10 Ideas to Instantly Improve Your Photography Composition

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It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera; they are made with the eye, heart and head. – Henri Cartier-Bresson

My photography training took place back in the early 90s, at an intense technical photo school in California. I love tech in all forms, and I love reading my camera manual. I love the precision and procedure of processing my own colour film, and I love learning the ever-advancing skills on photo software – I am a total tech nerd. But technical knowledge will only get you so far; it’s really the second part of the story in photography. Photography composition is the first part.

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The first part is your vision of what you want your photography to be, and learning the ability to compose compelling images. Your technical knowledge will only give you the ability to execute your vision, and make the most of the composition that you have created. It can’t replace the ability to see and to compose stunning compositions.

So all things should flow from a good composition. And when we are learning about composition I like to keep in mind that quote that may or may not have been spoken by Picasso (it’s under dispute on the internet): “Learn the rules like a pro and break them like an artist.” Rules, guidelines, ideas about composition will give you a place to start, help develop your skills and propel you out of a rut. But they should not be followed slavishly or forever.

Here are my ideas on what you can do to make your compositions more captivating. But, bear in mind that creating totally unique compositions comes down to creating your own style . So don’t be swayed too much by other photographers’ advice on this subject. Photography is an examination of the world through your eyes, it’s totally subjective, totally about connecting with what inspires and excites you. Just pick up ideas that make sense and motivate you.

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To practice, pick one concept from below that jumps out. Don’t take all these ideas and try to incorporate them into your photography all at once. Pick one and really embrace it – then the results will come.

So here are my 10 favourite tips on how you can instantly improve your composition.

1. Light

“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” George Eastman

For me more than anything, photography is about light, and learning to identify interesting light is one of the best skills to learn. Light that is doing something interesting, or is beautiful or colourful; will take a good subject and turn it into something completely amazing.

Light is my starting point when I am taking photos. It is the thing I consider first, and what affects me the most when deciding what to photograph. Look for light doing strange and wonderful things – creating long shadows, diffused light falling over a broken wall, reflecting, creating bursts of colour. Look for the colour of light, too: the cool blue light before dawn, the cold, almost transparent light of a winter’s afternoon, the rich orange light of near twilight – and how that affects your subject. Think always: how can I get the best out of the light that I am photographing?

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In the photograph above, the beautiful light is obvious. I have used the silhouette of the column, to contrast the dappled light which is illuminating the clouds beautifully. This contrast makes the light look spectacular because it’s showing off its range of colours and depth against the heavy dark column.

Learning to notice light in all its forms and colours is an excellent way to improve your compositions.

When you see a subject you wish to photograph, look at the light around it. If it’s not interesting light – if it’s flat, boring, or draining the sense of colour – have a look at what else is happening with the weather. Maybe you can wait for clouds to pass, come back later or earlier in the day, see if you can organize the composition to incorporate light from other sources. It doesn’t have to be natural light. Artificial light, and particularly the play of natural and artificial light, can make an inspirational combination.

Here’s another photo where the main subject is the light, but this one is more subtle. The absence of light is most pronounced in this shot, and then all of sudden the glow of dawn light is reflected in the windows. Again, there is a contrast of darkness against light.

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There is lots of negative space in this photo, an overload of industrial blandness, wastelands. And then these two buildings and the sudden glow of the charming light.

2. Simplicity: think in threes

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” Hans Hofmann

Simplicity is often very hard to accomplish, and can be more challenging than more complex compositions. I find there can be a misunderstanding about how to achieve simplicity in your photos. People often think it’s about taking a photo of one subject. But actually I rarely take photos which contain only one subject. Usually there has to be one subject with at least one, but usually, two supporting elements. So I like to say – think in threes.

Humans love to think in threes – (breakfast, lunch, dinner; past, present, future; and small, medium, large). We like to find rhythms and patterns in everything.

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This photo above is a very good example. How many elements make up this photo? Well, first you have the beautiful blue gradated sky, then the wild, chaotic pattern of the bare branches. That’s all very nice, but it’s the third element that is the subject, and that really makes the photo – the two men blending into the branches, while creating distinct human shapes. The photo without any one of the elements wouldn’t be as interesting.

I am a particular fan of very simple compositions when photographing people and I often use plain and colourful backgrounds. In the photo below, again there are three strong elements: bright pastel colours, the two guys and the strong lines.

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It also works when photographing pigeons! Another photo with three elements: the grey, slightly dishevelled pigeon, the wash of colour, and the texture and lines of the wet paving stones.

