3 Ways to Improve Your Images With Composition

3 Ways to Improve Your Images With Composition

Along with lighting, subject, perspective, composition is one of the fundamental tools to creating better images. It’s one of the easier ones to begin applying to your own photography as well. Here are a few tips on improving your composition, with examples from a recent fitness photo shoot.

1. Rule of Thirds

You’ve probably heard this one beat to death, but the rule of thirds is one of the fundamental keys in creating stronger compositions. It involves dividing an image into nine equal grids at the thirds. By placing your subject on the line of a third, or at the intersection of two thirds you’re following your eyes’ natural focus. We find photographs with the subject on one of these thirds simply more pleasing.

Take the below image for example, where this woman is placed on the left third line with the focus of her head near the top left third as well. It creates a more pleasing composition and gives the eye plenty of space to wander in the frame.


The rule of thirds isn’t a hard and fast rule and it’s often broken to great success, but that’s a topic you can find in many other posts. It’s a great starting point though to create stronger compositions.

2. Second Point of Interest

Applying the rule of thirds, you can now try adding a second point of interest into your images. Adding a secondary point, whether it’s out of focus in the background or in focus with a deep aperture landscape, gives your image a natural viewing progression. Your eye starts at the first focal subject and then moves along to the second.  Not only does this create more interest in your image, it can help reinforce a theme or perspective.

In this fitness image, the woman tying her shoe and preparing for a run is the clear focus of the image. Introducing a second runner in the background now creates another place for the eye to follow through the image. At the same time the “running” theme has been reinforced. Additional factors in leading the eye are; her gaze into the open space of the image, and the leading lines of the banister and concrete blocks.


3. Room for Copy Space

If you ever have aspirations to shoot for advertising agencies and many editorials, learning to leave room for copy space is a must. Copy space is the negative area in an image where a brand will place their tag line, logo or product/information. Generally you want this negative space to not be too busy, so that the copy pops out. The effect can be achieved often by using a shallow focus in your images, or by simple ensuring there is a space without too much “busy-ness” in it. A nice open sky often works great in this regard.

In this shot there’s some clear head space in front of the two runners that works great for copy. An important thing to keep in mind though if you do end up applying these principles for a client, is how the images will be placed in publication. Will they be on a poster or against a store wall? Or across the pages of a magazine? This particular image might not work well across a double page spread, as it places the subjects’ heads right where the crease would be. Against a store wall it would work just fine. These are important placement ideas to keep in mind with copy space.


Bringing It All Together

When you bring all three of these compositional elements into mind you can create a great image that not only holds interest, but appeals to the creative people who hire photographers (always a big plus). The image below is an example when all three work together. The subject is at one of the third grid lines, there’s a secondary point of interest in the background and room has been left below for copy space. When you keep all three elements in mind you’ll be on your way to creating stronger compositions.


Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Matt Dutile is a New York City based travel and lifestyle photographer. He recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce a book on Mongolian nomads. Check the page out to learn more. You can view his website or join in on his Facebook page as well.

Some Older Comments

  • Tomservo51 August 28, 2013 02:01 am

    Tip #4: Have a really good looking model.

  • Geoff August 26, 2013 04:58 pm

    It's interesting, Matt, that what began as a discussion about the rules of Composition (Rule of thirds) has developed into one about technique, or more specifically the do's and dont's of lighting (the 'Don't shoot into the sun rule'). From an aesthetic discussion (what's pleasing to the eye) into a causational one (sun = glare, bleaching), I suppose.
    That is also an interesting discussion which highlights the reason for rules, and the wonderful results you can achieve by intentionally breaking them.
    Many thanks.

  • Mark Treen August 26, 2013 10:14 am

    I agree Matt. A commercial photographer gets a pass on the rules when their images are selling without further explanation needed.
    Obviously there's a good reason to have a rule to not shoot into the sun (as there is a good reason for every rule out there). It tends to ruins contrast and cause sun flare and lens glare, all of which generally will cause the subject to have the story be taken from them.
    Every rule in photography is designed to have more impact by helping you to tell a story better. Of course sometimes by breaking a rule it draws attention to the exact story you want to tell and causes the image to have more impact. Break them but do it on purpose if an impactful story is your goal. The intent of the broken rule helping (not hindering) the story of the image. For example if I took a picture of Gonzo from The Muppets it would probably make sense to break the rule of thirds overtly. The broken rule draws attention. Make sure the attention helps the story.

