3 Factors to Think About When Composing Your Photos

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The way you frame a photo is an important part of the composition. There are several key decisions to make when composing your photos:

  1. What to exclude from the frame
  2. What to include in the frame
  3. Where to place the main subject

The best way to learn about this is to look at several photos and explain how these principles apply. Let’s look at how they all apply:

Natural light portrait – what to exclude

Framing and composition

I took this photo of a local singer in Wellington’s Botanical Gardens. I knew what I wanted to include in the composition: the singer herself (she is the main subject of the photo and should take front stage in the composition) plus a hint of the background.

I achieved this by using a short telephoto lens (85mm on a full-frame camera). Telephotos are lenses of exclusion – their narrow field-of-view means they don’t include as much of the background as wide-angle lenses do.

I was also able to blur the background by using an aperture of f/2.8. This is another form of exclusion. While the leafy trees in the background are still recognizable, they don’t pull the eye as much they would if they were in sharp focus. This helps direct attention to the singer.

I placed her centrally in the frame. Central compositions work well when the subject is quite prominent in the frame. There is only focal point, the person in the portrait, so she doesn’t have to be on a third (following the Rule of Thirds).

Of course, this is subjective, and I know some people will disagree, so I’m going to provide a second version of this photo, cropped so the singer is on a third. It’s an important point because in an ideal world we will frame our photos perfectly when we take them, there are always times when a crop in post-production may improve the composition. Here are the two versions side-by-side.

Framing and composition

Which do you prefer? For me, I feel the original version has a better balance between the singer and the background.

The cropped version includes less of the background, however, the singer is larger in the frame, which will make it more attractive to some people.

There is no right or wrong here, like many aspects of composition it is completely subjective. But isn’t it interesting how a relatively small change in composition (a different crop) can make such a big difference to the same photo?

Beach portrait – what to include

Framing and composition

In the first example I minimized the amount of background in the photo, but in this one I included a lot more. The environment is an important part of the portrait. It was a cold, cloudy, wintery afternoon. I included the houses and hill in the background to emphasize the bleakness of the weather and the location.

The idea is for the viewer’s eye is to move between the girl in the foreground (the main subject of the portrait) to the houses and the hill in the background, taking in the detail along the way.

To achieve this I used a wide-angle lens (24mm on a full-frame camera). I was standing quite close to my model, yet this lens still included a large amount of the background. I used an aperture of f/2.8 to make the background slightly out of focus.

The placement of the model is an important part of the composition. If you have used a wide-angle lens you will know that a slight change in viewpoint makes a dramatic different to the composition. I made sure I held the camera high enough so that the model’s head was lower than the houses. If I crop the photo you can see that the only thing behind the model is the beach.

Framing and composition

I took care to prevent the model and the houses overlapping because they are separate elements of the photo. The composition is stronger if they are separated.

Chinese Lantern Festival – where to place the subject

I took this photo at a Chinese Lantern Festival in Auckland. There were hundreds of elaborate Chinese lanterns on display, and they made wonderful subjects.

Framing and composition

I like to take the simple approach to photography and for this shoot I used just one camera and one lens, an 85mm short telephoto. My aim was to focus on the subject and practice using wide apertures to throw the lights in the background out of focus. This is one of my favourite photos from the evening.

I framed the image in such a way that the face of the lantern man was clearly the main focal point of the image and the lanterns in the background were out of focus. The question was just how much of the lantern should I include? The full lantern shows a Chinese man holding a bird cage. Including too much may weaken the composition. Getting too close risks cropping too tightly.

The solution, which is easy to apply with a static subject like this, is to take a variety of photos. Take some time and explore it from different angles, moving closer or farther away to change the subject’s size in the frame. Then you have the luxury of deciding which composition works best when you get back home.

The more photos you take, the more possibilities you see. It’s as if the act of taking photos warms up the part of your mind that works visually. It helps you see different and more effective ways of composing the image. It is normal to find that the last images you took are some of the best in the sequence. You end up with stronger photos than if you had taken just one or two then moved on.

Here are some of the other photos I took of the same lantern as I worked the subject.

Framing and composition

Your turn

Now it’s your turn. How do you use framing in your photos, and decide what to include or exclude from the frame? Let us know in the comments and feel free to add photos to illustrate your point.


Mastering Photography

Composition and line

My latest ebook, Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras introduces you to digital photography and helps you make the most out of your digital cameras. It covers concepts such as lighting and composition as well as the camera settings you need to master to take photos like the ones in this article.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. He's written over 25 popular photography ebooks (use the code DPS20 for a 20% discount on your first order). Download his Composition PhotoTips Cards now for free!

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  • Lev

    Regarding the photo of a singer – I like the first version as far as the balance between the subject and background is concerned. But it feels unbalanced because of the placement of the subject in the frame. Since most of the dress is in the right half of the frame and, maybe more importantly, she is turned to our right, I would’ve placed her more to the left when taking the photo.

