Mastering Composition :: Digital Photo Secrets

Mastering Composition

by Becki Robins 7 comments

(or, why you can't just point your camera at something and press the button)

A bad photo is easy to spot. Even a lay person knows a bad photo when she sees one. The only people who don't seem to notice bad photos are the people who take them.

You know the sort of image I mean. Just go to Facebook and click on any random friend's collection of family and vacation photos. Sure, some are going to be great because some people have a better natural eye for composition than others. But a lot of them are going to be bad. Kids in chaotic clusters trying to chase a soccer ball. People who appear as tiny specs in front of giant landmarks. Seascapes with no sense of dimension. Where did all these images go wrong?

The good news is, a lot of these classic photography problems can be fixed with a better understanding of composition. Yes, an eye for photographs can be learned - but like so many other subjects learning to have a photographer's eye requires a lot of study and practice. And sometimes you need to understand exactly what went wrong so that you can get it right the next time.

Start by keeping it simple

Consciously, a lot of people don't understand the difference between enough and too much. We're consumers, so we like to cram as much stuff as possible into as little space as possible - which is probably why many American garages don't contain any actual cars, just a lot of stuff. Subconsciously, though, we hate how all those crowded spaces make us feel. We like wide open spaces and room to breathe.

Your photos like this, too - or at least your photo's viewers do. They may not even know it, but your viewers are drawn to images that are simple.

That means you shouldn't have any extra stuff in your photos. Your photo should be about a subject, and anything else in the photo should compliment that subject. If it distracts from your subject, it doesn't belong in the photo. Distracting elements create chaos, and chaos is what makes us groan every time we walk in to that overstuffed garage. You don't want your viewer to look at your photo the same way he looks at Spring cleaning.

Even landscape photos can suffer from too much of a good thing. Have you ever wondered why that should-be-amazing photo you shot at your last visit to a national park just doesn't look very good? It could be because you have a patch of wildflowers in one corner, a road in another, a pond in the middle, a clump of trees over to the left, a mountain range on the right and a couple of lovely puffy clouds in the sky. That's sensory overload. It all looked beautiful in person because your eye didn't try to take it all in at once. In a photo, your viewer is forced to take it all in and it's just too overwhelming. The image lacks a subject, because you've tried to make everything a subject.

In the above example, you can make a better image by focusing on the single element you want as a subject, and then include only those things that compliment it rather than the ones that distract from it. If the mountain range is reflecting in the pond, focus just on the mountains and the pond. Crop out the wildflowers, the clump of trees and the road. You may be surprised by how greatly improved your images are when you just focus on a single subject and one or two compliments.

Let's look at this example:

This was absolutely breathtaking in person, I swear. But in a photo, not so much. The reason? Like the example above, there is no subject in this photo. "Beautiful scenery" is not by itself a subject. A subject is that mountain, or those trees, or those rocks. This photo is a mountain and some trees and some rocks.

Now look what happens if I shoot from a different location, and focus on the mountain as my subject:

I still have a little something in the foreground to provide dimension, and I have that small lake to compliment my subject. But there can be no doubt that the mountain itself is the subject of this image, and that makes it more compelling than the first shot.

Another way you can create simplicity in your images is by surrounding your subject with - you guessed it - nothing. Make sure there is plenty of space around him, her or it. This doesn't necessarily mean blue sky or a plain white background, but if there's any chaos in the distance you should try angling it out or blurring it with a wide aperture. If you can't get rid of the distractions, zoom in closer. If you're trying to capture a portrait, for example, don't forget that a face or part of a face can be just as striking as a head and torso.

Don't be afraid to crop. If an image seems chaotic to you, it probably is - but that doesn't mean it can't be saved. Cropping out some of those distracting elements in post processing can save a potentially bad image. And don't forget, a photo doesn't have to be a 2x3 ratio - make it square, if you have to, or a little longer than a standard sized image. Crop it in any way you need to to make that subject become more of a subject and less just another element in a chaotic composition.

Now move on to the rule of thirds

Did you know that almost any photograph can be improved simply by moving your camera a little bit to the left or a little bit to the right? That's the beauty of the rule of thirds, and it's most likely something you already do. You may even do it without realizing it.

The rule of thirds simply says that you should usually position your subject in the right, left, top or bottom third of the frame rather than in the center. Many DSLRs even give you the option to show a grid in your viewfinder that will help you position your subject. The grid looks like this:

To use the rule of thirds grid, you will simply move your camera so that the subject is in one of those thirds, or at the intersection of one of those thirds.

