Diane Arbus thought some of the best compositions could come from “funny mistakes.” Edward Weston insisted that following the “rules” of composition led to predictable photos.
When it comes to composition, there aren’t nearly as many fixed rules or guidelines as we might imagine. Composition is subjective and elusive; what works in one situation won’t work in another, and artists can spend a lifetime learning how to frame a shot.
We asked more than a dozen talented photographers about how they taught themselves the principles of composition—and how they wield them to their advantage. These aren’t your typical composition tips; we’ve included everything from foundational elements to offbeat exercises.
1. Consume a lot of art
Consuming as many pictures as possible, from paintings in museums to stills from classic movies, was one of the top tips among the photographers we interviewed. “I am always consuming imagery that broadens my visual literacy,” the photographer and stylist Lauren Vied Allen says.
“Look at images and break down the different compositions. Study how artists use the rule of thirds, the golden ratio, layers, framing, leading lines, angles, etc., and that knowledge will inform your work.
“I use composition to direct my audience’s eye around my photograph, and I learn by challenging myself and practising constantly. Take your time composing your photos and pay attention to the details. It is always best to do as much work in-camera, so your post-production process isn’t as time-consuming.”
2. Get low (literally)
“Sit down in a comfortable seated position, and you’ll find a new dramatic point of view opens up,” the Iowa-based multimedia artist Barry Phipps advises. “Then, try lying on your back and on your stomach and photographing from these positions. Finally, stand up and take a photo from your original vantage point.
“Doing this over and over again will inform the way you photograph from your default standing position. You will find that your final photo will be influenced by those other three vantage points, and you will have four completely different photographs to choose from of the same scene. I almost always find that my standing photo looks lame compared to my sitting position.”
3. Create depth and leading lines
“When composing a photo, I often consider adding layers, as incorporating a foreground adds depth,” the Copenhagen-based photographer Christina N. Andersen tells us. “I also look for leading lines. Ask yourself, ‘What lines do your eyes follow along a photo, and how can you make them work to your advantage?’”
4. Use light and colour
“I use light and shadow to create contrasts and add drama,” Christina says. “Our attention is drawn to the part of the image where there is a large contrast in tones. As you use colour in your compositions, and you will also notice how different hues can create a certain mood. Blue tends to be calm and moody, whilst yellow, orange, and red are often associated with feelings of warmth and comfort.”
5. Watch your corners
Objects in the corners of your photo have more visual weight than those in the center, so use them to your advantage. “Ask yourself, ‘What is coming into and out of the frame?’” the documentary and commercial photographer Nicole Franco suggests. “Within every image, there’s movement and a pattern that you create to guide the gaze. Your corners help control the desired focal point.”
6. Keep it simple
In photography, less is often more. “Specifically when it comes to creating eye-catching content within the social media and advertising world, I find clarity and simplicity tend to cut through and capture attention,” the Los Angeles-based photographer Simon Needham explains.
“Placing your subject against a simple background or placing a well-lit subject against a dark background tends to give good separation and helps to tell a simpler, clearer, bolder story. Of course, this approach isn’t always perfect, but I find it helps when you are vying for attention, say, on Instagram.”
7. Go beyond the grid
While practising your framing, you can always turn on your “rule of thirds” or “golden ratio” grid to help you align your subject “perfectly” within the frame—but some of the pros recommend trusting your eye instead.
“I never use grids in my viewfinder,” the Los Angeles-based photographer Natasha Masharova admits. “I think they can distract you from your vision and disrupt that intimate connection with what you’re shooting. I only follow my built-in sense of composition, or rather, a sense of harmony when I compose a picture.”
Of course, you can always use a grid overlay during post-processing or cropping if you’d like, but as Natasha reminds us, it’s no replacement for what you see and feel.
8. Create a ‘frame within a frame’
“I try to keep a close eye out for clever framing,” the San Francisco-based photographer Tyler Dane Hansen explains. “Often, you can add a layer of interest or provide additional context to a moment by thinking about how objects, and sometimes other people, can frame the story you are telling.
“Especially at events where a performance or show is taking place, I think about how other attendees are interacting with the space and try to bring them into the fold of the photographs I am making. In this image, I realised this woman’s outstretched arms could perfectly frame the action of the man moving on stage.”
