Of all the photography techniques that you need to learn as a photographer, Composition is arguably the most important.
I’ve distilled my compositional techniques down to five ‘rules of composition’ that will massively help you with your photography.
1. Moment of inspiration
The best photos you will take whilst on this great and exciting photographic journey that you are on, will be as a result of having an initial ‘moment of inspiration’.
The moment of inspiration is an instinctive moment, or gut feeling, call it what you will.
For me that is a moment when I am walking in a landscape with my camera, and a view comes into sight that makes me think:
“I bet that would make a good photo”
It’s more of a feeling rather than words in my head, and can sometimes involve butterflies in the stomach.
The moment is always brief, and if I move a few steps forward, the view changes enough for the feeling to subside and quickly disappear.
So it’s a feeling that is easy to ignore.
You have to learn to tap into that feeling, because that is where your best photos are.
Okay, that’s all very happy clappy, but this all sounds a bit vague…
I agree, It’s a difficult thing to pin down and describe, but it is one of the underlying principles of composition.
The ‘moment of inspiration’ is the foundation stone from which every great photograph is created.
It may sound vague to a beginner, but of all the rules of composition, this is up there.
It is unavoidable.
Do not ignore it.
However vague you think this is, you do have this feeling.
If you don’t have this feeling, then it might be because you are not really interested in photography, or you are not engaged in the location where you are.
You may also be suffering other stresses that mask out the feeling.
Stressing out over trying to get a killer image can kill any moments of inspiration. You really need to relax when you are out taking photographs, and stop worrying about not getting the shot.
My own photographic life is littered with missed opportunities, but I don’t dwell on them because I know there are several lifetimes worth of opportunities still out there. So relax!
But what if I never get this feeling, then what?
I absolutely guarantee that you will get that feeling.
You need tune into your own gut instincts and intuition. You need to trust these feelings. You need to act on those feelings.
Do this and you will start to take better photographs. It takes practice, so stick at it.
After you have that ‘moment of inspiration’, you need to apply good old fashioned photographic discipline.
That discipline involves stopping, and then working out what it is that made you have that ‘moment’.
I repeat, what if I don’t get these feelings?
Be open minded, don’t get hung up or obsessed with things like the golden ratio or dynamic symmetry. Ignore them and listen to your gut.
Just open your mind, try new stuff, and be creative.
If this still confuses you in any way, make sure you ask a question in the comments section down below. Don’t be shy!
If you are learning, asking questions is fundamental to the learning process. If in doubt, ask a question!
Let’s recap. The ‘moment of inspiration’ is your gut instinct, or your intuition, call it what you will. It is a natural response that is buried deep inside the cells of your brain, and no one really understands it.
But it is there, and it is always correct.
If you ignore that feeling, then you are missing out on the opportunity to create a compelling, visually aesthetic photograph.
You have to stop. You have to compose your shot.
But don’t worry too much if you don’t, because there will be other opportunities, just relax and engage in the landscape and those ‘moments of inspiration’ will keep popping up. Trust me, they will.
2. Identify the subject
You’ve had that moment of inspiration, you’ve followed your instinct and you have stopped.
Well done! That is the first step to good photographic composition.
You now have to look out in front of you at the scene that gave you that ‘moment of inspiration’ feeling.
The subject is the object that your eye is naturally drawn too. Don’t deviate from that
That thing or object that your eye is drawn to might not be a conventional thing or object. It might be an area of dispersed sunlight at the end of a road.
The fact that you may not consider it ‘conventional’, ie a tree or a horse or a mountain, doesn’t matter.
Just concentrate on the ‘object’ that your eye was naturally drawn to when you had that initial moment of inspiration. That is your subject.
Okay, now I have my subject, what next?
Everything else in the frame are objects.
Let’s be clear, in my interpretation of composition, the sky is an object, the horizon is an object. Everything becomes an object.
The subject is the most important object.
Those objects, including the subject, require conventional compositional technique to place them in your frame.
And conventional compositional techniques are those pesky rules of composition again, which we’ll talk about next…
3 All objects must be instantly recognisable to the viewer.
Conventional compositional techniques include making sure that the objects in your photograph are instantly recognisable. That means instantly recognisable by the viewer when viewing the image for the first time.
A tree must look like a tree, a horse must look like a horse.
If you don’t concentrate on this aspect of your compositions, then you risk ending up with objects that look like unrecognisable blobs.
All objects must look obviously like the objects that they are…if you see what I mean.
If you have a person walking in the photograph, then that person will have the best visual effect on the viewer if that person looks like they are walking.
Photographing them mid stride will visually depict movement and walking, whereas if the legs are passing each other when you press the shutter, the person will look like they just have one leg, and that could really jar with the viewer.