Now you may be wondering why this works. The simple answer is because human beings see the world as something that is constantly in motion, and they want to view photographs that way, too. A photograph, though, is static and without movement, so a photographer needs to imply that movement in order to satisfy the eye of his viewer. Yes, this is true even with subjects that don't move, such as flowers and landscapes.

If you place your subject exactly in the middle of the frame, you've created an image without movement. The viewer's eye lands there and then essentially gives up, because there's nowhere else to go. But when your subject is in one of those thirds, your viewer's eye has to move in order to find that subject, and/or move away in order to anticipate where that subject might go next. This gives the entire image a sense of movement. It also allows interaction between the viewer and the subject.

Let's look at some examples of photos that use the rule of thirds and photos that should have used the rule of thirds.

Here's a photo of my son enjoying an apple at the local apple orchard:

Sure, he's cute. But even I can admit that his cuteness can't carry the whole image. What's wrong with this photo? He's just standing there boringly in the middle of the frame. You don't get the sense that he's ever going to do anything except stand there with his apple surrounded by all those apple trees.

Now watch what happens when I crop the image so he is in the right 2/3 of the frame:

Suddenly, this image becomes more dynamic. We get more of a sense that he's just pausing in the field with his apple, taking a quick snack break before he goes running off to do whatever else it is that little boys do in apple orchards. The reason we get this feeling is because he's got all that space on the right of the image that he can run into.

So should you always use the rule of thirds when you take photographs? Absolutely not. No "rule" in photography is unbreakable, and this is one rule that you should most certainly break from time to time. But before you make that decision you need to fully understand why the rule works and when it is appropriate to break it. For example, if you are shooting an ornate building in front of a reflecting pool and the reflection is just as stunning as the building, the appropriate choice would be to place the line between the building and the pool in the horizontal center of the frame. And because this type of image is about balance, you may also want to make sure that your building is placed in the vertical center of the frame.

Here's a simple example of a successful break of the rule of thirds:

  • Canon EOS 5D
  • 200
  • f/8.0
  • 0.003 sec (1/320)
  • 40 mm

Radiate, plate II by Flickr user henrikj

This is a pretty iconic image of the Taj Mahal, which probably exists in the portfolios of thousands of photographers in almost exactly the same form. The reason is because it works. It's a symmetrical building with a symmetrical reflection, which makes it natural to want to frame the image in a symmetrical non-rule-of-thirds way. Now look what happens when I try to make this image adhere to the rule of thirds:

Oh, no, this photo doesn't work at all when the structure and its reflection are placed in that rule of thirds intersection. That's because this image doesn't need to move. This image is all about balance, and balance is still and peaceful. Balance doesn't need to move because its beauty lies in the balance itself, not in anything that is going to happen in the image.

The Golden Spiral

OK, now that you've been refreshed on the rule of thirds, it's time to get a little more complicated. Now, let me preface this by saying that I'm terrible at math. So I'm not going to try to explain to you the complex mathematical formula behind the golden spiral, because frankly I don't think you really need to know it. And also because I'm terrible at math.

This is all you need to know:

  • Canon EOS Digital Rebel
  • 100
  • f/16.0
  • 0.8
  • 44 mm

Nautilus BW by Flickr user LRJanzen13

That's a nautilus shell, and it's nature's way of explaining the golden spiral, which essentially says that any photograph or piece of art that is composed in such a way that the lines follow the lines of a nautilus shell cannot fail to be beautiful. The nautilus shell, then, is the definition of artistic and photographic perfection. You will also notice that it roughly follows the rule of thirds. Here it is in its mathematical form:

Here are some examples of images that follow the form of a nautilus shell, otherwise known as the golden spiral:

  • Canon EOS 10D
  • 100
  • 90 mm

Rose Spiral by Flickr user nathangibbs

  • Nikon D100
  • 200
  • f/4.5
  • 0.013 sec (1/80)
  • 18 mm

Golden Spiral by Flickr user Ian Muttoo

Now if you're a smart phone user, there are a couple of tools you can get for your phone that will help you learn how to see the world and everything in it through the golden spiral. If you want to make this become second nature, I highly advise that you download and use one of them. If you're an iPhone user the app is called "Sense Cam". For Android users the app is called "Camera Sensor". Both of these apps will apply a golden spiral outline to your phone's screen, which you can use when composing photographs. If you get the hang of using this on your smart phone, eventually you'll start to see that golden spiral in your mind's eye whenever you're using your DSLR, too.


