Photography composition: How to arrange your images

While correct exposure and pin-sharp focus often come as a given, it is arguably the composition of your photographs that defines and distinguishes your style and attracts your viewers – or drives them away. Unfortunately, there are no golden rules for "getting it right". You'll have to follow your eye and your instinct to transmit your impressions of a scene to those who missed it.

Lenzerheide, Grisons, Switzerland in winterSnow-white • Lenzerheide, Grisons, Switzerland
Simple's beautiful

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What photography composition is about

If in doubt, consult a dictionary. Composition is, among other things,

  • "the organization or grouping of the different parts of a work of art so as to achieve a unified whole" (
  • "the harmonious arrangement of the parts of a work of art in relation to each other and to the whole" (Collins Digital Edition)

The human eye is a magical instrument. It constantly – and instantly – adjusts to changing lighting conditions and presents the reality in such a way that makes it easy for us to comprehend. When taking in a wide landscape, it will even the high contrast and blend distracting details out. What we sense might seem perfect but it isn't necessarily exactly real.

Taking a picture of this landscape with your camera is a different story. The camera is no flatterer, and the digital one even less so. It is designed – and we naturally expect it – to deliver a carbon copy image of the reality before our eyes. If not instructed otherwise, it will capture the actual contrast of the original scene and try to put everything in focus. If this weren't bad enough, the resulting image will inevitably squeeze the expansive vista into a tiny frame. It is what you include in this frame that presents an observer with the view she didn't enjoy with her own eyes.

Photography composition is the art of choosing and organising this frame.

Composing an image is like retelling a book to a friend. When doing so, you'd probably concentrate on important characters and features, and leave negligible details out. The same approach applies to photography. It's a good idea to consider what belongs into your story / picture, and what wouldn't fit there. The best way is attempting it beforehand, prior to pressing the shutter release. The only thing you can – and eventually should – change afterwards, in postproduction, is the exact frame. Cropping your image is the last action you can take to improve its composition. The rest has to be done on location.

Composing your images

Use prime (fixed-focal-length, as opposed to zoom) lenses. Why is that? In my opinion, there are several reasons.

  • Taking images with the same focal length makes you used to it. Soon you'll know what's inside your frame without the need to hold the camera to your eye.
  • A prime lens makes you disciplined. Limited in choice of your frame, you'll have to spend more time finding your exact position, aka zooming with your feet. While seemingly unproductive, this extra time will allow you to give more thought to your image. And of course, in the end it will lead you to the best standing point to press the shutter.
  • Prime lenses are often faster and of overall higher quality than zoom lenses. Though this won't affect your composition efforts, knowing that you are using quality gear will let you concentrate on the details of your image rather than shortcomings of your equipment.

As a landscape photographer, you don't have to cover all focal lengths. A 24mm / 28mm / 35mm full-format equivalent lens (that's 16-23mm for APS-C size sensors, or 12-18mm for the Four Thirds systems) accompanied by a standard 50mm (33mm in APS-C size terms, 25mm Four Thirds) should suffice for most situations. You might also add a short telephoto lens of, say, 85mm (55mm APS-C, 42mm Four Thirds) for occasional portraits during your travels.

With my camera, I only use two lenses, 45mm and 90mm, which have the equivalent field of view of 25mm and 50mm lenses, respectively, in panoramic format. Not that I were spoiled for choice, though. There is just another single option in existence, a 30mm f/5.6, which has a panoramic field of view of a 17mm full-frame lens.

Use your eyes. Don't look only through the viewfinder or on the display of your camera when framing. Seeing what's around your previsioned scene is important. If you need assistance, cut an "analogue" frame with the aspect ratio of your camera sensor (e.g., 3:2 or 4:3) out of cardboard. Make it as big as to cover your lens's field of view when holding it at your arm's length before your eyes.

Don't hurry. Spend some time with the scene actually looking at it before making the click. Ask yourself what you feel, and what you'd like to share about this feeling with your viewers.

Place your subject. Think about what you want to focus on in your image and position it in the frame. The general advice on the topic suggests you should follow the rule of thirds when looking for where to put your motif. The rule is a simple guideline to divide the sides of your frame in three equal parts and to position points of interest in your image, like the horizon or the main subject, along the division lines. The four intersection points of these partitions are regarded as particularly strong visual marks.

To assist you in this task, many a modern camera will superimpose a grid of reference lines on its display or in its viewfinder. (My camera won't.)

Rule of thirds applied to the view of Jirishancas in Cordillera Huayhuash, PeruJirishancas • Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru
Reference lines for the rule of thirds applied to a mountain view

Remember though that this is just a rule of thumb to use as an approximation and not to follow blindly. Use your judgement.

