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3 Factors to Think About When Composing Your Photos

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
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. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

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