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3. Move your feet

When you are looking at a professional photographer’s work, one thing that they do more than an amateur photographer is move. You may have a killer shot laid out before you, but you still have to find the killer angle that will make the shot really special. Every shot has a perfect angle, and it’s your job to find it. If you are shooting a subject you love and then look at your images and are disappointed with what you find, I guarantee it’s because you haven’t found the perfect angle.

Get up on that roof, lie on the floor, move your feet around until what you see in frame is the best possible angle, the best possible position you can manoeuvre yourself into. Get dirty if you have to. This requires patience (and good knees), and patience is one thing I think most amateur photographers need to develop more of.

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There is one particular culprit in our kit that discourages us to move, and makes many of us lazy – a zoom lens. This should NEVER be a replacement for moving around a scene and finding the best angle. Do not fall into the trap that just because you have the subject in frame you can just zoom in to get it. Compose your best possible shot in frame, zooming in only if it’s totally the right thing to do , and not as a default option for moving. My best advice for zooming is pick a focal length, then move your feet and find the angle you need.

4. Get closer

Robert Capa said – “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you are not close enough.”

This concept reminds me of when I once read about a famous chef, who believes that the difference between home cooks and professionals is that home cooks are afraid of heat, and don’t turn their gas hobs up high enough. It’s the same with photography – obviously!

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If you feel yourself not wanting to get closer, then this is definitely an idea you should explore. You will almost be able to notice in your images that barrier of fear you set up of getting closer because there will be a distance to your subject. Push through that fear, and your images will benefit from more intimate images. The iconic travel photographer Steve McCurry always photographs subjects within a few feet of himself. For him that is the distance that feels most intimate. That is his style.

Take a deep breathe, hold your fear in check, and just get closer. Investigate as though nothing is holding you back.

5. Build your photo

When I am out wandering around looking for things to shoot, I am looking for elements that I can combine. Often it starts with one thing; it could be anything – an odd looking person, a beautiful shaft of light, a piece of amazing graffiti on a pockmarked concrete wall. If one thing strikes me, I start to look around to find something else to build on that first element to make it more interesting.

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In this photo above I think you’ll agree that if you took away the light in the window you’d have a perfectly lovely shot. But that light is what makes it work. It’s that additional element, creating another layer of depth, and providing an echo almost of the church light of the same colour. I passed this spot on many mornings and often took this particular shot, but one morning the window light was on and it changed it from a beautiful scene into a great image.

6. Look behind you

I shoot in places where I often find myself surrounded by other photographers – the Eiffel Tower at Dawn, sunset on Westminster Bridge – and it continuously stuns me that almost every (or even every) photographer will be pointing the same way and shooting the same thing. Now of course a purple pink sunset over the Houses of Parliament is gorgeous – but that light will also be doing incredible things to everything around you. So, while everyone is going nuts at the obvious, do something different – turn around, walk down that alley way, do what everyone else is not doing.

When I was in Paris I was intimidated about shooting the city. It’s the most visited city on earth (hence the most photographed). It is a small city and much of what’s amazing to photograph has been shot to death. I wanted to shoot the Eiffel Tower differently. Here is one shot I liked. You’ve got opulent gold, beautiful dawn sky, the iconic Eiffel Tower – all pretty so far – but then you have this injection of something that most photographers would have avoided – the cleaners.

Have the patience to explore other angles.

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The streets cleaners are a vivid contrast against the opulent gold, and while I kept the iconic Eiffel Tower in the shot, it’s really only as a background. Paris is obsessed with tidying itself, so this is also a nice little comment on the city.

7. Simplify your kit (and get really familiar with it)

I think most people generally have too much kit. If you have a lot and you don’t use it daily or even weekly, you’re not going to have that intimate knowledge of how it responds to situations and subjects. Try reducing to just one lens for a while and really get to know it.

When you have a lens that you know exactly what it will do in every situation, you’ll be able to execute even more interesting compositions, as you aren’t leaving things to chance. Chance is something that professional photographers will go out of their way to avoid.

8. Find beauty in the mundane

It’s easy to get a spectacular shot when you have a spectacular subject. But to make simple, boring, or mundane things look interesting – now that’s a challenge! But it’s a challenge I invite you to take up, because it’s an amazing way to train your eye to reveal the beauty of any subject.

This for me is a good example. There are three things that are interesting in this photo (can you guess?) You have the bold colours, and then a little bit of light falling on the wall to create a contrast, and the lines. Now if light was falling on the whole wall, or if there was no light at all, the photo would be totally boring. But can you see how just three simple elements working together can make a photo?

