Person rowing a kayak on a calm body of water.

The Ultimate Guide to Learning Photography: Composition Techniques

— Photo: Jonny Adshead, Student

8 Simple Photography Composition Techniques (Besides The Rule of Thirds)

Photography composition and the Rule of Thirds go together like peanut butter and jelly — it’s nearly impossible to find one without the other in photography tutorials. And while the Rule of Thirds is a good compositional technique, imagining the photo divided only into threes can also be creatively limiting. So for all the photography rule-breaking rebels out there, here are eight simple photography composition techniques -- not rules — to consider the next time you choose what goes inside your photo and where.

Consider the background and foreground.

Most photographers base their composition on the subject — and rightly so — but too many are forgetting two other very important elements: the foreground and background. What’s in front of and behind your subject can either add to your composition, or take away from it. Always consider the background and foreground as you shoot.

Forest with a trail running through.

— Photo: Noel Benadom, Student

Adding something in the foreground can help draw the eye in, give the viewer a sense of setting or simply adding interest. Be careful though — foregrounds can also be distracting. Make sure everything that’s in your photograph has a reason to be there.

Backgrounds often get overlooked, but they can be essential to crafting a good image. Sometimes, the background in an interesting location offers a sense of place, adds interest or creates a juxtaposition. Other times, it’s simply distracting and using a shallow depth of field to blur it out — or moving to another location — may create a stronger composition.

Consider color.

Sure, photographers don’t have the same wide palette that painters can choose from, but color can play a vital role in composition. Choosing what to include in the photograph — and what to leave out — based on color can create a compositionally strong image.

Colorful canoes on the lake.

— Photo: Artem Aleynikov, Student

Choosing complementary colors, or hues that are similar like blue and purple, create a more calming feel to an image. Using opposite colors, on the other hand, like blue and red, creates not only more contrast, but a more dynamic feel.

Colors are also strongly tied with emotions. While photographers can add a warming or cooling effect to trigger emotions with white balance, framing the subject to include or exclude a certain color can contribute to the emotions that the viewer feels when seeing the final image as well. Blue is often relaxing, while red is more jarring, for example.

Think triangles.

Often, photography composition is as simple as shapes. Triangles tend to draw the viewer’s eye in, creating a dynamic composition. If your shot is looking boring, one way to create a more interesting composition is to look for triangles.

In group photography, for example, keeping everyone’s heads at the same height is boring (and makes it tough to fit everyone in the frame). Creating a triangle of faces creates a more interesting composition.

Triangles work in more than just group photos though — inside landscapes, architectural shots and more, creating triangles with the objects in the scene, sometimes simply by changing your perspective, creates a stronger composition.

Look for lines.

Finding ways to add triangles to your image is built off an even simpler photography compositional technique: lines. The human eye is naturally drawn by lines, whether that’s the rows in a corn field or a road heading into the distance.

Straight lines, both horizontal and vertical, tend to create a feeling of stability — and they are easy to find. A row of trees, even the horizon can be used to form a line in an image.

Diagonal lines and curved lines are more dynamic, creating a sense of movement or change. Lines that head into the distance — for example, standing in the middle of the road to shoot the lines heading away from you — also gives images a sense of scale, giving the brain a 3D visual cue inside a 2D image.

Put pattern in perspective.

Lines and shapes on their own are powerful compositional tools, but mix several of them together and you’ve got another: pattern. Patterns appeal to the human need for structure, working to create a strong composition.

Pattern often goes hand-in-hand with symmetry, another tool for composing stronger images. Symmetry is often emphasized when a photograph is centered — which is a great reason to break the Rule of Thirds.

What’s even stronger than pattern? Breaking that pattern. A red flower in a sea of yellow ones. A row of empty chairs with someone sitting in just one. Disrupting expectations is tough to do in an art that only captures what already exists in the world, but interrupted patterns are often well worth the effort it takes to capture them.

Give the image some space.

Sometimes, we all just need a little space — and so do your photographs. Isolating the subject with some empty space helps emphasize the subject by eliminating the distractions and naturally drawing the eye.

But where do you leave the empty space? When there’s motion in the photograph, leave the empty room where the action is headed, otherwise, it looks like the action is headed right off the frame.

Yes, leaving empty space often manifests as the Rule of Thirds, but not always. Using the extreme edges or leaving space on both sides of the subject is also a viable way to use emptiness as a compositional tool.

Fill the frame.

Woman in white dress and white flowers in hair standing in front of white-flowered plants

— Photo: Ronny Garcia

Leaving space is a good idea — but the opposite is also true (photography is sometimes funny that way). Filling the entire image with just your subject eliminates everything else and concentrates on the finer details, giving an intimate glimpse at whatever it is that you’ve chosen for your subject. Try using a zoom lens — or for smaller subjects, a macro lens — and fill every pixel with part of the subject.

Get a little perspective.

The camera allows you to show your unique perspective to the world — use that to your advantage. Beginning photographers often shoot from eye level by default — changing up your perspective is often the easiest way to adjust your composition. Kneeling or even laying on your stomach makes everything look much bigger. Climbing to a higher vantage point, on the other hand, will make everything look a bit smaller.

Adjusting your perspective is also a good way to work to eliminate any distractions in the frame — sometimes taking a few steps to the side can make the difference between a boring image and an award winner.

Photography rules, like the Rule of Thirds, have their place — but blindly following rules simply dampens creativity. Instead, using a stockpile of different photography composition techniques exercise that creative muscle while adding more variety to your shots.

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