    Lev

  • Shayne

    Also regarding the photo of the singer – I like the second version because the strong upward arcing flow of the dress draws me toward the subject. I’m very quickly looking for an identity in this photo so details matter. Who is she is more important than the mysterious quality the background lends to the photo. Of course, that’s just me and of course I’d see something else if I were in a different mood . . .

  • Michael Owens

    Nice read! As I always say, and will continue to do so, composition is like any other art form, and open to interpretation, and the choice we make on our final image is what WE personally like.

    The only time I change that, is when doing a shoot with a specific look the client wants.

  • Cool!!!

  • Cat George

    I also like the uncropped image. The dress forms the bottom of a circle and the trees in the background complete the circle, if you look carefully, putting the lady’s head in a nice wrap-around image. The cropped version cuts the top of the circle off. As you say balanced.

  • Linda

    I agree with Lev. The positioning of the singer would have been better to the left. At first I liked the cropped version but the cropped picture loses the story of the singer glancing back as she is walking down the road and as such looks more posed. While still a really nice picture, it doesn’t seem as interesting as the first. The photo of the girl on the beach might have been more interesting if she had not been centered but it just does not seem to be a good picture period. Her mood as well as position of facing the camera doesn’t seem to match the scenery if that makes sense. The Chinese lantern picture is very nice!

  • Geoff Naylor

    The assumption is that you have the time and the possibility to ‘place’ the subject in the image area. That’s fine when dealing with a model or a member of the public prepared to pose for you, but when shooting on the fly – like street photography – you get what’s best in the circumstances. The subject appears suddenly; you catch them passing by. Slightly to the left or getting a little lower, or further away, aren’t considerations that play a role.
    That’s what make it so interesting and unpredictable.
    By the way, I like the close-up of the singer more Andrew 🙂

  • Leyden

    Nice article, got me thinking from a little different point of view [so much to think about-so little time], however, as they say ‘to each his own’, I didn’t care for the model’s pose on the beach [I agree with Linda], and the cropped singer seems more… ‘human?’.

  • Leyden

    OK, I took another look at the singer and I see the possibility of the circle which would be even more pronounced with vignetting….but in a do or die decision I still like the cropped one better. Thanks for your efforts to allow us to ‘rangle and angle’.

  • Brett

    With the singer, I agree with lev for the same two reasons he gave. Her head is central, but as a whole she is off centre. While off centre can work, the direction she is facing would lead me to putting her to the left, and to me out would seem more balanced.

    I love the composition of the Chinese lantern, it’s great.

    For the beach shot, for me personally it again geeks too unbalanced. The two main my eyes are drawn toarethe model and the hill. With the hill at the top right, it would give me more of a sense of balance with the model further to the left, but she’d probably have to be posed differently then. Better still, recompose from a slightly different angles so you can maintain the background/model relationship, but bring the waterline down to the front left corner si there’s an element bringing the balance back over.

    Just my opinion though, what works for me mightn’t work for someone else.

  • Gregg Hasenjaeger

    With the dancer, no you don’t need to follow the rule of thirds. With that said she appears to be ready to start dancing so I would have placed here a little more to the left of the frame to allow the appearence of her having somewhere to go which is good composition.

    In respect to the second image I felt the full scene on the beach was nice. With the buildings cropped out it looked like a cold and desolate location. The buildings gave it a more homey almost exotic look, somewhere I could see taking a walk. I might have softened the buildings but that is a matter of choice as well.

    There are a lot of aspects to consider when composing an image. The third one to me not seeing what you had to deal with in respect to obstructions (walls, people, light or distance) it is hard to say what I would have done. In the section where you have the three versions I like the upper right one. If I had the opportunity to take such an image I may have tried to get more into it my panning out or stepping back if that were possible.

    If you give six photographers the same subject you will have a miriad of different images. To be quite honest they will all be good images. It is a matter of taste.

  • Thanks for your feedback everybody. Very interesting to read your comments and the variety of opinion just goes to show how subjective the topic of composition is.

  • JB

    On an unrelated note, I like to ask photographers what their workflow was when I am particularly taken by an photograph. The photo of the singer has some fantastic colours. Would you mind taking me through the steps of your post-processing?

    Thanks!

  • Hi JB, it’s a bit complicated to go through all the steps, but the colours come from using a VSCO Film 5 preset for the processing. From memory it was one of their Agfa presets tweaked to bring the best out of the photo.

  • MIKE FIRMAND

    Placing her to the left I believe it would give this beautiful model more face contrast–with the darker background. What do I know because I am not an artist? Ask Dana Baldwin or Tracy Frigoli because they have created some striking pictures like this.

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