I hope you can see how important these rules of composition are.
Rather than just regurgitate the rule of thirds, or the golden ratio, or dynamic symmetry, my list here really will improve the photography of a beginner photographer.
4 leave space around objects
Now your objects are recognisable, they also need space around them.
If they don’t have space around them then they may disappear into a background and lose visibility, or an object in the frame may ‘merge’ into another object, creating visual confusion for the viewer.
Creating space around every object (if it’s physically possible)helps tell the viewer what’s going on in the image and makes an image more comfortable to look at.
In composition, the edge of the frame becomes an object too. That means that all objects that are wholly inside the frame also need space between the edge of the object and the edge of the photograph.
What about the more conventional rules of composition? Aren’t you going to talk about those? I take it you have heard of the rule of thirds?
Yes, I have heard of the rule of thirds!
The rule of thirds is the beginners version of leaving space around objects and making objects recognisable to a first time viewer.
The rule of thirds is the first rung of the compositional ladder. It’s a rule that you should leave behind when you take that second step on the ladder.
Think of my rules of composition in this article as the second and third rung of the ladder.
Check out this post – The truth about the rule of thirds
Anyway, of all of my rules of composition in this article, this one is most closely aligned to the rule of thirds.
The Rule of Thirds attempts to ensure that you place the subject of the photograph onto one of the four intersections on the rule of thirds grid.
What that is trying to do is to make sure that you isolate your subject and create a pleasing amount of space around the subject.
The theory is that the eye will more easily find its way to the subject and the subject will be instantly identifiable.
Sometimes the rule of thirds works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
The problem with the rule of thirds is that it’s arbitrary. Using more creative techniques that plug in to your natural instincts will reap better rewards in the long term.
Rarely is the rule of thirds perfect in any one photograph, and more creativity and flexibility is required from the photographer in order to create a visually appealing image.
Again, my rules of composition have been carefully chosen to help you to be more creative. Only then will you start to create drop dead gorgeous compositions.
Hang on, hang on….Everyone knows that the rule of thirds works. Every. Single. Time. Everyone knows that the greats of photography exclusively use this rule!
Fair enough! I would have to disagree with that statement, however I know that people can become emotionally wedded to these mechanisms, and if that floats your boat, then go for it.
I would agree that the rule of thirds is okay for beginners, because at least it gives a beginner photographer a starting point for photographic composition.
However, It is arbitrary, and hopefully a beginner photographer will eventually move onto more creative compositional techniques.
Again, try to be open minded to new ideas.
5 balance your images.
Balance is simple to explain, but a bit more difficult to achieve.
Balance is really simple, it means that when a viewer views a photograph for the first time, the eye is led comfortably to the subject of the photograph, without any distractions or jarring in any way.
Once the eye is on the subject, the viewer can then drift around the image and appreciate it to its full extent.
Balance can be achieved many ways.
- Positioning all the objects ‘correctly’ in the photograph when you physically take the image. Make sure that you leave objects outside of the photograph if they are not required as they may jar or interfere with the overall composition.
- Some objects are very dark in a photograph, and it’s impossible to correct that just by composition alone. If the object is too important to leave outside of the frame, then you can use post processing techniques to re-balance those objects so that they don’t drag the eye away from the subject of the photograph.
Yes, that means learning post processing software and techniques, but you should be doing that anyway.
Post processing is an essential part of the picture making process, there is no getting away from that.
Even if you just want the most naturalistic landscape photographs possible, that will require a level of post processing in order to achieve that.
And even if you do no post processing whatsoever, you may be disappointed to learn that if you don’t do it, then your camera will.
If you want to have a look at how I post process my images, take a look at my before and after page.
The tagline of this post says something like: ‘And they are not what you think they are‘. Now you have read the post (and don’t forget to share!), you may be thinking that those 5 rules of composition were not so mysterious or mind blowing.
However, composition in photography is a creative thing, and one of the points that I deliberately missed out was the rule of thirds. I also avoided lazy descriptions of the Golden Ratio or dynamic symmetry and so on.
The rule of thirds and Golden ratio is a non creative way to place objects in an image. What I wanted to point you towards, is a more creative, more natural and organic way of composing photographs.
These basic rules of composition in photography will be really useful if you practice them.
Also, you almost certainly already know the rule of thirds, so I didn’t want to copy and paste from Wikipedia.
You don’t need me to teach you something that you’ve read about in every magazine and every website you’ve ever been to.
If you want to read further about how I compose my images check out these posts:
If there is anything that you are still confused about or want to know, or if you want to disagree with what I have written, then please feel free to express your view in the comments, and I’ll reply to every sensible comment!