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By Eric Friend

Understanding Photography Composition: Instantly Improve Your Photos

Have you ever looked at two pictures of the same location and wondered why one is more eye-catching than the other? It could be editing, it could be the conditions, but most likely it’s going to be composition that really sets them apart. Mastering the basics of photography composition can transform an ordinary photo into an extraordinary image. In this blog post, we'll dive into several essential compositional elements that you should look for while. I’ll also share some tips on how to combine elements and point out synergies between the elements that go hand in hand. By the end, you’ll be ready to get out and get some truly captivating results. So grab your pen and paper and let's get started!

about the blog

Welcome to my photography blog, your comprehensive guide to mastering the art and science of photography. I’m Paige, ready to guide you on a journey of discovery, from capturing the perfect composition to deciphering the complexities of file formats and storage. This is where we will cover will include in-depth discussions on cameras, exploration of editing techniques, and a deep dive into photography’s fascinating world. Whether you’re a new enthusiast or an experienced photographer seeking to sharpen your skills, I’m committed to helping you elevate your craft to the next level. Welcome to your photography journey!

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Focal Point: The Star of the Show

Finding a focal point may seem obvious to some of you but you’d be surprised how often I see photographers mess this up. Do you know what will happen if you don’t have a clear focal point?…. nothing… no one will look at it. Just kidding but it’s sooo important to give your photo a clear purpose. Everything else in the photo should support the focal point, not distract from it. When done well, it will draw the viewer’s attention and hold their gaze. Here’s some tips to help you find and accentuate a captivating subjects in no time.

Finding a Focal Point

My photography blog, where adventure meets aperture and wanderlust waltzes with white balance! I'm your globetrotting guide, capturing the world one breathtaking snapshot at a time, with a side of snark and a dash of daring. Join me as I unveil photography's best-kept secrets, spill the beans on the trendiest gear, and serve up a smorgasbord of tips and tricks to elevate your travel photography game. Fasten your camera straps, folks; we're about to embark on a thrilling journey through the viewfinder!

Look for contrast:

A focal point that contrasts with its surroundings will naturally catch the eye. This could be a splash of color against a monochromatic background, a bright light in a dim environment, or an angular object among softer, organic shapes. The list goes on… but I think you get the point. Find something that can stand out!

Embrace the unusual:

Intriguing or unexpected elements can make for perfect focal points. Keep an eye out for peculiar objects, intriguing textures, or unique patterns that stand out from their surroundings.

Tell a story:

Sometimes, the focal point is the key element that conveys the story or emotion behind your image. Look for subjects that evoke a sense of mood or narrative and use them as your focal point to create a more engaging and memorable photo. Rather than just capturing a solitary grave stone, is there one with flowers on it? This type of thinking will help create a story or even a relatable moment.

Make your focal Point Stand Out

My photography blog, where adventure meets aperture and wanderlust waltzes with white balance! I'm your globetrotting guide, capturing the world one breathtaking snapshot at a time, with a side of snark and a dash of daring. Join me as I unveil photography's best-kept secrets, spill the beans on the trendiest gear, and serve up a smorgasbord of tips and tricks to elevate your travel photography game. Fasten your camera straps, folks; we're about to embark on a thrilling journey through the viewfinder!

Leverage depth of field:

Using a shallow depth of field is one way you can bring attention to your focal point. By blurring the background, you can make your focal point “pop” and draw the viewer’s attention to it.

Isolate:

Ensure your focal point isn’t competing with other elements in the frame. If your scene is cluttered, try changing your angle, getting closer to your subject, or using a longer focal length to isolate the subject from the background.

Positioning:

If your focal point is not standing out enough, you might need to move it or yourself. If you’re photographing a person wearing black and they are in a shadow, can they move into the light to separate them from the shadow? Or can you crouch down so their silhouette is against the sky instead?

Rule of Thirds: The Timeless Classic Explained

The Rule of Thirds

Once you have an amazing focal point, where do you put it? The easiest way to start is paying attention to The Rule of Thirds. If you aren’t familiar with this concept, you may have been living under a rock but that’s ok! This blog doesn’t judge 😉 Rule of Thirds is a widely-used compositional technique that consists of dividing your frame into nine equal rectangles (think tic-tac-toe board) and placing your focal point at one of the four intersections. You can create a more dynamic and visually appealing composition than simply centering your subject. But why is this technique so effective? Let's dive deeper into the magic behind the Rule of Thirds.

