Composition in Photography

Digital SLR Photography Tips: Composition

Composition and You. When composing your subject and yourself, there are many thoughts, opinions and rules to think about. However, I have never been one to follow the rules entirely. What is important is how you want to portray the composition of the photograph. Although, depending on what you are looking to achieve, we can narrow it down to just 2 choices;

  • Are you taking the picture for your own pleasure?
  • Or are you looking to attract clients, get published or win competitions?

Just for me!

Ok, if it is just you that you have to please it is a lot simpler. You know what you like and you can simply go out and do your best to get it, and enjoy the learning curve on the way! What you will find however, is that as you progress and learn, you will:

  • Try new things
  • See things differently
  • Start to mould your very own techniques, composition and style of photography

This is the point where you kind of "accelerate" your passion as you become hungry for new ideas and techniques. I suggest that you read a lot. Use birthdays and Christmas as an excuse to build your library of decent reference books, courses or memberships. I remember soaking up every bit of information that I could as a young lad getting started. I still do now!

When you look at a subject or go out to spend the day photographing, try and stick to a theme. Otherwise, you will be constantly flitting from one subject to another and coming up with not very much. If you say to yourself "Right, people day today". You can then concentrate on the composition of people in everyday scenes and going about their everyday ways. You will then find that you concentrate a lot more on the task in hand!

Remember to ask permission when photographing people close up and respect their privacy when necessary

When you do have a theme, think about how you want to portray it. Think of different angles of view, maybe from a rooftop or shooting up an escalator. Think in maybe an abstract composition way and try to think ahead about how you can "play" with a shot later in Photoshop.

Woman Sitting on White Sandy Beach in Spain

"It may not look that good now, but when I play with the curves and add a filter or two..."

One of the main "rules" of composition is the rule of thirds.

If you look at the grid that is overlaid on this image to your left (or above if on a Smartphone, you can see that it splits the picture into 9 segments. 

The basics of this rule suggest that you compose your subject so that:

  • Approximately 1/3rd is covered by your subject
  • The other 2/3rd's is made up of background

Or to put it another way, ensure that your main point of interest is at one of the intersections of the lines.

Composition: Rule of thirds

Woman Catching Beach Ball in the Sun

I will cover this more in "Break the Rules" but for now, think of it as a guideline. Remember, rules can be broken.

Whatever the subject, always remember that you want it to stand out from the rest of the scene. To do this, you can either "Blow out" the background by choosing a large aperture.

Try f2.8 if your lens opens that wide but f4 will do a similar job, especially on a telephoto lens. Or, when photographing people or something with a cluttered background, get on the floor and look up.

That way you just have the sky as a backdrop and the main point of interest steals the show like in this image of Wendy on the beach.

You "know" it is a beach because of the bikini and beach ball, but you don't need to see the beach!

Composition: Backgrounds

Don't just look at your subject, look behind and around them to make sure nothing is distracting or allowing the eye to wander. Smaller items like rubbish or cranes can be removed with the help of Photoshop, but getting it right first time saves work later on.

Take your time if you can, and change your position to suit the composition and lighting.

I want to make money or win something

Now this is a different ball game altogether. You now have to start to think of other people and how they will and want to see your images.

When thinking about entering competitions I always find it difficult as rejection can hurt. You may think your picture deserves 1st prize. Certain other panels of judges may think the same had you entered it into their competition. However, the panel of judges for this competition may think differently. It all depends on their composition taste, knowledge and background.

It is a difficult area to break into as each set of judges are different. They look for different standards and criteria, some being harsher than others. The only way around this is to study which photographs win each particular category of competition for each panel. Then try to use this knowledge, along with your own style, and get that prize.

Basically enter as many competitions as you can using the same photographs. That way you start to learn what each individual panel looks for with regard to composition, style, techniques and effort. I don't normally enter them anymore, but this year I have a small wager with my brother to see who can win the most for the SWPP in the UK.

Family Looking at House Blueprint from Below

The SWPP (Society of Wedding and Portrait Photographers) and BPPA (British Professional Photographers Associates) in England were kind enough to give me the photographer of the month award for January 2005 for 3 of my entries.

This (left) one was for the commercial section. It depicts a family thinking of buying an off-plan property in Spain. 

The blue sky "says" Spain, there is a hint of a building site, and the plans that they are holding show the "off-plan" stage.


I took the photo whilst lying on a very dusty floor as to eliminate any background clutter. I asked them to "imagine" that they were holding the plans and then added the real plans later using Photoshop.

When photographing for clients, commercials or competitions, you really have to listen to what they want and try to produce the goods. Think about how the image will look and how the onlooker will see it. What story does it tell? Does it say what the client wants it to say? Is it unique in its approach? Does it stand out from the rest?

I guess for me, I have narrowed my niche or style down to bright, bold, punchy and colourful images that really stand out. It bodes well for the commercial "scene" too. Other photographers enjoy the calmer, pastel coloured and minimalist approach. Purely black and white or heavily "digitized" images. Everyone is different and you will find that, in time, you will develop your own style too.

For now I say just practice, practice and practice and read a bit too. At the end of the day, the only way to find your own style is to get out there and shoot away.

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