We all want to take better photos, but sometimes it’s hard to know how to improve our photography skills without a little guidance from the experts on composition. Legends who made photography composition an art form in and of itself:
- Annie Liebovitz
- Gregory Crewdson
- Richard Avedon
- Elliott Erwitt
- Vivian Maier
- Ansel Adams
- Steve McCurry
- Dorothea Lange
To help you feel at home with these amazing people, we’ve compiled five of our favorite photography composition tips to help you improve your captures and get the best photos.
First, let’s talk about exactly what photography composition is.
What is Photography Composition?
I’m sure you know the answer to this, but there may be a few newbies reading this who want to understand everything they can about their new-found love: photography. Composition in a photograph is the way a photographer arranges the key elements or subjects in a scene. Some questions you might ask yourself when taking a photo are:
- Is attention drawn to the main subject?
- Are distracting parts of the scene subdued or eliminated?
- How will the viewer see the image, and in what order?
Most photography has a focal point, which is your photographic subject. Diagonal balancing and foreground interest can also add to an image. Let’s explore some compositional techniques that can improve your images dramatically
1. Golden Ratio of Photography
The golden ratio (or golden mean) is a mathematical formula that can help you find the perfect proportion in your photos. The golden ratio theoretically makes your photos the most pleasing to the human eye. Based on the golden rectangle with two pairs of sides of equal length, the golden ratio is present everywhere in nature. The human eye is particularly drawn to photos using this golden ratio in their composition. Here are some places the golden ratio is found:
- Tree branches
- Shell spirals
- Wave curves
- Human DNA
- Solar systems
The golden ratio has also been used to inspire music, art, and architecture. Here's a visual depiction of what the golden ratio (or rather, the spiral) looks like in terms of composition: https://www.flickr.com/photos/newdimensionfilms/2283222098
The formula is related to the Fibonacci number sequence created by the 12th century medieval Italian mathematician Leonardo Pisano, in his book Liber Abaci or the “Book of the Abacus.” The golden ratio is approximately 1 to 1.618, also known as Phi or “the perfect number.” Essentially, the golden ratio can help you balance your photography and draw people to it because of the perfect balance found within and guide the viewer organically through your photo following the inherent inward Fibonacci spiral.
2. Rule of Thirds
The golden ratio is often compared to the Rule of Thirds, which is the most common photography design principle in existence. The Rule of Thirds allows photographers to immediately find the “sweet spot” or point to which the viewer’s eye is drawn first, in a photo. Although the golden ratio can be used to quickly bisect your photo and find several focal points, the Rule of Thirds is a simpler nine-sectioned grid that a photographer can mentally lay across an image to find the focal points and most interesting aspects of the image.
Here’s what the grid looks like:
Essentially, you lay this over your image mentally and you place the focal points on the intersections of the grid (denoted in red). Studies have shown that the eye generally starts looking at those intersection points, so frame your image around the grid.
While the Rule of Thirds works well for beginner photographers and portraits, it is considered less effective for landscape and natural photographs.
3. Notice & Shape the Light
Just as our eyes and our minds are attuned to certain ratios and areas of an image, they’re also drawn to certain types of light. It’s important to be aware of the light (or lack of light) falling on your subject as you photograph it. The light in or on an image helps define your subject while adding emotion, depth, and interest to your photograph.
Shaping the light is usually done by using a gobo (short for “goes between”), an object that is placed between the light and your subject. In this example from National Geographic, the photographer uses a pie tin with shapes carved out of it as a simple but fantastic gobo in his photograph. Keeping your gobo about six inches from your light source will keep its patterns sharp. You can shape light with nearly anything opaque:
- Foam core or poster board
- Trees or plants
- Electric fan
4. Adjust Your Shooting Angle
There are so many adjustments that can alter your image or photograph, including ISO, aperture, shutter speed, and focal length, but simply shooting from a lower or different angle can dramatically change your composition. Most of us see the world from our usual straight-on, human height viewpoint all the time, so changing the angle of shooting can make a normal ho-hum subject really pop.
How many times have you seen an image and had to look closely to see what it really was? How does your subject change as you change your perspective? Trying out different shooting angles and perspectives can add drama to your images and even make them into something no one has ever seen before.
5. Balancing Elements
In photography composition, balancing elements can help the viewer’s eye travel through the entire image as well as take in the image as a whole. The diagonal line can help a photographer balance an image with two or more important subjects, or a focal point subject and a smaller subject the photographer wants to emphasize. Balancing elements is particularly important to prevent the creation of a void in your photograph, which can make it seem empty when that’s not what you’re going for.
In photography we use formal or informal balance. Formal balance is symmetrical and happens when there are one or more identical or similar subjects on the sides of a chosen point. Informal or asymmetrical balance can be used to create an image with one or more dissimilar elements on either side of a given point. Informal balance can make your image particularly attractive to a viewer, even more so than a symmetrical image.
Hopefully we’ve given you some more insights on capturing better photo composition. If you want to learn more, try an Internet search on shooting primes, shooting in the golden hours, varying photographic story, and shooting with your mind - and check back here for more great photography tips for taking better photos.