Natural appeal:

Studies have shown that our eyes are naturally drawn to the intersections of the grid lines, rather than the center of an image. By placing your subject at these intersections, you’re tapping into our innate visual preferences, making your photos more appealing and engaging.

Easy to implement:

Lucky for all of us, The Rule of Thirds is simple to understand and apply, making it an accessible technique for beginners while still providing a strong foundation for more advanced photographers to build upon. Many cameras even offer built-in grid overlays, making it easy to visualize and apply the rule as you compose your shots.

Creating movementt

When you place your subject off-center, you create a sense of direction and movement in your composition. This is especially useful when capturing action shots or when your subject is looking or moving in a particular direction. By placing them on one of the intersections, you can guide the viewer’s eye through the image, making it more dynamic and interesting.

Versatility:

The Rule of Thirds can be applied to virtually any type of photography, from landscapes to portraits, and even abstract images. This adaptability makes it an invaluable tool for photographers of all skill levels and interests.

Now that you have direction on where to place your focal point, we need to learn how to support it using other compositional elements!

Visual Weight: Playing with Balance

What is visual weight

One of the major reasons why Rule of Thirds is effective is it helps you balance the visual weight in your composition without resorting to perfect symmetry. Visual weight is a fundamental concept in photography that refers to any element in a photo that catches the viewer’s attention. By thoughtfully positioning notable elements, you can create a sense of balance in your composition. Here's some things to look out for when distributing weight.

Color and contrast:

Bold colors or stark contrasts between light and dark areas naturally draw the viewer’s eye. By intentionally placing these elements within your frame, you can influence how the viewer perceives the balance of your composition.

Size and scale:

Larger or more prominent objects tend to command more visual weight. By juxtaposing these elements with smaller or less significant objects, you can create a sense of balance, even if the objects themselves aren’t symmetrical.

Texture and details:

Intricate textures and patterns can also contribute to visual weight. By incorporating these elements into your composition, you can guide the viewer’s eye and create a sense of depth and interest.

Positioning:

There aren’t rules to where you should always place objects within the frame. However, it’s important to be aware of what perception you are going for. For example, elements positioned closer to the edges or corners can create tension and imbalance, while those placed closer to the center tend to feel more stable and balanced.

Negative space:

Empty space in your composition is equally as important as consumed space. Negative space can act as a counterbalance to more visually heavy elements, helping to create a sense of equilibrium. I often use empty space to emphasize my subject. When used effectively, the empty space can simplify the photo and guide the viewer’s gaze to your focal point.

Balance: The Intention of Equilibrium or Visual Tension

Why Balance?

When experimenting with visual weight, striking the right balance can create a sense of ease or tension, depending on your creative vision. While there aren't any hard-and-fast rules for achieving balance, the key is intentionality. Creating Balance doesn’t always mean you need to use the same visual elements on both sides ..... I know this might not make sense so let me explain….

Symmetrical Balance

Incorporating symmetrical elements or mirroring elements on opposite sides of the frame can create a sense of calm. This can be really effective but don’t overuse it. I find symmetry to be most effective when it’s in an unexpected place, maybe something in nature that very rarely looks so naturally balanced such as perfectly still reflection in a lake.

Asymmetrical Balance

Asymmetrical balance is positioning elements off-center or using an uneven distribution of elements. Even though the photo is not symmetrical, the feeling of balance can be still accomplished. You can use objects, negative space, colors, light, shadows, or the incorporation of various textures. This type of composition can evoke feelings of tension, unease, excitement, or even movement. While creating asymmetrical balance you can consider the following techniques:

Diagonal balance:

Placing visually heavy elements diagonally across the frame can create a sense of dynamism while maintaining overall balance. 

Radial balance:

Arranging elements in a circular pattern around a central point. This goes hand in hand with framing which we will discuss later on in more detail.

Color balance:

Distributing colors evenly throughout the frame can create a sense of visual harmony and cohesion even when the objects are not equal to one another.

Layering:

By layering visually heavy elements with lighter ones, you can create a sense of depth and complexity in your composition. This can add interest and intrigue, preventing your photo from feeling too static or predictable.

Use negative space:

As mentioned before, incorporating large areas of negative space next to visually heavy elements can create an intentional imbalance that draws attention to the subject. 

