What is Composition in Photography? 7 Tips to Improve your Images

What is Composition in Photography? 7 Tips to Improve your Images

During my education at two art academies in the Netherlands, I was trained to look at the composition of paintings and sculptures. That was a big advantage for me when I started making taking pictures.

Painters often had a conception of composition that depended on their time. The Renaissance had a balanced, calm structure of the works. In the Baroque, the dynamic composition was usually applied. 

What is composition in photography? The usual rule of thumb is the rule of thirds. It’s a great rule to start with, but in this article, I will explain some other possibilities for composition you can use.

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What is composition in photography?

Rule of thirds in landscape

There is little difference between the composition of a painting or a photograph. Although you can more easily adjust the objects in a painting by omitting something or putting it in a different place.

If you want to take a photo and something is not in the spot you want it to be, you will have to move yourself to a different position. Although you can move loose objects. And if there are people in the photo, you can direct them.

Composition is the conscious arrangement of elements, an attempt to create order out of chaos. Not only shapes are important in a composition, but also colours and lines.

No matter what kind of composition you are choosing for your picture, the main point of interest should be your focus. What subject are you making a photo of and there is enough attention for?

Related: How to Stay Inspired in Photography? Of these 7 Tips, I Particularly Like #6

Rule of thirds

The most famous rule in photography is the rule of thirds. Most cameras, including those of a smartphone, have a three-part grid in the viewfinder that serves as an aid.

The image is (invisibly) divided into three equal parts both horizontally and vertically. Important areas are the four intersections on which you can place the most important part of the image. In the picture, one of the eyes is on such a crossing point.

Also, the 4 lines that make the division, can be useful in positioning the elements of your composition. Have a look at the landscape pictures to see what I mean. You can use either one of the vertical or horizontal lines.

Rule of thirds in a portrait
Selfportrait
Rule of thirds in a landscape
In the centre of Spain

Symmetry

The easiest way to make a composition is symmetry. I have always called it the Catholic way because the Holy mass consists of symmetrical gestures and objects placed on either side of the altar. Pictures composed this way are peaceful and will have a quiet mood.

A clear example is the photo of these tiles. Buildings also lend themselves very well for a symmetrical photo. Symmetry has the disadvantage that it quickly becomes boring.

Symmetry
Sevilla, Spain
Symmetry
Valencia, Spain

Dynamic composition

Although I take a lot of symmetrical pictures, I think it is very interesting to look for a dynamic contrast. Possible contrasts are:

  • full of details/empty space;
  • lots of colour/monochrome;
  • dark/light.

In the picture of a boat, you can see I have looked for a symmetrical composition while using a dynamic contrast between the ‘occupied’ left and the ‘empty’ right side. And buildings can also be photographed in a dynamic composition.

Dynamic composition
Piran, Slovenia
Dynamic composition
Madrid, Spain

Related: 7 Ways to Use Colour in Photography Creatively and Differently

Diagonal composition

Usually a diagonal will make a composition dynamic, depending on the subject of course. If that subject is a frozen puddle, the image will be very peaceful.

Landscapes are often great for a diagonal composition. Or objects can be positioned in a diagonal way.

Diagonal composition
Strijbeek, the Netherlands
Valdevaqueros, Spain

Related: 7 Spectacular and Beautiful Places of Interest in Murcia, Spain

Vanishing  point

A vanishing point will suck the viewer into the image and creates an enormous suggestion of depth. The purest way is to position the vanishing point exactly in the middle, but as you can imagine, this point can also be on the thirds-line or anywhere else.

Vanishing point
Mastbos, Breda, the Netherlands
Vanishing point
Ulvenhout, the Netherlands

Look through

A picture gets extra depth when you make it through something else. Branches or leaves hanging in the front while photographing a landscape. A window, the bows of a bridge, or a tunnel are another way to make a kind of frame for your image.

Skaters
Breda, the Netherlands
Bridge
Sierra Espuña, Spain

No grid at all

Not every picture needs to follow one of the former composition rules. A lot of my pictures are textures of all kinds. They don’t have grids. Unless you desperately want to see a grid, in that case, you may notice the diagonal from top-left to bottom-right in the yellow picture with the light playing on the fruits. 🙂

Structure
Málaga, Spain
Structure
Madrid, Spain

Knowing the rules means you can break them

I am a strong supporter of knowing the rules, but that does not mean that you should follow the rules no matter what. Once you know them and mastered them, break them. (Uhm… concerning the composition, I mean).

The funny thing in my example is, that I deliberately broke the rule of thirds in this landscape and put the horizon extremely low, but when I drew the lines in order to show you, I discovered that the rule of thirds was in place after all!

Likewise in the picture of the blossom: the sun turned out to be in the cross line of the rule of thirds.

Landscape
Gaasterland, the Netherlands
Sierra Espuña, Spain
Tip

A lot of cameras have a display at the back or in the viewfinder with the grid shown. So will your smartphone. If you don’t see it, have a look at the settings.

The grid helps you to follow the rules or to disregard them. One way or the other, I am sure that if you take your pictures with these rules in mind, they will come out better than before. 

Good luck and please let me know if you have any questions. Put them in the comment box below and I will gladly answer them.

This article is an update. Originally published on 31-12-2013.

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6 thoughts on “What is Composition in Photography? 7 Tips to Improve your Images”

  1. Geometry is an innate part of photography and this proves it. I’m with you with the going with the flow approach, I tend to ignore what I know quite a lot if my senses tell me I could get a better shot.

    Reply
    • If you have a mathematical mind like me and probably like you, then you can indeed trust your intuition at some point. Just as I eventually found out that compositions that I had made without thinking about rules were ultimately exactly according to the rules. 🙂

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Rylee, and have fun.

      Reply
  2. I have to admit, I thought learning the basics would be an easier task. I’m not the creative or artistic type which makes it harder for me to see art all around me. But composition makes it easier to understand what I should be looking for and how to frame a certain shot. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Unfortunately, every new skill comes with a learning curve, Lilly. On the other hand, it is very satisfying if you succeed at it. And I am really glad my explanation about composition set you on your way to mastering photography.

      Everybody is creative and artistic in her or his own way, you can be sure of that. Practice makes perfect, so if you keep on making lots of pictures, you will surely improve yourself!

      Thanks for your comment and good luck.

      Reply
  3. Great information here. I know the rules but usually break them; it’s my photo and I do what I want! Your photo of the day is indeed inspiring.
    And yep, I have more questions again. I hope you don’t find them annoying and take them as a compliment to your ability to create, teach, and promote creativity.
    1.) I noticed on Squidoo you were able to put the copyright symbol by your photos. Did you do that with HTML? If not, how would one go about copyrighting an image?
    2.) I started writing on the Internet and don’t know much about any other blog sites. I am not very technologically advanced but I love the art of figuring out How Something Works. Would this site be a good one for blogging, my niche being my Photo Diary idea? It would be handy to have my own place to link pictures back to instead of relying on photobucket and the likes.
    I have the ability and the drive to use my skills of Creating.
    Thank you so much for what you have shared with the world.
    Yours Truly,
    Jes

    Reply
    • Hi Jes,
      1. Do you mean the copyrightsymbol © or do you mean my watermark?
      2. I made this website in WordPress. That’s not very complicated to work with. You can either start on wordpress.com (the address will be something like bigreddomino.wordpress.com) or you can install a wordpress-instllation on an own domain (the address will be something like bigreddomino.com)
      I hope this helps.
      Take care,
      Hannie

      Reply

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