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5 Ways to Change Your Composition For Better Photos

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If there is one thing in photography that every photographer can work on, it’s composition. Like many of the other techniques in photography, your composition will improve the more you practice. Very often, photographers seem to go to their comfort zone of the rule of thirds. I personally like the rule of thirds as a starting point, not every photograph however, needs to be composed on the rule of thirds. In fact, it is a good idea to shoot the same scene in a few different compositions, even depth of field can be used as a compositional tool.

A good way to work on your composition is to start with the rule of thirds, then change it up, try a few different compositions and see how that works. The challenge is this, what other compositions can you use? Let’s take a look at some advanced compositional techniques that you can try out on your next shoot.

1. Left to right

The smooth curving water leads our eye to the rock on the right of the image

The smooth curving water leads your eye to the rock on the right of the image

In the western world, we read the words on a page from left to right. It is logical to think that when someone views your image, they will generally begin on the left side of the image, and move to the right. You can use this technique in a few ways.

Firstly, you could place your subject on the right hand side of the frame with a leading line drawing the eye to your subject. The leading line could be a river, a road, or a railway track – it doesn’t really matter, all that it needs to do is allow the eye of the viewer a natural entry point, then lead them to the subject.

Secondly, if you were shooting street photography, you might have a person in the frame on the left hand side, looking toward your subject on the right. You might even have a vehicle such as a car or a motorcycle, moving from left to right. These techniques will immediately draw the eye to the right side of your image.

2. Use shapes – both seen and unseen

In many images, there are hidden and visible shapes. Window frames are square or rectangular, doors are rectangles, and so on. Look for shapes in your images, look beyond what the actual object is and see its shape. You can also compose the scene to create a shape. Sand dunes can become triangular shapes, open fields can be green rectangles, so look for shapes in your scene and compose your image to include them.

There are many shapes in each scene, use them to enhance your composition

There are many shapes in each scene, use them to enhance your composition

3. Use numbers – not literally!

If you are shooting a scene with trees or leaves, or even a river with some exposed rocks, try and use odd numbers of things. Odd numbers tend to create a dynamic feel in your scene – three trees or rocks will feel more dynamic than two trees or four rocks. This also works well for groups of people. If you have a large group of say 12 people, try not to make three rows of four people, maybe have them pose in two rows, one with seven people and one with five. For people photography, you can also try and create a triangle shape with your subjects. Three people naturally creates a triangle, give it a try!

Odd numbers work well in most images

Odd numbers work well in most images

4. Use negative space

Negative space can really make an image interesting. Negative space is essentially blank space, but really, it helps to anchor your image. It provides really important information about the image. A blue sky can be used to create negative space. The blueness of the sky tells the viewer that it was a sunny day. Your blue sky may have one small cloud in it and that can make the negative space seem interesting.

The blue sky and the hint of a cloud makes this negative space interesting

The blue sky and the hint of a cloud makes this negative space interesting

5. Framing

Framing can be used very effectively to showcase your subject. You can use a window, a door, or even trees to frame a subject. The idea is to create a frame around the subject that does not distract from the subject, but causes the viewer to know immediately where to look.

A tree, framed by an old wooden door.

A tree, framed by an old wooden door.

When you are looking at a scene for the first time, try some of these techniques, or try a combination of them. Shoot from different angles and move around your subject before settling on a composition. You will find that by looking at the scene in many different ways, you will unlock more creativity. Your best shot, may not be your first compositional choice. Composition is one of the more flexible tools in your creative toolbox. You don’t need any particular piece of equipment to change it, you simply need to move your camera around. Give it a try, load your results up in the comments!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Barry J Brady is a Fine Art Landscape and commercial photographer based in Vancouver, BC. He is also an addicted traveller and loves travelling to far off places and capturing their essence. Barry is an entertaining and experienced photography teacher and public speaker. He loves nothing more than being behind his camera or showing other photographers how to get the most out of their camera. To see more of his work, visit his site here

  • devfull

    Parking Lot

  • devfull

    Architecture in some mall. Looked up from the bottom. Taken by Samsung Galaxy S3.

  • Many of us left-handed people naturally look right to left. I often naturally compose photos that way.

  • Good tips! I would also add one more: try shooting vertical instead of horizontal even when the subject seems to benefit from a wide aspect ratio, that can help you change the way you see the subject. Frames are also a very powerful tool when used effectively, I have a few of them in my latest blog entry, captured in the South of Spain during summer:
    http://gonzalobroto.blogspot.com/2015/08/june-in-andalucia.html

  • Srijib Neogi

    Yes framing adds drama . sometimes you can use framing as a foreground too when the frame acts not only as a holder of the subject but as a layer too . It completes the story. The following photo may be an illustration of what I am trying to say

  • devfull

    Awesome tip! Love you work!!

  • longshadow

    If the rock in #1 was pointing the other way (to the right), I would have put it in the left third.

  • Tim Lowe

    I recommend that all serious photographers take a few drawing classes. I never learned to draw worth a damn but I certainly reinforced my understanding of composition.

  • Tim Lowe

    One other point, kind of tangential but interesting: I’ve been teaching myself large format photography and I am amazed that composing upside-down and reversed makes my composition skills better. Something to do with using a different part of the brain, I’m told.

  • Great tip Tim and it works. I think you use a different part of the brain, but also, you start seeing shapes and not familiar subjects.Thanks for sharing this!

  • Agreed Tim, to your point above, I did oil painting lessons at one time and we had to paint the scene upside down

  • I would have too Longshadow!

  • Great point Srijib, thanks for sharing this and for the great photo!

  • For sure Gonzalo, changing the aspect ratio can make a huge difference

  • Thanks so much devfull

  • Interesting point David, never heard that before

  • Great shapes devfull

  • Hi Barry, You did a great job. I always share this type tutorial for our photographers.

  • Allan

    Beginner photographer.

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