Photography Composition: Definition, Rules & Techniques

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson introduces five basic rules for composition in photography and techniques used by professionals and hobbyists to master these design aspects.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

You've probably heard that phrase before, but the composition of a photograph greatly affects what message is expressed and how well it is conveyed. So, what is composition? For the arts, whether visual or musical, composition refers to the arrangement of elements used. In photography, it means paying attention to what will be photographed, how it is placed in relationship to other objects in the image, and how well the subject matter is expressed. Good composition adheres to many different rules, not in a regulatory way but as proven guidelines. It also uses a variety of techniques to achieve these goals. For this lesson, we will look at five key rules and techniques employed to achieve them. If you are just beginning to explore photography, mastering these will certainly enhance your craft.

The Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is one of the most important composition rules to learn. Planning ahead to photograph a subject using this rule greatly enhances the quality, yet digital technology can help alter and crop images taken 'in the moment' to utilize the rule. Imagine dividing the photograph into nine equal sections with equally placed horizontal and vertical lines. If your focal point, the subject of the image, is located at points where the lines cross, the image is more visually appealing. The illustration below will help you visualize the Rule of Thirds.

Rule of Thirds
Rule of Thirds

Fill the Frame Carefully

One thing that can detract from any visual art is excessive negative space, areas of a photograph or painting left empty or filled with unimportant, non-subject clutter. This occurs when the subject of the image is too small compared to the scope of the shot. Imagine taking a picture of a car, but its parked a mile away. Would that picture be good, or should you get closer to the car? With wildlife, approaching your subject may not be easy, but zooming in or using a telescopic lens will help. Extra space around the subject can be cropped out in editing. However, use some caution and planning when filling the frame to avoid cutting off aspects of the image that can distract viewers with their absence, like part of a person's head or an arm.

Example of Filling the Frame
Example of Filling the Frame

Simplify and Focus

Going along with filling the frame carefully, you must also remember to simplify the image, helping the viewer to focus on the exact subject you want them see. An overly cluttered shot with chaotic backgrounds can distract the eye. Prior to pressing the button, determine if the background is important to the overall image and message. If not, try taking a photo from an angle with a less distracting background or remove unnecessary objects. Other techniques to achieve this includes focusing on the subject and blurring the background or putting a solid background between the subject and the distracting objects.

Simplified and Focused Image
Simplify and Focus

Use Naturally Occurring Frames and Lines

Sometimes, when you can't get closer to your subject and zooming loses quality, you can use objects in your surroundings to frame the image. This allows you to block out the sides of the image and draw the eye toward what lies beyond. The illustration below shows the use of an archway to frame the shot but even natural landscapes with hills or trees on either side to help focus the attention inward to the subject.

Example of Line Use on Left - Frame Use on Right
Example of Using Lines and Frames

Another great way to use the surrounding world is to use lines to guide the viewer's eye through the picture. Straight lines can draw attention across the picture to the subject but be aware that horizontal lines can feel static at their worst but give a sense of calm when used correctly. Vertical lines impose strength and permanence. Diagonal lines can add energy and action. If lines are curved or zigzag, it can help the viewer's eye meander through the scene or dart frantically back and forth.

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