This concept will take more practice since there is a lot of nuance. Be bold in making your choice of symmetrical vs asymmetrical obvious in your photo otherwise your choice of balance could look like a mistake. 

Triangles: An Easy Ingredient for Balanced Compositions

Struggling To Place Elements?

Triangles are an extremely popular way to create balance in a photo both symmetrical and asymmetrical. Triangles serve as a potent tool for guiding your viewer's perspective and creating a sense of depth and movement. If you are struggling to create an effective Balance, this is a great place to start! Here's how triangles work their magic in photography:

Stability:

Triangles provide stability! They serve as a solid foundation, giving the composition a sense of grounding and intentionality.

Depth and dimension:

They can be used to create depth and three-dimensionality in your images. By arranging elements in a triangular pattern, you can guide the viewer’s eye through the foreground, midground, and background, adding a sense of depth to your composition. We will have an entire section dedicated to Depth down below. 

Natural occurrences:

 Triangles are commonly found in the natural world, such as in the shape of mountains, trees, or architectural structures. It’s also relatively easy to position important elements in a triangular manner by changing your standing position. This will help you achieve balance in the overall composition.

Dynamic tension:

Triangles, by nature, create a sense of tension and dynamism due to their angular shapes. This tension can lead the viewer’s eye through the composition, making the image more engaging and visually stimulating. I think dynamic tension needs its own section so let’s dive deeper! 

Dynamic Tension: Patterns and Breaking Them

Making strategic separations!

Dynamic tension is a huge reason why triangles are effective but what is dynamic tension and why is it important? Dynamic tension in photography is creating visual energy by contrasting elements or patterns within a composition, making the image more engaging and visually exciting. In simpler terms - you are making strategic separations between visual elements to keep the viewers eye moving through the photo.

Patterns:

A common way to do this is using patterns. Repetitive shapes, lines, or colors create a sense of rhythm and movement within your composition, drawing the viewer’s eye and immersing them in the scene. 

Lines and shapes:

Different lines and shapes can generate dynamic tension by guiding the viewer’s eye through the frame. For example, diagonal lines or S-curves can create a sense of movement and direction, while geometric shapes like squares or circles can contrast with their surroundings to draw attention to specific elements.

Contrast and emphasis:

The use of contrasting patterns can emphasize specific elements within your composition. For instance, placing a subject with a unique pattern against a more uniform or patternless background will make it stand out, adding tension and drawing attention to the subject.

Breaking patterns:

Intentionally breaking or interrupting a pattern can create tension and draw the viewer’s attention to the point of disruption. This technique can be particularly effective when the broken pattern is replaced with a contrasting element or subject, emphasizing its importance within the composition.

Horizons:

If you are struggling to make know where to make breaks between contrasting elements or patterns, a common way to separate the photo will be using horizon lines. 

Horizons: Skillful Separation Techniques

An easy way to make separations!

When working with horizons is a perfect way to think about the division of your frame. If you are unsure where to make separations, you can go back to the basics and utilize the Rule of Thirds. The goal is to create a visually appealing separation between the foreground and background elements that we pulled in to create some dynamic tension. This technique enhances depth and captivates the viewer. Here are some specific tips on using horizontal lines effectively in your photography:

Emphasize the sky:

If the sky is particularly interesting, such as during a sunrise or sunset, position the horizon on the bottom third of your frame. This will draw the viewer’s attention to the dramatic colors and clouds in the sky.

Showcase the landscape:

If you want to emphasize a unique or captivating landscape, place the horizon on the top third of your frame. This highlights the foreground and helps the viewer focus on the terrain.

Layers:

Adding multiple layers continuously going up the frame will have the same effect as patterns where it creates movement and interest for the viewer’s eye.

Contrast with vertical lines:

Introduce vertical lines, such as trees or buildings, to create a dynamic contrast with the horizontal horizon. This juxtaposition can lead to more engaging and visually striking images.

Experiment with angles:

While a perfectly straight horizon is often the go-to choice, don’t be afraid to experiment with slightly tilted horizons, especially when capturing action or movement. This can add a sense of dynamism to your composition.

Depth:

 If you are looking to create depth, horizons can help you make clear separations.

