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Five ways composition can improve your photos

Composition can make or break an image and is a fundamental element that should always be considered when creating photographs. Although you may read about many compositional rules, none of them are fixed. However, I would suggest that these are general guidelines that instead act as good starting points from which you can then be creative. As always with photography, subjectivity is key and it’s important to experiment with what your eye feels comfortable with. This will help you develop your own visual style. Nevertheless, below are five guidelines that can be used independently or combined to help you create better pictures.

1 – Rule of Thirds

Although I told you there are no rules, this is the first and most classic guideline for composition, the best starting point and how I encourage attendees on my workshops to begin thinking about composition. Essentially, the ‘Rule of Thirds” is that you divide a frame into nine equal rectangles using two vertical and two horizontal lines. You should then place the points of most interest along one or more of these lines and/or where they intersect. A common tendency is to place things right in the middle of the frame, rather than off centre as the “Rule” asks us to do; our eye usually finds this asymmetry more pleasing. This is the reason why the majority of cameras, including phones, have the option to turn a grid on when in live view mode. The Rule Of Thirds can be applied to all genres of photography and once you are aware of this simple compositional guideline you will see it repeatedly in countless images you view.

 

In this portrait, notice that your eyes go straight to Sir Mick Jagger despite him not being in the centre of the frame. His eyes are on the point where two of the lines intersect and his face is set along the left hand vertical line. Having him in the centre of the frame would not have been nearly as interesting a composition.

 

2 – Leading Lines

Our eyes are drawn into photographs along lines whether these are straight, curved, diagonal or winding. You can use these lines as the main subject of your photo or to take the viewers eye to the main focal point of an image. In their many forms, these lines can be found all around us including bridges, walls, paths, buildings and roads to name a few. Further, whilst horizontal lines often provide photo with feelings of calmness, diagonal, converging and leading lines in the shapes of an s or a z can add drama and dynamism to a photo. For example, the winding S curve of this road encourages a viewers eye to follow it through the frame helping to create depth and draw one further into the photograph.

 

Further, strong diagonal leading lines help provide added energy to this otherwise stagnant photograph of an empty Alcatraz prison. (Insert Alcatraz). Therefore, when combined with the “Rule Of Thirds”, symmetry or some of the other compositional tips mentioned in this article, leading lines can help achieve better composition and subsequently create more powerful photographs.

Shooting from interesting perspectives, not just eye level can further emphasize leading lines. This can also emphasize patterns and textures that might otherwise go unnoticed as with this photograph of an abandoned flour mill.

3 – Framing

Frames are effective compositional tools that convey added depth. Much like a framed piece of art, they draw a viewer’s eye through the frame and directly to the main focus of image. These frames can be as obvious as shooting through a window, doorway, arc, branches of a tree or even the often seen, hands in the shape of a heart! All of these encourage people to peer through the frame and look deeper into the photo. Most importantly, they direct the viewers’ attention to where you want it to go, isolating the important subject from the rest of the image, especially if photographed with varying depths of field. Also, remember a frame doesn’t always need to completely surround an image to be effective.

For example here, This tree is forming a natural frame through which to look through onto a lake in New Zealand, proving that frames both don’t have to surround the entirety of an image and can be found in unexpected places.
Looking from this derelict building through an old window onto more abandoned buildings helps tell more of a story, direct a viewers attention and provide this photograph with added meaning.

4 – Symmetry and Balance

Remember how I told you that there are no unbreakable rules in composition, well here’s a perfect example of one compositional rule can contradict another. Creating a centred symmetrical image, instead of choosing to offset the main subject to one side seems the opposite of the “Rule Of Thirds”. However, in many situations it works really work.

For example, this photograph of the lobby of the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas where the pillars are made up of tiny televisions uses the compositional tool of symmetry to create a well balanced photograph”

Indeed, symmetry, where one side looks the same as the other as if you have put a mirror down the centre of the frame, provides balance and helps immerse viewers into a photo. Symmetry can be found everywhere whether in nature or the man-made world; I frequently seek it out when shooting architecture and interiors.

 

Symmetry also works really well when there are reflections present as in this photograph taken directly underneath Millennium Bridge in London, which also takes advantage of a strong leading line.
Symmetrical images can also work really well when shooting in a square format for those of you who like shooting solely for platforms like Instagram. For example, the symmetry of this image of the Brooklyn Bridge in addition, the converging wires and lines add to the compositional strength of this image.

5 – Fill The Frame

There is a popular saying in photography – “tight and bright”. This is to say, fill your entire frame in order to remove any distracting background elements. This keeps things simpler and focuses attention solely on the main subject; leaving too much empty space can allow a viewers eye to wonder, confused at what they should be looking at. It can also make the focus of your photograph appear incredibly small. Thus, by filling the entire frame with your subject and distilling the complexity of anything else that may be going on, the composition works to maintain attention on what you think is important, up close. This can be visually arresting and powerful.

For example, by filling the frame entirely with this portrait, the viewer’s attention is drawn more to the subject’s eyes and the character of her face. Also, notice how her eyes sit along one of the top horizontal line of the rule of two thirds.
“Urban Lego” Filling a frame can also work with landscape imagery. In this instance the technique minimalizes the chaos of a busy urban landscape. Strong, diagonal lines help add energy to the cityscape.
Adam JacobsOther articles by author

Adam Jacobs is an exciting and innovative photographer whose eclectic portfolio has attracted considerable commercial attention. Adam has extensive experience working in both the editorial and commercial worlds and specializes in shooting dynamic panoramas, architecture, travel, interiors and sports. Adam has photographed collegiate and professional sporting events across the globe including the London 2012 Olympics and World Cup Finals. He is also adept at candid portraiturehaving captured well-known figures including Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, President Barack Obama, Andy Murray and Mick Jagger on commissioned assignments.

Adam is represented worldwide by Getty Global Assignments and is also an ambassador for Manfrotto and Gitzo worldwide.

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