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A New Photographer’s Guide to Composition


Recently I wrote a New Photographer’s Guide to Camera Settings. Once you become comfortable with your camera settings, the next step is to learn the rules of good composition and design for your photography.

So here are the 10 most important tips to take into account when framing your scene. Your guide to composition.

Grand Central and Chrysler Building, NYC.

Grand Central Terminal and Chrysler Building, NYC

#1 How will the viewer’s eyes flow through the scene?

I prefer to think about composition as if it is a game to please the eyes, and if you want to please the eyes, they need something to do and somewhere to go. When creating an image you want to think about the path that the viewers eyes will take through the scene, and whether this will be a fluid path or a jarring path.

  • Fluid Path – an image with leading lines, such as a road or stream, or an image with a foreground, middle ground, and background, which leads your eyes gradually from one level to the other.
  • Jarring path – an image with multiple, well spaced subjects for the eyes to bounce around between. Since there would be no lines leading between the objects in this type of image, they must be well spaced within the scene.

If you look at the photo above, the eyes are led directly to the Grand Central statue in the top left one third line in the scene, particularly because most people read from top to bottom and left to right. The eyes are then led over to the Chrysler Building Spire and down to the detailed bridge. These three elements make a triangle shape to lead the eyes through, however, the bridge acts as a very important element of the composition, keeping the eyes from leaving the scene and leading them back into the image, where they can either head up towards the statue or down to the people and cars on the street.

#2 Watch the Edge of your Images

Continuing from tip #1 above , for an image to feel balanced the edges of the image should be balanced. The eyes have a natural tendency to want to fall off an image through its edges. By putting elements in the corners you stop and catch the attention of the eyes, pushing them back into the scene. This is why landscape images often have small branches of trees or foliage in the top corners of the sky, and why vignetting is commonly used.

Central Park South, NYC.

Central Park South, NYC

Notice the branches in the top corners that function to keep the eyes in the frame. The corner elements often work even more effectively when only part of them is showing.

#3 Rule of Thirds Versus Centered Images

The rule of thirds is more of a suggestion than a rule. I’ve seen people take it to the extreme, but there are so many instances where a centered or different composition is preferable.

The rule of thirds refers to placing your main subject, or subjects, at one of the four one-third intersections in your photo, which you will notice in the second image below. This feels more pleasing to the eyes and it also allows you to simultaneously focus on a foreground subject on one side, while having a significant amount of space for an interesting background to balance out the scene.

Silk Exchange Building, NYC.

Silk Exchange Building, NYC

Rule of Thirds.

Rule of thirds

In the above photo, while not exactly on the one third line (it’s not a rigid rule), you can see the building is balanced out by the tree on the corresponding one third line. The buildings on the each edge act as leading lines and have the added purpose of acting as edge frames to keep the eyes within the scene.

However, don’t be afraid of placing your main subject in the center. A centered subject can block everything else out of the scene and make you focus only on the most important element. This works especially well with a strong facial expression or look in the eyes. In addition, this works for symmetrical scenes, which can feel extremely balanced.

Rucker Park, NYC.

Rucker Park, NYC

#4 Horizontal – Vertical or Skewed

Whether to capture an image horizontally, vertically, or slightly skewed is always a tough decision. There are many reasons to photograph both horizontally and vertically, however I often find that photographers have a tendency to rely more on one format.

Horizontal images often feel more natural to look at because they mimic the way that our eyes see the world. They also allow you to to fit more elements into your image and they provide an easier format for the eyes to flow through the image.

A vertical format can be beneficial when you want to get in closer and focus on a single subject or a tight area. It is a way to simplify your photo and get rid of any elements that might take attention away from your main subject.

When you are creating a horizontal or vertical image you want to make sure that your lines are straight. If they are slightly off, the image will not feel balanced. However, sometimes you will want to skew your subjects at an angle. Skewing your subjects so the scene is neither horizontal nor vertical adds interest and energy to the photo. It promotes a spontaneous feeling and the lack of balance can actually be a pleasing to the viewer.


