Five Fundamentals of Composition for Photographers

This image of Richard Alston's gorgeous choreography to the Britten Sinfonia shows how leading lines, the rule of thirds and breaking a repeating pattern can be used in an image.

This image of Richard Alston’s gorgeous choreography to the Britten Sinfonia shows how leading lines, the rule of thirds and breaking a repeating pattern can be used in an image.

We are exposed constantly to images from all over the world; on the internet, through TV, in magazines, posters, paintings, newspapers and adverts and have all developed an eye for composition as a result. We might not know why, but if something doesn’t look right we know that at once.

To bring this instinctive appreciation of composition into our photography only needs a little practice. The following fundamentals should help:

The first rule of composition is that there are no rules.
Photography is an art and all the rules that follow can be broken. The way you compose your image depends on how you want your viewer to feel and the story you want your photo to tell.

In my Beginners Photography lessons I tell students that if they want an interesting composition they should think about how a tourist would take a photo and then do anything else. However, there are situations in which the tourist view of a point of interest is the best view to show. Breaking a rule can make things more interesting, direct the viewer’s attention in a different way and even evoke different feelings, so whether you do so or not depends entirely on the story you want to tell.

The second rule of composition is to fill the frame

This is oft-given instruction that really annoys me because it is regularly misunderstood. Filling the frame doesn’t mean making your subject so big that there’s nothing else in it. Instead it means that you need to decide how important you want to make your subject with relation to its context, and bear that in mind when you compose your picture.

The subject of this photo is clearly the bee, but by showing it on a clump of lavender with other plants and grass around it I’m giving more balance to the photograph and more context to the visual story.

The subject of this photo is clearly the bee, but by showing it on a clump of lavender with other plants and grass around it I’m giving more balance to the photograph and more context to the visual story.

Filling the photo with bee gives a cramped feeling, and it makes the shot look rushed and as if it was not thought through.

Filling the photo with bee gives a cramped feeling, and makes the shot look rushed and poorly thought-through.

The third rule of composition is the Rule of Thirds

Think of your subject divided into thirds and compose your photograph so that important objects (such as your subject) are around the edges or vertices of the central third. To understand why this automatically makes an image more interesting it is easier to think of a picture where the subject is bang in the middle of the shot. Your eye immediately goes to the centre and stays there. There is no implied tension in the shot and while you might look at what is above the bee it takes an effort to look around.

Even though there is still a lot going on in this roughed-up shot with the bee and lavender central, your eye is drawn to the centre of the photo and tends to get stuck there.

Even though there is still a lot going on in this roughed-up shot with the bee and lavender central, your eye is drawn to the middle of the photo and tends to get stuck there.

 While the shot I took has the bee and lavender on the edge of the central box, following the rule of thirds.


The actual shot  has bee and lavender on the edge of the central box, following the rule of thirds.

The Fourth Rule of Photography is to use leading lines

Leading lines are lines that lead your – and the veiwer’s – eye, and you can find them everywhere. Obvious leading lines include walls, fences, queues of people and lines of trees or telegraph wires. Indirect lines can be made up of a huge variety of things and need not even be continuous. You can use leading lines to control the way people look around your photograph. Whether they’re real or implied, by leading the viewers’ eye you are controlling the photograph’s narrative in a way that best tells your story.

I've used the simple converging leading lines in this shot of the Coastal Culture Trail on Englands South Coast to show the huge sky, the other cyclists and the fence by the sea.

I’ve used the simple converging lines in this shot of the Coastal Culture Trail on England’s South Coast to show the huge sky, the other cyclist and the fence by the sea.

The Fifth Rule of Photography is to utilise pattern

There are patterns everywhere and a photo with repetitive patterns or textures can make an interesting shot on its own. A box of marbles, rough brick wall, ducks in a line, feathers on a bird or the keys of a typewriter all have a definite pattern, and if one or two are visibly different (a red marble in a crate of silver ones, a different coloured brick, a drake in the line of ducks, a feather that’s pointing the wrong way or a bent typewriter key), the break in the pattern acts as a strong focal point.

This shot that comes from Richard Alston's choreography to the Britten Sinfonia shows how slight changes to repeating patterns can be used in composition.

This image from Richard Alston’s choreography to the Britten Sinfonia shows how slight changes to repeating patterns can be used in composition.

To Summarise

There are far more compositional guidelines than I’ve written about here, some of which are more appropriate for certain types of photography than others. I’ll get to them all in the end. The order I’ve created in this post is made up and the selection fairly arbitrary. My real intention has been to get you thinking and, because there’s a lot to deal with when you’re getting used to manual settings, to head off any blank moments while you learn.

Follow / Don’t follow these rules

Don’t feel you have to follow all of these rules, but you’ll get a lot out of playing with the ideas. Take shots in ways that you wouldn’t normally, compose images that make or go against these rules and make your own mind up as to what looks good, what tells the story you want and what doesn’t. Photography really is an art, and as an individual it’s up to you to show the stories you want through your images. Experts can always suggest how your shots might be improved, but there is no right or wrong and you can develop your own personal style with thought and practice.

Next Wednesday I will talk about cropping.

 

Every Wednesday I post something that will help my students. Each blog post is the synthesis of my experience as a pro-phtoographer and years of teaching photography to adults, children and teenagers. To attend a group course find me at City Academy or for flexible one-to-one tuition and portfolio building contact me directly.

this post, like all posts, is my exclusive copyright.