Photo Basics – Composition

Photo Basics – Composition

Kayla Graham

American documentary and advertising photographer Elliot Erwitt said that the “whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words.” And we’ve all heard the old saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Both of these points drive home the importance of composition: it dramatically affects what message an image expresses.

Your photos have the power to tell stories; they can take the place of words. So, you want to make sure you’re conveying yours well. Composition can take your shots from average to exceptional.


What is Composition?

Whether visual or musical, composition refers to the arrangement of the elements that are used. So, photo composition is all about the balance of the elements in your photograph. When you’re taking your photos, you want to pay attention to:

  • What you are capturing in your photo
  • How it is placed in a relationship to the other objects in the image
  • How well you can express your subject(s)

Good composition in a photo often follows some rules. Here are five compositional principles (though there are many more) that are a great starting point for beginners:


1) Rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is a formula based on mathematical principles of harmony and proportion. It’s a composition principle that says an image should be broken down into thirds: horizontally and vertically with nine equal parts in total. The rule states that if you place your subject along these lines or in their intersections, your photo will be more balanced and eye-pleasing.


2) Rule of Odds

 Our brains search for symmetry and evenness. With this in mind, this principle claims that including an odd number of objects in an image will be more interesting and visually appealing. For example, rather than taking a shot of two subjects, use three (or five or seven). This might not always be an option—like if you’re shooting an engagement or wedding. But it’s especially valuable when composing images of still life (like flowers).


3) Leading lines

 Viewers’ eyes are naturally drawn along lines. A line in a photo is a point that moves and leads toward something. Leading lines help to attract the eye into the image and focus on the main subject or focal point. They also help create depth and symmetry.


4) Color and textures

 Color and textures are a great way to express good composition. Color makes a big difference to not only the balance of a photo but the mood. When composing your photos, pay attention to the colors you’re capturing—and use their strengths. For instance, pairing a cool color with a warm one can create contrast, producing a striking image. Or photos with just one or two dominant colors can deliver a unified message.

The texture of an object can also draw attention and have an emotional impact. Textures are visual details that describe how something physically feels. Since textures spur physical sensations, they can bring us into the image. Think about what mood you can create—like with jagged mountains, silky flowing clothing, or scaly tree bark.


5) Negative space

 It’s tempting to try to fill up every part of the frame with details. But this can end up complicating things and leave the viewer searching for somewhere to focus. To help the subject stand out, use negative space. It is mostly composed of blank or neutral space. Some professionals advise that two-thirds of the photo should be negative space.

 The famous photographer, Ansel Adams, once said: “You don’t take a photo, you make it.” The “making” of a great photo has a lot to do with composition. How do you arrange and balance the elements you use? What kind of story do they help you tell? These are things to think about when deciding what message you want to deliver through your image.