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And as I am obsessed with colour and light, I admire this shot.

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It’s part of a longer story I am working on in Istanbul at dawn, but to me it shows that there is no subject that isn’t worthy of attention from your camera.

9. Pre-visualize

I love my digital camera, but I also still use film, and now that I’m mainly digital I appreciate the discipline and grounding I received from training in film. I use these skills to help me now.

One super important skill that will really help your compositions is pre-visualizing. It’s a skill you had to have when you shot film, because otherwise you were just shooting randomly.

Pre-visualizing is, “the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure” (Ansel Adams said that, not me). What I love about this, is that it’s about creating space between seeing a shot, and taking it. It’s about being prepared, thinking through what you want to capture, looking at all of the elements of light, positioning, etc., and then picturing in your mind what the final image will look like. For example, imagine your final output was a print. Imagine the print in your hands. What would it look like? If you can see it clearly then your are pre-visualizing. If not, then keep working at it until you see the image in your head. When you have a solid picture in mind, take the shot.

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You can also use pre-visualization when you think about timing. A lot of landscape photography is really about waiting around for the perfect moment, that great light. Here is one situation (above) where I knew the scene had potential, but was pretty flat, and if nothing else happened it wouldn’t be interesting. So, I waited for the sun to rise just that little bit more and ping, the clouds were filled with pink light giving the photo more depth.

10. Look for patterns

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Patterns come in many forms, and are extremely pleasing to the eye. A pattern is anything that is repetitive, that turns your subject from its innate quality, into something more abstract. So people will look and respond more to the pattern and shape that it makes, and less to the subject itself.

“Whatever emotional response a single design element arouses is multiplied when it is repeated in a pattern.” – Bryan Peterson

Patterns are particularly effective when you fill the frame with your subject, and totally cut off the rest of it. These are particularly interesting to look at.

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Another way to create patterns is reflections. I love playing with reflections. Anywhere you have a bit of water, even just rain on the street, or shiny surfaces, you have the ability to play with reflections.

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Once you start looking out for patterns you’ll start seeing them everywhere.

Time to practice

I’d love to know what you think of these ideas, and if you put any into practice. Which compositional techniques do you use to enhance your photos?

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Anthony Epes

is a photographer whose work has been featured internationally; including on BBC, French Photo Magazine, Atlas Obscura and CNN. He is also a teacher – writing in-depth free articles on his website. Receive his free ebook on the two essential skills that will instantly improve your photos, and sign up to his weekly newsletter providing inspiration, ideas and pro-photo techniques.

  • Greg Edwards

    Pre-visualise? Isn’t this the same as visualise?

  • An example of pre-visualization; imagine you have a shot you want to take. It looks good to you but imagine what it would look like a few steps to the left or right, a higher angle or lower etc. This is one way to use it. Visualizing is seeing and taking a picture. Pre-visualising is imagining the shot complete, not with just the camera but as a final product (print,post-process,etc) and then putting all your tools together to make that vision happen.
    Hope that helps clarify it a bit.

  • Cdc22

    I have read quite a few books and articles on composition by now and so thought twice about reading this, but I really like your work so I read it anyway. I am so pleased I did! The professional work I respond to most has an element of spontaneity and lightness about it that I have always mistook for speed of execution. What I found most helpful about this article
    was the insight it gives into the element of discipline and restraint in
    good composition. Thanks!

  • Greg Edwards

    The difference in meaning is clearer, however the terminology is misleading, IMHO. Visualising is imagining how something will appear. the ‘Pre’ prefix, means ‘before’. So it kind of reads, imagining how something would appear before you imagine it.

    As a graphic designer I frequently employ visualisation. In this context, it does indeed refer to ideas and concepts – eg how something ‘could’ look rather than a final. complete product.

    Perhaps post-visualisation would be a more appropriate term? You have already visualised, and are now taking that idea a stage further and imagining how the final product will appear.

  • Jore Puusa

    More and more info and education for amateurs who then say thank you and give their pictures for free —- killing pros.

  • Mel

    Briliiant advice and thank you for your generosity in sharing with us ~ pros should have no fear but it will keep you on your toes?!!!

  • Kelly

    Wonderful advice.

  • Marjorie Bull

    Excellent advice–I’m Pinning this one for sure. I especially like the one about turning around, which I try always to remember to do. Just a week or so ago, I went out to the beach for the sunset and turned around to see the full moon rising through the mist.