  • Matt Dutile August 26, 2013 04:23 am

    Hi guys, thanks for your concerns. The images aren't overexposed, rather correctly exposed for the subject and to create a strong high-key mood. While shooting into the sun doesn't work for a lot of images, it does with the intent and mood of these. I can assure you it's a technique that is used and popular in commercial photography - and I can back that up with a client list that includes top sporting brands such as Adidas and Oakley. They are purchasing and commissioning these types of images. It's good to know some of your basic rules, just don't forget to break them every now and then - as long as it serves a purpose and plan.

  • Mark August 23, 2013 11:06 pm

    @Billy, @Richard I wonder if the shots into the sun are deliberate; the subjects are up "bright and early" or are running "first thing"... Sometimes simple choices can mean something to a lay (non professional) public. Could it be the photographer was thinking primarily about a specific audience, creating sub-text (or maybe trying to prevent unauthorised re-use of these photos) @Matt: Thank you for a very thoughtful article.

  • Geoff August 22, 2013 01:37 am

    I thought that was strange as well billy. Why would a photographer choose to shoot into the sun, with all the problems of glare and bleaching that result? Answer... I really don't know.
    'Ways to improve your images: Don't shoot into the sun!'

  • Billy August 21, 2013 09:24 pm

    ...good instruction & composition, however, the examples used are grossly overexposed and somewhat out of focus. Could you provide photos that aren't aimed directly at the sun?

  • ArturoMM August 20, 2013 02:29 am

    I agree: this article is excelent because of simplicity, novelty and to the point.

  • Mark Treen August 18, 2013 01:07 am

    This is a great article. I really appreciate you breaking this down with perfect picture illustrating it!
    I love hte final composition showing it all coming together. Keep putting out great articles! I'm happily sharing this with all my social peeps.

  • Geoff August 17, 2013 08:12 pm

    Thanks for the useful tips, Matt.
    I noticed that all the images above were 'posed', the subjects being directed to specific activity (sit there, run from left to right). Everything planned.
    I'm busy with urban photography and often find that events take over: something interesting occurs unexpectedly and you try to capture it. Sometimes you succeed, more often not, is my experience. But it means there is little or no time to prepare the shot. 'In focus' is usually a bonus, having time to divide the image into 9 has always been beyond me. That might play a role - if I'm lucky - in post-production.
    What I have found is that accidental cropping is often more interesting than programmed cropping. Half a face, while not intended, can be wonderfully shocking.
    But knowing the logic of what makes a satisfying image is always welcome. It gives you the freedom to break the rules.

  • Simon August 16, 2013 07:58 pm

    Great article Thank you so much Matt.
    I've been using the rule of thirds in my photos and it has really improved my shots a lot. I am in love with my 50mm f1.4

    Looking at the first image and comparing it to what I might have done.... well, I have been getting in the habit of placing the subject's eye in the junction of the top left third. In the first image it is the head that is in the junction top left third third. It looks great and is balanced.

    In the second photo the subjects body (the girl's body) is in the junction of the top right third. It's not her eye in this junction as I might have done. Man why didn't I realise this kind of thing before?

    Thanks Matt for breaking my bad habit before it became too deeply ingrained.

  • Marnie August 16, 2013 12:38 pm

    Short and easy to understand especially with the photos. Thank you.

  • Mei Teng August 16, 2013 10:10 am

    I really like the last photo with its tagline. Nice one.

  • Richard August 16, 2013 07:18 am

    4. Master the basics - look at the horizons in the first and third image...they aren't going to look good next to neat horizontal lines of text.

  • Eli Ho August 16, 2013 07:14 am

    After reading the rules, I feel like my photos are better composed.

  • Kenny August 16, 2013 06:39 am

    As an article written to educate, I appreciate the use of common images as your examples. Sometimes, it's difficult to follow a writer when the pictures are so different. Not neceearily just the theme (running), but having similar light and background in your examples helps me focus on what you're doing different in each. Well written and demonstrated! Thanks!

  • Cheryl Garrity August 16, 2013 02:27 am

    I like your article. Short, simple and to the point. Wish I could be as succinct. Second point of interest seems powerful, but not obvious. My compositions are most successful when I have few components with strong leading lines. I look forward to trying out this new (to me) concept. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  • Debi August 16, 2013 02:19 am

    Excellent article - Thank you!

  • Mridula August 16, 2013 01:55 am

    Secondary point of interest and copy space are new for me. So thank you.