All of this is kind of leading me to my next point, and that's line.

Human eyes naturally want to follow lines. Have you ever watched a toddler walking one foot in front of the other on a line in the pavement? Lines give us a sense of possibility, a sense of places to go and things to see. And now we're back to that idea of movement.

Taken literally, photos are flat and static. Flat and static equals boring. So it's a photographer's job to make an image look like it's not flat and static even when it obviously is. One way to do that is to give the viewer's eye something to follow, like a line. When the viewer's eye is in motion, the photograph suddenly becomes dynamic. It becomes something the viewer thinks he might be able to walk into. That's precisely the feeling you want to create in an image.

You have of course seen those classic images of railroad tracks vanishing into the distance. They're samey, but almost all of them will hold your attention because they all have that one quality: the vanishing point. A vanishing point is a set of converging lines that imply depth. Vanishing point lines also make your viewer's eye move from one end of the image to another. They make your viewer want to get on that train and vanish into the distance, too.

Here's a photo of Seacliff Beach Pier in Santa Cruz, California:

  • Sony DSC-P10
  • 100
  • f/10.0
  • 0.002 sec (1/500)
  • 23.7 mm

Pier Rio del Mar Beach, Aptos, California by Flickr user Miz Lizzie

This picture is nice enough it gives you a good feeling for the ocean and the cool wood structure of the pier. But it lacks dimension and depth. We don't really feel like we can go anywhere in this image. We're looking straight ahead, and there isn't anything inviting us to step into the image and have a look around.

Now look at this image, taken in the same location from a different angle:

  • Nikon D90
  • 200
  • f/4.5
  • 15
  • 12 mm

Under the Bridge by Flickr user dwan.mac

Now there's a vanishing point in the image, and suddenly it's much more compelling. Now this pier doesn't just look like a wooden structure stretching from one side of the horizon to another, now it's dynamic. You feel like you want to step into that image and walk from one beam to the next, and maybe get your toes wet in the water. You are invited to come in and explore.

Of course vanishing point is not the only compelling sort of line you can use in your images. You can use curved lines, wavy lines, simple horizontals and verticals and diagonals - all lines will have the same basic effect of drawing your viewer's eye into the photograph. What varies is the mood that each type of line conveys.

Let's look at some examples from Flickr:

  • Canon EOS 400D Digital
  • 100
  • f/9.0
  • 2.5
  • 10 mm

Sowing the seeds of tomorrow by Flickr user Christolakis

This image has very clear lines in it, but they are meandering, wavy lines. How do you feel when you look at this photo? For most people, meandering, wavy lines are reminiscent of the lines we see in nature. Rivers meander, sand dunes form wavy lines as they are moved by the wind and elements, and flowers, smooth rocks, beaches and shorelines all have beautiful curved lines.

Curved, wavy lines give your viewer the same sense of peace that she might get while standing in a beautiful natural setting. And because a viewer's eye will naturally follow any line in an image, the curved, meandering line will take the viewer on an equally meandering journey throughout the image, rather than down a straight trajectory.

Here are two examples of a very specific type of line, the "S" curve:

First Light at Smith Rock by Flickr user Michael Bolognesi

  • Canon EOS 5D
  • 800
  • f/2.8
  • 0.001 sec (1/1600)
  • 100 mm

Shell Detail by Flickr user féileacán

An S curve, of course, is any line that is roughly "S" shaped. S curves convey movement, but they also divide a scene into two parts. The S curve can actually be a variation on the rule of thirds, in that many S curve images split the frame into two parts that are roughly 1/3 and 2/3 of the frame.

An S curve (or any line, really) can also be used to draw a viewer towards a subject. Placing your subject at the beginning or end of an S curve will take your viewer's eye on a journey that ends or begins where you've placed your subject.

The direction of the S curve can also affect the way your viewer perceives your photograph. An S curve that starts in the lower left and ends in the upper right will appear to be moving away from the viewer; one that starts in the upper left and ends in the lower right will seem to be moving towards the viewer. This is actually only true for people who speak English or other languages that are written from left to right, which suggests a strong correlation with the way our eyes follow words and the way they follow lines.

Now for your basic horizontal line:

  • Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi
  • 250
  • f/9.0
  • 0.002 sec (1/500)
  • 210 mm

Lines by Flickr user swisscan

How do you feel when you view this image? Does it make you feel at peace? Dreamy? Or even sleepy? Horizontal lines are relaxing. They invite us to lie down and make ourselves horizontal, too. Horizontal lines also give us a sense of stability and timelessness. This comes directly from the horizon itself--which is probably the most stable and timeless horizontal line of them all.

