around your subject would be either empty, or the same in some way and different from your subject.
In this example, the background is monochromatic (all green). The green negative space around the flowers leads your eye to focus on them:
In this image the blurred, brown background creates negative space around the green leaves:
But negative space doesn’t have to be empty. I love to use the environment around my subject as negative space. It serves to create a sense of scale in the image.
9. Compose With Perspective: Get Down Low or Shoot From Above
When you photograph a scene, vary your perspective to add interest.
When I’m shooting kids I like to get down low, on their level. This can make the viewer feel like they’re a part of the scene.
Then I changed my angle and shot from above:
Here’s another example of getting dow low, in this case, toddler-eye level:
And another from above:
Shooting from above is a great way to make sure you have great light reflections (catchlights) in the eyes!
10. Leave Space In Front Of Your Subject
When you look at a photo of a person or animal your eyes will naturally follow the directions of the subject’s gaze.
Be sure to leave space out in front of the direction your subject is looking.
Here’s an example where I got it wrong. If you follow the subject’s gaze it leads you out of the frame.
And here’s an example where I got it right:
My subjects are gazing toward the left, and there’s space in front of their gazes.
If your subject is walking, running, or moving, leave room in front of your subject in the direction they’re heading.
I hope this post will help you take your photos to the next level, no matter what camera you’re shooting with. But there’s a lot to remember when it comes to composition in photography!