Every time you snap your shutter, you’re making decisions about composition. The placement, proximity, and framing of your subject all shape the story your photos tell.
Compelling images are well balanced. They naturally lead the viewer to the most important parts of a scene. So whether you’re capturing the Grand Canyon or your garage, you’ll need to consider the same visual elements every time. Luckily, there are a few tried-and-true techniques for identifying structures that naturally please the eye. They’re known collectively as the rules of composition.
FINDING THE VIEWPOINT
When it comes to taking the perfect picture, it’s not as easy as point and shoot. Every time you change your viewpoint, your story changes, too. As a photographer, you get to go beyond the human point of view, so make sure to take advantage of it. Try lying down or shooting above your head.
When shooting a single subject, zoom to the maximum point on your lens. This will compress the background, bringing the attention to the main subject. Then set your lens to a wide aperture (F2.8 or wider). Consider adding objects like a tree branch or leaves in front of the lens to blur parts of the image while you focus on your distant subject.
1/100 sec | F5.6 | ISO500
FILLING THE FRAME
The frame is — quite literally — the edges of your photograph. To get the best shot, fill the frame with as much of the subject as possible. Feels too close? Get closer. As famed photographer, Robert Capa, said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”
With that said, avoid cramming too many subjects into the frame. Sometimes, less is more. Try using a lens with a wide aperture (F1.4) to blur the background and better emphasize your subject.
1/200 sec | F 1.8 | ISO100
NEGATIVE SPACE & RULE OF THIRDS
Instead of zooming entirely on your subject, allow for some negative space, which is the area surrounding the subject. To create this space, focus on the gaps in and around your subject. By creating negative space, you’ll heighten the intensity of your subject, prevent unnecessary clutter in the photo, and establish an overall engaging composition.
1/500 sec | F8.5 | ISO100
Once you’ve sufficiently created negative space, apply the Rule of Thirds. Imagine there are two lines cutting the image in three equal sections horizontally and vertically. From there you can frame your subject between these intersections. With only one object in the image, the strongest position is within the left-hand line, so try moving your subject off-center. Et voila! You have a more captivating photo.
USING A FRAME WITHIN A FRAME
Framing your subject can imply depth and texture to the composition, guiding your viewer’s eyes on the photo. A door frame, window, or even a row of trees can drastically change your image. Framing within a frame allows you to isolate your gaze onto the image and avoid the clutter and distraction (much like a regular photo frame does). For a sharp picture, adjust your lens to shoot with a narrow aperture (F11 or narrower).
1/250 sec | F3.5 | ISO500
Use cropping to heighten your story, but don’t be overambitious and over-crop a limb or a head. Cropping can dramatically alter your image for the better, eliminating unwanted details and better centering your subject. Try a photo editing tool like Adobe Photoshop, and remember the Rule of Thirds to help compose the altered photograph.
Leading lines draw the viewer into the photograph, lead the viewer from one point to another, and create an illusion of depth (helpful in landscape photography). Take your viewer on a visual journey by finding interesting shapes or lines that guide the viewer’s eye toward the subject or scene. You can frame using nature — bridges, trees, natural formations — or simple objects like windows and doors. Stop down to a smaller aperture like F8 or F11 to increase your depth of field, keeping more of the frame in focus.
1/160 sec | F3.5 | ISO500
In practice, these rules are more like guidelines. They can help you channel your creativity and develop your creative eye. Of course, you don’t have to apply each of these rules to every photograph. Part of the fun is finding creative ways to break the rules. As Truman Capote once told The Paris Review, “If you’re born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.”