Try out these thirteen tips from established photographers and train your eye to find the best composition for your images.
When image buyers browse photos online, they usually only see a thumbnail, so your pictures have to jump off the screen right away. There are a few ways for photographers to stand out — from choosing a trendy topic to incorporating eye-catching colors — but one tried-and-true way to attract attention is by using the right composition.
Almost seventy years ago, before color came into vogue and long before the digital revolution, Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote about the importance of composition and “the creative fraction of a second” it took to capture an effective photograph. For him, composition was more than a set of formal rules. It was an instinct and a kind of intuition.
Today, Cartier-Bresson’s philosophy still rings true. Composition is a kind of magic that’s hard to predict and even harder to plan. Let’s take a closer look.
1. Learn to “See” the Rule of Thirds
It’s difficult to discuss composition without at least touching on the rule of thirds — the principle that a two-to-one ratio is more dynamic and appealing than your typical one-to-one ratio. Instead of placing the subject in the center of the frame, a photographer following the rule of thirds positions it off to the side.
To find the ideal spot in placing a subject, photographers often use a grid on their LCD or on their computers during the cropping phase. This grid (like a tic-tac-toe board) divides the frame into three equal parts — both horizontally and vertically — so that you end up with a total of nine parts and four points of intersection. If you’re following the rule, you’d place your subject or subjects at one or more of these points of intersection.
With time, that grid ceases to be literal. Instead, it’s something you keep in the back of your mind whenever you’re on set. “When you are creating an image from scratch, it’s important to understand the rule of thirds on an unconscious level,” portrait photographer Beatriz Vera tells us.
“This is an idea that’s been used in paintings and photographs for generations — and with good reason. Following this rule will help you lead the eye through the image, creating both balance and tension, as it makes its way to your main subject.”
2. Straighten that Horizon Line
In seascape photos, the ocean line will generally cut horizontally across the frame. In architectural photos, the buildings will usually form a straight vertical line. A slanted line can disrupt your whole composition. Luckily, a simple grid tool can help you get these lines just right. Some cameras also come with level indicators for that purpose.
A crooked horizon line could potentially lead to your image being rejected from Shutterstock, so it’s always something to keep in mind. If you don’t get them aligned in-camera, you can always adjust when you crop your image.
Of course, slanted horizon lines aren’t always negative. Sometimes, they can add a sense of drama and unease to an image, but it should be a deliberate choice rather than an accident. “I try not to twist the horizon line, unless there is something in the image to justify it and to guarantee that it was an intentional decision,” photographer Laura Battiato explains.
3. Get Closer
Another familiar rule for photographers? “Fill the frame.” The idea behind this principle is that you want to move in close to your subject and get rid of any background elements that might distract from it. It should be immediately clear where your subject sits and where the eye should focus.
While some photographers prefer to zoom-in to fill the frame, others zoom with their feet, for a more immersive angle and experience. This approach can work especially well in commercial stock photography, since clients crave these experiential perspectives.
“Get close enough to feel the atmosphere that surrounds your models and the places you photograph,” the team at theshots.co advises. “Try not to stand in one place. Get in the action yourself. Trust us, doing so will take your photography skills to another level.”
Keep an eye on the edges of your frame, as these can get cluttered fast. If you find any chaotic or distracting elements encroaching on your subject, take a step closer.
4. Leave Some Negative Space
In some cases, you’ll want to fill the frame with your subject, but in others, it might work better to include plenty of negative space.
This is doubly important when you’re shooting for stock because clients will need to crop your photos themselves. In many cases, they’ll use that empty space for their copy, logos, and other materials. What might look like extra background material to you could end up being prime real estate for the buyer.
“One hint I’d give to other photographers is to work with copy space,” photographer Alex Todosko of skyNext tells us. “I often take a picture keeping in mind where the buyer will subsequently position blocks of information. Usually, I section off a block at the top of the photo, and to do this, I might shift the center of mass of the photograph to one of the edges.”
5. Incorporate Lead Room
Lead room, like copy space, is an essential consideration for any photographer. Sometimes called “nose room,” this guideline posits that there should be more negative space in the direction where your subject is facing. In other words, if your subject is looking from right to left, you’d add some extra room on her left-hand side. Her gaze would then help guide the eye across the page and into that important space.