Depth: Breathing Life Into Your Images

Creating Depth and realism

Creating a sense of depth in your photographs is a powerful technique that can elevate your images from flat, two-dimensional representations to immersive, life-like experiences. By incorporating elements in the foreground, middle ground, and background, you construct layers that guide the viewer's eye through the composition, enriching its sense of depth and realism. Here are some effective ways to create depth in your photographs:

Placement of Important elements:

Foreground interest:

Including objects or elements in the foreground can immediately provide a sense of depth, as it establishes a clear starting point for the viewer’s gaze. This draws the viewer into the image and encourages them to explore the scene further, creating a more engaging experience.

Middle ground elements:

The middle ground serves as a bridge between the foreground and background, connecting the different layers of your composition. By incorporating interesting elements in the middle ground, you create a sense of continuity and narrative.

Background details:

A well-composed background can provide context, scale, and dimension to your photographs. By finishing your photo off with a background element you can complement the foreground and middle ground. In the end, you’ve created a cohesive and immersive scene that invites the viewer to fully appreciate the depth of your composition.

Overlapping elements:

Strategically positioning elements so that they overlap can help establish a sense of depth in your images. This technique provides visual cues that inform the viewer about the relative distance and position of the different elements within the scene.

Other ways to increase depth perception!

Depth of field:

Manipulating depth of field can also contribute to the sense of depth in your photographs. This is meant to mimic what our natural eye will see when looking at a scene in person. Using a shallow depth of field, you can selectively focus on a particular subject while leaving other elements in the scene slightly out of focus. When doing this, you create a sense of distance and separation, enhancing the three-dimensionality of the image.

Perspective and leading
lines:

Utilizing leading lines and perspective is another powerful depth tool. Lines, such as roads, fences, or rivers, can guide the viewer’s eye from the foreground to the background, reinforcing the sense of three-dimensionality and drawing them deeper into the scene.

Leading Lines: The Art of Visual Guidance

Leading the eye!

Leading lines might be my most common composition element I keep an eye out for when I’m out in nature. A good leading line will be an incredibly effective compositional tool because it can be used to effortlessly guide the viewer's focus to the focal point. These lines can be natural or man-made, and when used skillfully, they will elevate the visual appeal of your photos. Here are some tips on how to find and utilize good leading lines in your photography.

Observe your surroundings:

Take a moment to study your environment and identify any lines that stand out. These could be natural features like rivers, tree lines, or mountain ridges, or man-made elements such as roads, fences, or architectural structures. I love taking pictures right after the sun comes up because you can find less permanent lines such as shadows or light rays. 

MOVE YOUR FEET:

Sometimes, taking 10 steps to the left will allow a leading line to creep into view that was hidden from your original perspective. Don’t get too comfortable too quickly or you may miss out on incredible compositions. 

Complement your subject:

Ensure that the leading lines you choose complement your subject and contribute to the overall story of your image. Be mindful not to let the lines overpower or distract from your focal point, but instead, use them to enhance and support your subject. Experiment with different angles and perspectives to find the most effective positioning.

Converging lines:

Converging lines, where two or more lines come together, can create a strong visual impact and direct the viewer’s attention to a specific point in the image. An example would be something like the vanishing point where parallel lines appear to meet in the distance.

Diagonal lines:

As we’ve learned already, diagonal lines can be particularly effective in composition.  When used as leading lines, they create a sense of movement in your images. Diagonal lines can incorporate not only the leading lines concept into your picture but will also help add depth, and possibly even dynamic tension. Are you starting to see how all these elements of composition can be layered? 

Curves and S-curves:

While diagonal lines create a nice tension, Curved leading lines and S-curves can add a sense of elegance and fluidity. Look for winding roads, rivers, or even the natural curves of a human body.

Framing: Mastering the Art of Visual Emphasis

Draw in the focus

Framing is the technique of using elements within your scene to create a natural border or "frame" around your subject. This will help you emphasize your focal point, guide the viewer's eye, provide context and scale, depth, and the list goes on depending on what elements you decide to layer into the composition 🙂 Let’s jump to some tips on how to use framing effectively when composing a photograph.

Look for natural frames:

This can include trees, archways, windows, doorways, etc. Get creative and consider unusual framing elements like holes in walls, gaps between rocks, or reflections in mirrors or water. I’ll even go as far as holding objects in my hand to create some nice blurred framing with leaves or grass. 

