Top ten tips for composition

Composition, whatever you are photographing, can make or break an image. Below, photographer and Manfrotto global ambassador, Adam Jacobs shares his top ten tips:

Be Guided by the Rule Of Thirds

This is perhaps the most common compositional rule, deeming that a photographic frame should be split into thirds using two imaginary lines – both vertical and horizontal – with the points of interest lying along these lines or where they intersect. For example, it is frequently seen in landscape photography where rather than put a horizon straight through the middle of a photograph, it would instead be placed 2/3 of the way up the frame thus providing more foreground or inversely 1/3 of the way up the frame, subsequently showing more sky. Although it’s called a ‘rule’, I prefer to think of it more as a ‘guide’ as it is not applicable in every photographic situation. However, once you know it, it is amazing how often you will see it pop up in images that you encounter on a daily basis – whether in the commercial or editorial worlds, due to its compositional strength (this is why your phone and so much editing software has that grid on it!).

This portrait of Sir Mick Jagger is purposefully offset to take advantage of the Rule Of Thirds. 

Balance Things Out

When using the rule of thirds, it is often necessary to provide an image with a certain balance. For example, if a photograph has a large subject positioned on one side of an image or along one of those ‘imaginary’ lines, it may be important to counterbalance this with something smaller and less obtrusive on the opposite side in the background. If this is not done, be wary as your photograph may end up looking lop-sided, tilted and over-weighted on one side or just out of focus.

Here the mountains in the background offset the post sitting in the water of Lake Como at sunset. 

Use Leading Lines

Leading lines are an incredibly useful compositional tool providing a photograph with a greater sense of balance, depth and flow. They lead a viewer’s eye to where we want it to go within the frame and take a viewer on a journey through an image, ensuring that one’s focus falls onto a particular area. There are many different types of leading lines for example, s-curves and vanishing points and they can be found pretty much anywhere we photograph. Further, they can either be natural (coastline, a line of flowers, etc) or man-made (walls, railroads, paths etc).

This photograph uses the shoreline as a leading line taking ones eye up towards the Golden Gate Bridge and the city of San Francisco. 


This photo takes advantage of strong diagonal leading lines to mean our eyes follow the lines in the floor up to the graffiti.  

Take advantage of symmetry

The use of symmetry – dividing an image perfectly equally into two parts – is an extremely effective compositional tool to help provide a perfectly balanced and more aesthetically pleasing image. Symmetry is all around us whether in the reflections of calm bodies of water, buildings, architectural details, facades and many more. Looking for symmetry in composition certainly brings added interest to photographs and is something you should always be on the look out for.


This photograph of the Cosmopolitan Hotel Lobby in Las Vegas takes advantage of the architectural symmetry as well as the reflections on the floor to add an extra symmetrical dimension. 


Keep It Simple

I tend to prefer cleaner, simpler and less cluttered images because I feel they are visually more engaging. By removing all of the distracting elements from a frame using a wider aperture to achieve a shallower depth of field, cropping in post production or best of all, getting your composition right straight out the camera, a well composed photograph has the power to distill the complexity of the world around us and tell a powerful story.


Crop to Fill the Frame

I am a big fan of photographs that fill the frame. Sometimes if the subject is too small it loses impact and if there is too much clutter in a frame it can get lost amongst its surroundings. By cropping tight, you can strengthen your composition and ensure that you immediately capture your ­­­­viewer’s attention and make your photograph jump off the page or the screen.

This image of the roof of the US Capital as well as being symmetrical fills the frame “bright and tight” focusing eyes on the mural in the middle of the ceiling. 

Use Frames

Frames, usually in the foreground of an image, compositionally work to keep viewers’ attention fixed on the main subject of focus within a photograph. This is to say, much like framing a photograph at home, it removes your eye away from the clutter and isolates attentions to a point in the photograph where focus is wanted. Effective frames can be either obvious or subtle such as doorways, windows, trees or arches and don’t even necessarily have to surround the entirety of your frame. Effective framing helps to imbue a photograph with greater depth, a clearer focus and clarity on where and what the main subject of the picture is.

This photograph uses the stalactites growing from the ceiling of an abandoned building to frame the derelict water tower. 

Don’t Forget Backgrounds

So many photographers get hung up on compositional rules that they often forget to check their backgrounds for basic obtrusive elements such as lampposts growing out of people’s heads. Also, a too busy background or one that blends in with its primary subject can often distract from the main focus of an image. Using a larger aperture or changing the spot from where you shoot can easily remedy this. It is not necessary of course to always exclude backgrounds – landscape photography and environmental portraits being two examples – but try to always pay attention to them and constantly ask how much are they contributing or not to the final image.


Look for interesting perspectives

Looking for different viewpoints can make an enormous difference in creating compelling compositions. I always start by thinking about not shooting at eye level – shooting from low or high can create completely different types of compositions and. Moreover, always be on the look out for different vantages of the same subjects and don’t be afraid to tilt your camera in all directions; this can dramatically alter both the mood and message of your image. I particularly enjoy looking either directly up or down at a subject…it is amazing what you miss sometimes!


This shot is taken looking straight up at the Redwoods trees in Muir Wood National Park, California.


Be Creative

One of my favourite photographers, Ansel Adams, once said “The so-called rules of photographic composition are, in my opinion, invalid, irrelevant and immaterial”. There are so many compositional rules and guidelines in photography, which, don’t get me wrong, are all useful. However, in my opinion the best tool is your eye. This undoubtedly improves the more photographs you take. We are fortunate in a digital age, unlike Ansel, that we can shoot thousands of frames for free and without hassle. I would, therefore, encourage you to experiment shooting different subject matter and not to be afraid of being creative and going against the grain – sometimes this can create the very best photos.


Here long shutter speeds create my own ‘leading lines’ from a moving bus to draw attention to Big Ben 

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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