  • Cdc22

    Dear Jore, I wouldn’t worry about amateurs like me! I could never take photos like a professional. I have neither the equipment, nor the experience. It is an absolute joy to be able to practice a hobby in an informed way and have the opportunity to hear the advice of those who know what they are doing. Rest assured, as much as I have read, it would take me many years to acquire and perfect the skills that you would have through many hours of taking photos. Don’t worry – good photographers will never be challenged by information and education. It can only serve to make the interested public appreciate their work!

  • Mustafa

    Eiffel kulesindeki perspektif çok güzel

  • Steven

    Great article

  • Finding beauty in the mundane is my biggest challenge.

  • SusieQ

    I’m sure you’re right because people like you are always right yawn…

  • Searching and keeping the sense of wonder is what it’s all about. Not very techinical, I know, but it is an important point. If it’s not challenging maybe it’s not worth it? Best of luck.

  • Thank you Steven

  • Thank you.

  • Good call!

  • Thank you Kelly!

  • I have no fear of being an educator or a professional photographer. The world is changing fast and I have much to share with those who yearn for knowledge. Just follow your passion and you cannot fail.

  • Annie Metcalfe

    Sometimes it helps to get really close up to things and see them in a new way

  • excellent advice! tweeted

  • M.h. O’Dell

    Excellent article. Love it.Thanks. If you play piano keep practicing scales and chords (technique) to perform better in concert!

  • Melissa C Lim

    Such a great article, gives me a better perspective now on what to look for. Thank you!

  • lola inang

    i will try to take tip number two..

  • bear

    “Learning to notice light in all its forms and colors is an excellent way to improve your compositions.” I agree your thoughtful skills. I should practice to look for the light, shapes, and shadows in my challenge. I sometimes take a picture in the image and try to revise it. Finally, I find to hold the light of place in taking time. If I buy the new macro lens of camera in future, I learn and challenge more about how I use my camera to move the light place.

  • Patrick Laundra

    I’ve decided it’s time to get a fast 50mm prime. I started looking around at articles about environmental portraiture. I’m getting tired of the overwhelming urge to zoom in on everything. it gets really boring it’s like product shots of every thing. I see light, color temp. shadow. all that. I recognize the beauty. but I’m not getting it in my images. I’m busy thinking of white balance, histograms, R or I metering. etc. thanks for reminding me “it’s art.” aided by science yes. but art first. see the image in your mind. then figure the exposure reciprocals to create it. not look for exposure challenges and figure out how to put an image around it..

  • I just like your 2nd idea Simplicity very much. I will try this first. Because I also love simplicity specially your example photograph “pigeon”. My another interest is patterns. I am working with this too expecting more detail tips on this.

  • cuddysark_skandalon

    Anthony, I going to try out your discussion on light. I am going to a spot often photographed, get there before sunrise and staying till sunset taking pictures all day to get an understanding of how light effects the scene.
    Thanks for the input.

  • Belated Lois but thank you for the tweet! Happy shooting!

  • Great analogy! I’ve always wanted to learn to play piano. Still time!

  • You are most welcome Melissa!

  • I love that tip. Took awhile for me to formulate what I was feeling inside but I think it is a really handy way to simplify things.

  • Sounds like a good practice. Good luck with it!

  • Sounds like an amazing day! Have fun and be always there in your head. Good luck mate!

  • You have shared a great post . So you have plenty thanks for such informative here . Hoppe that , The photographers will more benefit here .

  • lol. good advice also!

  • I’ve never felt threatened by amateurs. Some togs do but I don’t have the energy or time for it. Best of luck to you all is what I say!!

  • Wonderful comment! Thanks for taking the time. You made me feel good!

  • Syntax is not my field of expertise! rofl!

  • Chidi Young Jr.

    Thanks Anthony! I love the simplicity of your writing.

  • my pleasure friend!

  • Geet Bijlani

    Thank you . A noobie like myself will benefit a lot from this.

  • RK77

    Good tips.

  • Stephanie Bolton

    Thank you for this great article! It has challenged me to think more creatively. I generally do not think in threes, so I will defeintely try that out as well as using reflections.

  • Hi Stephanie
    You are most welcome. If you want to know more about thinking in 3’s search Rule of Odds – something I found recently.

  • Abhishek Kalma

    Hi Need some feedback for this composition.

  • Image Background Remove

    Pretty black But the street color makes it very beautiful
    Thank you!

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