Complement your subject:

Similar to what we discussed in leading lines, we need to remember that the subject is Queen and we need to make sure we choose framing that complements the subject and contributes to the overall story or mood of the image. Don’t distract, enhance! 

Create depth and dimension:

Depth and Framing are another pair of those synergistic compositional elements. If you’re struggling to create a strong sense of depth, try incorporating framing and this will likely help you achieve both.

Play with light and shadows:

Light and shadows are VERY effective when it comes to framing. For example, by positioning your subject within a pool of light surrounded by shadow, you can create a striking contrast that highlights your focal point.

Consider the rule of thirds:

Keep the rule of thirds in mind to help guide your positioning of the subject and other framing elements. This will help you maintain visual balance and as you progress to more complex compositions. I’m feeling a little deja vu, are you? Through this element and others, don’t forget to revisit the and continue to utilize the original basics. They are still important! 

Change your perspective:

Don’t be afraid to change your perspective or angle to find the perfect framing for your subject. Sometimes, the slightest shift will make the biggest difference. My favorite thing is to round a corner and see a photographer laying on the ground. Try it! 

Experiment with scale:

Using framing elements can also provide a sense of scale and context for your subject. By incorporating a frame that is larger or smaller than your subject, you can emphasize its size and importance within the scene.

Scale: Creating Visual Impact and Context

Giving more context to your photos

Even though we haven’t talked directly about Scale too much, we’ve already covered a lot of important points about it! Scale relates to framing, depth, visual weight, and can also be combined with pretty much any element we’ve discussed to make it better! This is how you can have someone walking up to your photo saying “wow”. Especially when combined with depth, this makes you feel like you are standing in the picture rather than looking at it. This context and perspective will be vital in many photographs you take. Here are some tips on how to create scale effectively in your photographs:

Use familiar objects:

The goal is that someone looks at the picture and knows how big an object is in real life, this enables them to use this as a reference point naturally sizing up the rest of the elements in the photo. For example, you can’t really tell how vast a mountain might be until you put a person, car, tree, house, or really anything that has a generally consistent size, in front of it. 

Play with perspective:

Sometimes getting yourself off “regular” eye level perspective will completely change the scale. For example, shooting from a low angle can make your subject appear larger and more imposing, while shooting from a high angle can make it appear smaller and more vulnerable.

Emphasize distance:

This might sound like depth because it basically is…. Breaking up elements in the foreground, middle ground, and background can help convey the scale of your subject. By emphasizing the distance, you can create a sense of scale that highlights your subject’s size relative to its surroundings.

Incorporate human
elements:

Including people in your compositions is one of most effective objects to add. The viewer can easily relate to the size of a person, making it easier to understand the scale of other elements based on the person.

Experiment with lens
choice:

Wide-angle lenses can exaggerate the size of objects in the foreground while making those in the background appear smaller while telephoto lenses can compress the distance between objects. This compression is a great way to bring the background closer in creating a more uniform sense of scale.

Conclusion: Embrace Experimentation

Don’t let all this overwhelm you! Remember that these are tips to help you find your own personal style in photography. Whether it's the Rule of Thirds, visual weight, balance, or any other aspect of composition, feel free to play around and discover what works best for your unique style and vision.

Keep in mind that learning and mastering these compositional concepts takes time, practice, and patience. Don't be discouraged if your initial attempts don't yield the results you desire. Embrace the process, learn from your experiences, and remember that even the most seasoned photographers continue to grow and refine their skills throughout their careers.

As you continue to move through the world of photography, take these principles to heart and apply them in your work. By doing so, you'll find yourself developing a keen eye for composition, capturing stunning images that resonate with your audience, and truly unlocking the potential of your photographic artistry. Now, grab your camera, head out into the world, and let your creativity flow!

about the blog

Welcome to my photography blog, your comprehensive guide to mastering the art and science of photography. I’m Paige, ready to guide you on a journey of discovery, from capturing the perfect composition to deciphering the complexities of file formats and storage. This is where we will cover will include in-depth discussions on cameras, exploration of editing techniques, and a deep dive into photography’s fascinating world. Whether you’re a budding enthusiast or an experienced photographer seeking to sharpen your skills, I’m committed to helping you elevate your craft to the next level. Get ready to transform your passion into prowess, one click at a time. Welcome to your photography journey!

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