Tight, classic, vertical shot vs. energetic, skewed, detail shot

#5 Triangles and the Number Three

The triangular shape can be very important to good composition in photography. This does not refer to having the actual shape in an image but a relationship between three objects that create a triangle within the scene.

As long as the three objects are able to balance each other out, this is pleasing to the eyes because it creates a constant path through the scene.


Prada store, SoHo, NYC

#6 Perspective

The height from which you shoot can be a significant factor in how your images appear. If you want to emphasize height and power in a scene, get low to the ground and tilt the camera slightly up. People will look more important and prominent, and objects like trees or mountains will look even larger.

Shooting from a high camera angle on the other hand makes everything feel smaller and diminished in power. If the shooting height becomes extreme enough the image can even tend to take on an abstract and graphic feeling.

When photographing people, always pay attention to the camera angle. Sometimes raising or lowering the camera slightly can make a big difference.

#7 Minimalist Versus Maximalist

Minimalist refers to keeping a photograph very simple, such as an image with a single subject and a pleasing and calm background. This can create a very powerful and graphic design. There is power in the simplicity. Valerie Jardin, recently wrote a good article on minimalist photography.

Maximalist on the other hand refers to a chaotic image, with a lot of elements competing with, and playing off of each other. However, within the chaos there is balance. This type of image is very hard to create in a balanced way, but when it works it can be a delight for the eyes that allows a viewer to explore through the scene.

Canal Street, NYC.

Canal Street, NYC. Balance in the chaos

The image above would not work if the subjects were not all spread out evenly throughout the scene.

#8 Color

Color is a vital aspect of design. A strong color on your main subject can add extra emphasis, while a strong color in an insignificant element can ruin the balance of a photo.

There is a large trend these days towards strong and unrealistic colors in photography, similar to the movies or on instagram. Strong colors do a better job of catching our attention at first, but muted colors can be just as interesting and create just as much of a mood as strong colors, if not moreso. Explore desaturating your images slightly.

Each color has its own properties and ability to create mood within an image. A red tint can add a warm and energetic feeling to a photo, while a blue tint can make a scene seem either calm or cold and sterile. As portrait photographer Dan Winter’s states, “Green is an inherently calming and inviting color, and is tied to our natural surroundings.” Winters uses green for many of his portraits.

Here are some ways that colors can play off each other to add balance:

  • Complementary colors (colors on the opposite side of the color wheel)
  • Analogous colors (colors next to each other on the color wheel)
  • Different colors in similar shades
  • The same color in different shades
Spring and Bowery, NYC.

Spring and Bowery, NYC

#9 Getting Close and Filling the Frame

This is a very important concept. Figure out what is significant in the frame, get close, and only capture that. Cut everything else out and envelope the main subject. If the most interesting part of a person is their eyes, then capture the eyes up close.

Shop Owner, Trash and Vaudeville, NYC.

Shop Owner, Trash and Vaudeville, NYC

#10 Uniqueness and Breaking the Rules

Learn these rules and practice them, but keep in mind that sometimes you must break the rules. Be unique whenever possible. There is nothing more pleasing to the eye than something that is different.

Do you have any additional tips you’d like to add to this list? Please share in the comments, with example images if you have some.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

James Maher is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the unique personalities and stories of the city. He is the author of the e-book, "The Essentials of Street Photography" and runs photo tours of New York. To view his work or connect, visit his website.

  • Great tips! Watching the edges carefully is something I always do and really helps me to focus in the main subject of every photograph!

  • Kenneth Sørensen

    I love the tips on this side. But I gotta question #5 – Triangles and the number 3. I mean 3 points that are not on a line will always form a triangle. So I don’t understand how that tip is going to work in the field? Point being that you can usually form multiple triangles in most pictures.
    Cheers and best regards.