6. And Bring out those Leading Lines
“Leading lines” are any horizontal, vertical, or diagonal lines that lead our eyes to the subject of your photo. It can be a road coursing into the distance, a river running through a landscape, or an architectural element cutting through a cityscape.
“This is my favorite composition tip, especially when we’re using diagonal lines to attract the viewer’s attention,” Ukrainian photographer Olha Khomenko tells us. “This is how, as a photographer, you’ll be able to convey the main message and meaning of your photo. They can also be used to emphasize details that might otherwise be overlooked.”
7. Get Low, Get High
One tip we hear over and over, from family photographers in particular? Get down on the ground so that you’re on the same level as the youngsters you’re photographing. “When I’m working with children, I’m usually photographing them from their height level,” family photographer Natalia Lebedinskaia tells us.
“I sit down or lie down on the floor, before I press the button. I find that this creates the feeling that I’m present in the frame. It feels less like I’m just ‘a photographer’ and more like I’m a participant in the action.”
Sometimes, getting to higher ground works just as well as bending down, depending on the subject. “I often play with heights, both by lying on the ground or climbing a ladder, or a bunk bed, or a table,” family and lifestyle photographer Ella K. Sverdlov tells us. “When you change your perspective, the entire scene looks new.”
8. Adjust Your Depth of Field
“I always like playing with background designs and textures as an out-of-focus backdrop,” Allie Beckett, the photographer behind Canna Obscura, explains. “And bokeh, of course, is always fun to play with. When planning images for advertising, it always helps fill some of that empty composition space without being overbearing.” You can get that out-of-focus backdrop by using a shallow depth of field and a wide-open aperture.
9. Play with Layers
Principles like the rule of thirds deal with photography on a two-dimensional plane, but we live in a three-dimensional world. Back in 2018, we listed “layered landscapes” as one of our top trends on Instagram, and it’s one that hasn’t faded.
By having a clearly defined foreground, background, and subject, you can create the illusion of depth, drawing us into an image and allowing us to linger there. Popular composition tricks, like adding a “frame within a frame” or creating a dramatic background bokeh are examples of layering in action.
“Train yourself to always be conscious of the different layers of your photographs while you’re looking through the viewfinder,” photographer nevodka suggests. “You might be composing for your main foreground subject, but you should always look briefly at your background as well. Often, the art of layering comes down to just one step in the right direction, or a slight turn of a camera. But, it’s those layers that define your shot.”
10. Consider the Rule of Odds
Sometimes called “the rule of three,” this principle isn’t to be confused with the rule of thirds. This one refers not to the placement of objects, but instead, to the number of objects within your frame. According to experts, using an odd number of elements can lead to a more balanced and harmonious composition, rather than using an even number. That’s especially true when the number is low. A composition of three pumpkins, for example, might work better than a composition with only two. Once you get up to nine or ten pumpkins, however, the difference in balance will be less noticeable.
11. Practice in Black and White
“The biggest composition ‘rule’ I have is following my intuition, and sometimes turning off the color allows me to find a better balance,” skyNext adds. “Some cameras allow this, and I find it removes distractions and allows me to focus solely on the composition.”
12. Know the Basics of Color Theory
“In my photographs, I always try to follow the classical laws of composition, as well as the rules for combining colors, since these will always be relevant,” Olha Khomenko adds. Familiarizing yourself with the color wheel can help you to use different hues and saturations to highlight your main subject and background.
For example, if you want to create balance between two compositional elements, you might choose objects with complementary colors. If you want to draw attention to one area of your photo and allow the rest to fade into the background, maybe boost its saturation a little. As a general rule, using a contrasting array of darks and lights will create a more interesting and balanced composition than sticking to one value throughout.
13. Make Some Sketches
The rules of composition aren’t limited to photography and cinematography. Sometimes you can refine and hone your eye by practicing with drawings and illustrations. They don’t have to be picture-perfect. The idea is to get a feel for where objects can be placed in relation to one another to produce the intended effect.
“I actually don’t follow any rules or principles, but I do have a lot of sketches filled with photography ideas,” photographer Zolotarevs tells us. “In my compositions, I love richness and detail, so I’m always looking for ways to tweak the frame. My sketches will last me for several years to come, and I’m constantly updating them. I trust my instincts. If I think it’s beautiful, it’s worth taking a picture.”
Cover image by Jacob Lund