When photographing very straight horizontal lines, it is important to keep them as level as possible. Even a slightly angled horizontal line is going to feel a bit odd to the person viewing it. This becomes less important with imperfect horizontal lines, but is still something you should try to be aware of.

Now how about these vertical lines:

  • Nikon D80
  • 250
  • f/3.5
  • 0.02 sec (1/50)
  • 35 mm

Sunrise, Russian River (September 2012) by Flickr user ejbSF

Vertical lines like the ones in this forest give the viewer a sense of strength and power. This is exactly what you feel when you walk into a redwood forest - a sense of being overwhelmed by the height and enormity of all those trees. Tall buildings can give you the same feeling. They are strong, powerful and imposing. If you want to make those vertical lines seem even more imposing, shooting them with vertical framing should do the trick. This will make tall lines seem even taller, and therefore stronger, and therefore more powerful.

And here are some diagonals:

  • Olympus E-30
  • 200
  • f/8.0
  • 0.013 sec (1/80)
  • 46 mm

Nichts recht by Flickr user Postsumptio

If you're like most viewers, this image gives you a sense of action, even though it is a shot of a static structure. The intersecting lines may even seem a little tense. Images that contain diagonal lines are doing something, they are constantly in motion, and it isn't that calm, relaxing motion that you get from mere curved lines or horizontal ones. If you want your image to be really dynamic, include diagonal lines.


Triangles, squares, circles, rectangles - it's all basic geometry. In fact, it's all basic stuff-you-learned-in-kindergarten, too. This is because our world is full of shapes, and even when we are children we recognize how important shapes are. Human beings naturally look for shapes in their environment, which means we are naturally looking for shapes in photographs, too.

Like line, shape is important in photography because it conveys emotion. Shape can also give the viewer a sense of order.

There are two different kinds of shapes. Geometric shapes are the ones that spring instantly to mind and the ones that we learn the names of when were still small children. Geometric shapes are regular - they have straight lines or regular curves and are usually symmetrical, meaning that if you divide them in two the opposite sides will be mirror images of each other.

Organic shapes are the sorts of shapes you find in nature. They can be roughly symmetrical, in the way that a maple leaf or a pine cone can be roughly symmetrical, but in general they are uneven in shape and contain more curves than lines.

Organic shapes suggest freedom, spontaneity and natural beauty, while geometric shapes tend to suggest structure. But individual shapes can have meanings of their own, and it's a good idea to know what those meanings are when you're choosing subjects and settings for your photos.

Here's an example of an image that makes good use of circles:

  • Sony DSC-H9
  • 400
  • f/4.0
  • 0.003 sec (1/400)
  • 36.8 mm

Circles / Círculos (Abstracción 011) by Flickr user Claudio.Ar

Circles are strongly suggestive of abstract concepts like eternity and harmony. When we look at a circle or a sphere we see something that is complete and without a beginning or an end. Circles can also represent protection and togetherness.

Now look at this image:

  • Olympus E-P1
  • 250
  • f/5.0
  • 0.04 sec (1/25)
  • 14 mm

Blue Square by Flickr user j neuberger

Can you find the geometric shapes in this image? It's full of squares and rectangles, which give your viewer a sense of stability and structure. Squares and rectangles have even sides, and are therefore structured and reliable. They are also familiar, and their familiarity suggests comfort. We live in buildings that are rectangle, or a series of rectangles, and so we are comfortable with them.

The rule of thirds can help explain why rectangles are so appealing in a photograph or another piece of art. When you divide a simple rule of thirds image into thirds, you get rectangles. But rectangles can of course appear in any size or variation in your image, not just in those rule of thirds dividers. Rectangles and squares can also be used as natural frames, which can add importance and focus to your photographs.

    The Lough Boora Triangle by Flickr user David Bergin Photography

    An arrow point is a triangle. Can you guess what triangles suggest to most viewers? They suggest movement, direction, action and conflict. Triangles are also great for creating depth in an image--what are two converging lines, after all, but a very long triangle? And because triangles are essentially arrows, they can also be used to direct your viewer's eye towards your subject, essentially telling him exactly where to look.
    Now for two easy ones. What do you see in these images?