Historically, pleasing to the eye relation of 2:1, voiced for the first time in the end of 18th century, probably was a mere simplification of the golden ratio known to – and meticulously followed by – the old masters since the Middle Age. The rule postulated that when dividing something in 2 unequal parts, the relation of the whole to the bigger part should be the same as that of the bigger part to its smaller sibling. E.g., if a line would to be divided in 2 parts of length, say, a and b, with a being the bigger of the two, then the following equation should hold for the golden ratio: (a + b) / a = a / b. This rather simple equation has a solution approximately equal to 1.618 for the sought-after relation, or 0.618 and 0.382 for the respective parts' dimensions relative to the whole. This is, indeed, close enough to 2:1 (0.67 and 0.33) suggested by the rule of thirds, though 5:3 (0.625 and 0.375) would have been even (much) better, if not very practicable.Mountain landscape split up at the golden ratioTo the first pass • Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru
Mountain landscape composed according to the golden ratio

Make some room. Space surrounding your subject, or subjects, is an integral part of the image showing how its components relate to each other and their environment. In visual arts, the concept is referred to as negative space, as opposed to positive space claimed by the subject. The very meaning of the negative space is to accentuate the subject. Neutral backgrounds and out of focus elements count as negative space, while distractions don't. The latter thus impair the valuable positive space of your image diminishing its overall appeal.

Example of negative space in photography compositionIsland in the sky • Prince Leopold Island, Canadian Arctic

The related rule of space suggests reserving enough room ahead of moving subjects to visually facilitate their further progressing. The rule actually applies as well to resting subjects capable of moving, and even flags fluttering in the wind. Placing a ship, for example, with the bow against the edge of your frame is probably not a very good idea. Again, as with any rule, use your judgement.

The rule of space in photography compositionSpread • Sea eagle over Raftsund, Norway

“There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”

Ansel Adams

Look for lines, shapes, and patterns. Repeating elements, textures, and geometrical forms add structure and interest to your image.

Example of lines and patterns in a landscape imageWritten • Trollstigen, Norway

Treat colour as subject. There are (rare) occasions when colour alone might work as your main motif, rows of vividly painted beach houses being a popular example. This tends to result in somewhat abstract images. Getting it right is tricky but very satisfying. I don't succeed very often.

Colour as image subjectFreezing • Saglek Fjord, Torngat Mountains NP, Labrador
Fresh ice building on the water surface

Try an unusual angle. With growing confidence in your composition skills, break some rules! Place your subject in dead centre. Tilt the horizon. Turn reflections upside down. Think of something unexpected. Surprise your viewers!

Upside-down reflections, Henningsvær, NorwayGlitch in the matrix • Henningsvær, Norway

Balance your image. A bold subject placed in a prominent spot of the frame is a strong visual message... which can topple your image. Try to counterbalance big and heavy forms and features with smaller and lighter details. Clouds and reflections are good examples of such details.

Moonrise over hills in Northwest MongoliaMoonrise • Northwest Mongolia

Arrange your fore- and background. These should complement – and compliment – your main subject, not work against it. If some details in front of and/or behind your subject are distracting, you might consider opening up the aperture to reduce depth of field in the image and throw disturbances out of focus.

Shallow depth of field as means of photography compositionAhead • Ilulissat Icefjord, West Greenland
Concentrating on the foreground with shallow depth of field

Tidy up the edges. It is a good idea to search the edges of the frame for visual noise before pressing the shutter release. Sure enough, you can crop the image in postprocessing – and sometimes you really should – but it's better to spend another moment or two checking for branches sticking out of nowhere, or people halved in two by the sides of your frame. Besides, this is a great opportunity to improve your image by ensuring some lines start or end near its corners. In the resulting picture, these lines will ideally lead the eye of the viewer to the main subject making it instantaneously obvious what the image is about.

Example of leading lines in a landscape imageDivider • Upper Mustang, Nepal

Training your photography composition skills

Practise. Go outside and shoot! There's no theory to rack your brain about, just do it.

Ask your viewers. As with everything else, an honest feedback will tell you how you manage. Don't be afraid to show your images and let comment on them. Internet forums are good places to see and be seen. Just avoid those where trolls are in the majority.

Learn from someone you consider good. If you like someone else's images, try to analyse them. What do you like about them? What impression do they make on you? How did the author achieve this? Try to imitate some of your favourites. Compare your results with the originals. Do your images have the same effect? How would you change them to make them look different – taken by you? Experiment with your ideas.

Learn from other art forms. Don't limit yourself to studying only photographs. Photography isn't the only visual art form to use composition as a means of expression. Painting long before it and cinematography as its successor have both been exploring the same principles.

Visit an art museum, or a gallery. Compare styles of different artists in different ages. When going to the movies next time, pay attention to how the landscape is pictured, and how its presentation affects your emotions. In case of movies, you'd probably want to opt for an "arty" one instead of your typical summer blockbuster.

Tags: #photographycomposition #betterphotography #phototips

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Brief history of photography
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Photography composition
Photography composition

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