9. Try a shallow depth of field
“Make your subject the standout focal point of the image,” the photographer Thomas Jordan advises. “My favourite way to do this is by photographing with my lens at the smallest/widest aperture to utilise depth of field.
“After the subject is established, I’m always looking around the viewfinder for lines, textures, objects around that could make the composition unique. Don’t be afraid to take two steps to the left, or maybe a few to the right—the smallest change can have a great impact on the final result.”
10. Find moments of juxtaposition
“The frame is a magic container, and when you put two objects together in the same frame, you tell a story,” the New York City-based photographer and educator Robin Michals explains. “As a photographer, one of the greatest powers you have is to decide what to put together and what the relationship between those people or objects will be.
“To bring attention to environmental issues, I often juxtapose the structures of industry with residential neighbourhoods. To make a visually striking image, ask yourself—what can you put together in the frame?”
11. Play with symmetry
“There’s the old ‘rule of thirds’ thing where the subject is never supposed to be dead-center,” the Missouri-based photographer Bob Greenspan admits. “But try telling that to director Wes Anderson, who has made a career out of symmetrical film sets.
“My example here, from a recent trip to Alaska, is in some ways an example of symmetry, but with the added benefit of leading lines (the mountains) bringing the eye right to the subject. I also strive to have the subject a bit brighter than the rest of the scene. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I love to photograph old signage, and it’s usually illuminated anyway.”
12. Move your feet
“Being a photographer is rarely comfortable,” the Swedish artist Isabella Ståhl admits. “It involves getting closer to your subject, moving away, lying down on the ground, looking up, and looking down. Challenge yourself.
“Ask yourself, ‘What do I want to say with this image?’ For instance, there are a thousand ways to take a picture of your dog standing by the shoreline. If you want to tell the story of a small dog navigating a big, scary world, you’ll step back and shoot from above, capturing the whole scene. On the other hand, if you want to say that your dog is powerful and owns the world, maybe you photograph her from below, laying on the sand right next to her paws.
“Moving around like this to find the perfect composition is a lot of work, but it’s worth it.”
13. Take a ‘bad’ photo—on purpose
“My number one composition tip for emerging photographers would be to set aside what you think you know,” the New York-based photographer James Chororos admits. “I received two great pieces of advice in the past, one in art school and the other in architecture school, that I’m reminded of every time I make something.
“The first was, ‘Try to make a “bad” image and see what happens.’ The other was, ‘Observe everything, even the most familiar objects, as if you’ve never seen them before.’
“I believe that if you practise these two things regularly as an exercise in your work, composition will unfold for you in ways you were never programmed to think about. You’ll start to be able to find new, unique, and truly original characteristics in common things or scenes that you wouldn’t have been able to notice previously.”
14. Keep shooting
“You need to experiment,” the photographer Lau Jespersen, who specialises in optical illusions, explains. “Take 50 different photos of the same subject, and don’t stop until you’re satisfied. Don’t leave the scene until you’re absolutely sure that you took the best photo possible of that particular subject.
“It’s extremely rewarding to suddenly produce pictures that you are proud of, and I only got there by dedicating more time to photography. I recommend spending long, consecutive days taking photos. And don’t bring anyone else; just bring your camera. Nobody got good at anything while small-talking.
“If you shoot enough, it will become second nature to frame a photo on the first try. Instinctively, you will know what will work for a particular scene. However, even then, force yourself to try out all the different framing possibilities and evaluate what works best.”
15. Trust your gut
“My number one composition tip would be to be present and listen to your gut, intuition, and body,” the Canary Islands-based photographer Taysa Jorge says. “I think there’s a moment when you are creating an image that every detail fits like a puzzle. Beyond the composition ‘rules,’ it simply feels ‘right’ inside of you.
“I’m very picky and usually have a kind of uncomfortable feeling when there’s something I don’t like visually in my composition. Sometimes I don’t even know what it is, but I’ve learned to trust and listen to it because you can like something visually but still feel that there’s something that doesn’t ‘fit.’
“In my case, I’ve realised that I like very clean-looking photos. Playing a lot with colour and negative space helps me to create a sense of atmosphere in my work. Composition can be an unconscious process as much as anything. I tend to let the image reveal itself to me. In essence, I’d recommend feeling more than you think.”
About the contributor
Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.