    • Olympus SP510UZ
    • 50
    • f/4.0
    • 0.003 sec (1/320)
    • 22.1 mm

    b/w heart by Flickr user jamedz

    • Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT
    • 100
    • f/4.0
    • 0.002 sec (1/640)
    • 10 mm

    + by Flickr user Milton CJ

    The first one is obviously a heart, and hearts represent love and affection. The second is a cross, and crosses symbolize Christian spirituality. Both of these shapes have an almost universal message to English speakers, even those who aren't Christian and don't happen to enjoy Valentine's Day. If the concepts of love or Christian spirituality are in your photographic message, including one of these shapes in your composition is a guaranteed way to suggest this.

    Finally, arches. Like squares and rectangles, arches make excellent natural frames. Hearts are composed of arches, so there is a natural suggestion of love and harmony an arch. Arches can also give your viewer a feeling of strength and timelessness--think of the arches that support the ceiling of a cathedral or the natural stone arches in Utah.

    • Canon EOS 40D
    • 100
    • f/7.1
    • 0.01 sec (1/100)
    • 10 mm

    Victory of Arches... by Flickr user zilverbat.

    If you look through e images you've made in the past, you'll suddenly discover that these shapes are everywhere--look not just at your subject and surroundings but also at the negative space in your image. How do those shapes help create mood? If there aren't any definite shapes, does the image rely on something else to create mood or does it simply fail to convey the message you were hoping it would?


    Closely related to all of this is balance. You know about yin and yang, of course, or if not you're at least familiar with the symbol--a mirror image except that one side is black and the other is white. Balance makes your viewer feel comfortable. Images that don't have balance are the opposite of comfortable - a viewer may even feel awkward while looking at them, or he may simply just want to go look at something else. You know the sort of image I mean - a photo where there's something very large in one corner and nothing in the opposite corner. These images feel like they're tipping over.

    A well balanced image isn't necessarily a symmetrical one, although it certainly can be. This image, for example (like the Taj Mahal image above), has symmetrical balance:

    • Canon EOS 30D
    • 100
    • f/7.1
    • 1.6
    • 10 mm

    Saint Vitus Cathedral, Prague by Flickr user szeke

    But this one has a different kind of balance:

    • Nikon D700
    • f/16.0
    • 64

    Boulder in the Desert by Flickr user Eric C Bryan

    The balance in the second photo is created with an object that compliments the first one, adds some weight to that opposite corner and makes it feel a lot less like the image is going to tip over.

    You can achieve balance a little less literally, too, by using contrasting elements. A photo of two contrasting subjects cannot fail to be interesting. You can also contrast subject and setting make an interesting composition. A man in a suit standing in a cornfield, for example, or a horse standing in someone's living room. Here's an example:

      Adrift on a sea of grass -15 by Flickr user Plbmak

      This image works because we don't expect to see boats in a field. And when we do see odd things in odd places, it creates a strange sort of balance between the subject and setting.

      Now there are about a million other compositional tools that photographers take advantage of all the time. One of these days you'll probably know them all. But in the meantime it is definitely worth your while to master the ones listed here, since they tend to be powerful and also relatively simple to understand and implement.

      You and I know, of course, that all rules - especially photographic ones - are meant to be broken. So don't think of these as "rules." Instead, think of them as compositional lessons. Try to master each one and you'll be a better photographer. I promise.

      Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?


      1. Savio Menezes says:

        Fantastic article,superbly composed and very informative for me,especially the golden spiral

      2. Fernando Paula says:

        One of the most complete articles I could read about Composition. Thanks a lot! Please keep me posted!

      3. John says:

        Thanks for another expertly summarized post, Becki. Really put together well, and much appreciated!

      4. Dawn Attewell says:

        Great article! Reinforced thing I know but explained why the rules make better images. ( just the help I need)

      5. lee says: is rules like this that i have to keep reminding my self enough that i dont have to remind my self as it come without thingking...thanks

      6. Larry Coleman says:

        Terrific article. Thanks so much.

        In the (2nd) photo of your son, you write, "hes got all that space to the left that he can run into." The space is actually to the right (on my computer anyway).

        I was going to make some smartypants comment about southern vs. northern hemispheres getting things turned around - an old joke but a lousy one - until I realized it was you, not David.

        • David Peterson says:

          Hi Larry,

          Actually I think Becki meant her son's left, not our left looking at the photo. But I've changed it to "Right of the photo".


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      35 minutes
      About Becki Robins
      Becki Robins is a Californian who has a strong background in photography including an associate in arts degree in commercial photography. She has been a hobby and professional photographer for more than a decade and has taken thousands of photos, some of which have been published and won awards. Becki is also an excellent coach of the Photography Dashes.