  • Depends what you’re shooting. I’ve done shots where I can see all sorts of them. Especially doing like a group portrait or photo. You want to put the heads into triangles, give it more life and dimension that on top of each other or directly side by side. I always stagger the heads in group photos, forming triangles.

  • Excellent article.

  • Geoff

    That the problem with tips, James. They’re so open to interpretation. You get one ‘rule’ correct and break another one in the process. Who or what is the main subject in ‘Canal Street’ for instance? It looks like a random crowd to me. Isn’t the figure positioned too centrally in ‘Spring and Bowery’? Don’t the red shoes attract all the attention downwards? Etc. etc.

    Often the unexpected, unusual effect works best, despite all the logic and good practise working against it.

  • Thanks Gonzalo!

  • Thanks!

  • Hi Geoff – that’s not a problem with tips. If you’re going to break the rules or interpret them differently, you still need to know them first to be able to break them.

    The main subject in Canal Street is the chaos on the street. I was trying to depict what it is like there in a balanced way. There are multiple main subjects. The centered subject is the most obvious, but there are many main subjects.

    I personally don’t think the figure is positioned too centrally. The background is very symmetrical for the graffiti, so I thought central worked a little better. The red shoes do catch the eye, but they’re a beautiful part of the image. There’s so much color in it, that your eye gets attracted downward and then back up into the image.

    These are all personal opinions, of course. I agree that the unexpected, unusual does often work best, which is why I wrote point #10. However, I don’t believe you can become good at breaking the rules successfully if you don’t know them.

  • Cathy Levan

    is that vertical archway shot taken at Montepulciano.?
    I was there in 2012 and took (I think ) a vertical shot of the same archway but a bit off centre including more foreground .

  • Peter

    Thanks for thisbvery good article i Will use iT in teaching…top Gr from Holland

  • Geoff

    Thanks for the reply, James. I’m with you when you say it helps if you know the ‘rules’ (how can you intentionally break them if you don’t know them?). And of course a crowd scene often has more than one subject, and the figure standing centrally is fine, despite or because of his red shoes 🙂
    I think my point – badly explained probably – was that a lot of these ‘rules’ are instinctive more than learned. Often what works in a certain image is difficult to categorise or explain, and won’t work as well, or at all, in a similar image. Sometimes the composition works best when it makes the viewer feel uncomfortable.

  • You’re welcome, it’s an easy and complete reading without useless complications.

  • Rinux64

    Hi James, many thanks.

  • I definitely agree about instinctive being the best. I think you need to learn the rules ahead of time, but you only get good at them through practice. Eventually composition becomes instinctive, but I think it helps to think actively about it first. Photography is one of those things that there is no substitute for experience and time spend shooting.

    I definitely agree about making the viewer feel uncomfortable.

  • Thanks Peter!

  • My pleasure!

  • Yes, it was either Montepulciano or Pienza! I can’t remember since we spend time in both towns in the same day. I love it there so much!

  • Great post @jamaher:disqus. I love the depth of the content and the examples that you provided. Filling the frame and watching the edges resonated with me the most. Thank you.

  • My pleasure Praverb!

  • Joel Ablong Fangsilat

    Thank you sir.

  • Amynta

    In reading this and seeing the closeup, I’d like to know how to approach people about taking their photo in an instance where it may be published. I know there are all sorts of discussion about this, but I’m just looking for…practically, what are some ways various photographers approach this to both get the photo in a relaxed state, or a staged state, and where you go from there if it’s published. Do you contact the individual for permission, or have them sign something, or take the “public” approach?

  • Raunil raj

    Loved it… 🙂
    Keep posting

  • Ravi Bhatia

    The skewed shot in #4…the Broadway tattoo on Prince! Couldn’t have planned it better. Great eye!

  • Ashish

    Excellent article. I always set up the angle when taking portraits. I learnt many new tips. Thank you so much.

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