Easy Tips to Help Beginners Understand Composition


Place your subject to the right or left of centre. For portraits, the eyes should be above the centre line for a pleasant good composition.

Composition is all about the balance of the elements in your photograph. This also includes colors tones and textures. This is what separates a snapshot from a great shot. If you want to achieve a good composition, you need to plan it out and see where each element is going to be placed before you take the shot.

You may have heard photographers talk about seeing the shot in their head before they have actually taken the shot. It’s this ‘seeing’ that I’m going to describe in more detail. I’ll also demonstrate a few useful tips to train your eye in seeing or framing a scene with or without a camera, and in post-editing.

A good composition in a photo will most likely have followed a compositional rule. These are very useful to know. I’ve chosen five of these principles to describe how they work. I prefer to call them principles or guides rather than rules. There are many more, but these five are a good place to start.


Cut-out cardboard frame for training your eye to see.


Let’s get back to seeing your shot or framing the scene. For this exercise, you won’t need a camera. You might get funny looks but bear with me. Choose any place, location that you want.

Cut out a frame from cardboard or any material you want as long as it’s a rectangle. See above.

You could equally use your hands, but I preferred using the cardboard frame.



Framing your shot using hands.


As you will see, the frame narrows your field of vision and helps to block out distractions and look for the main focal point, which is what the viewer’s eye is drawn to. I can’t emphasize enough that this simple exercise will help you train your eye to see better in terms of composition. Don’t forget to get down low and look up too.



Take this metal bridge, for example. Not a very interesting photo.



By using the cardboard frame to ‘see’ the potential for an interesting shot.



Bring it into your post-editing software and create an interesting texture shot.

Another useful tip that I would highly recommend is a trip to your local art gallery to see great works of art. Not only is it visually pleasing, but you get the chance to study how these great artists used composition to great effect. So the next time that you happen to be in such a museum, observe and take note. Ask why you liked a particular painting? How were the elements in the painting arranged or placed? Where was the horizon line – a third up from the bottom? What about color and texture?

Okay, what if you don’t live near an art gallery? Then maybe a visit to your local library could be an option? Libraries are such a wonderful resource. In the art section alone, you have great masters, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt and so forth. And of course, the masters in the photography world such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ansel Adams, to name just a couple.


Go to your local library for inspiration from the masters in the art world to see how they used composition in their works.


Before you go and get your camera, let me explain the following five compositional principles I believe are a great starting point for beginners.

Rule of Thirds

You may have already heard of this one. This is an actual formula based on mathematical principles of harmony and proportion. It has been used by artists for centuries. So think of your photo with imaginary lines that are drawn dividing the image into thirds both horizontally and vertically. You place important elements of your composition where these lines intersect. Similar to a tic-tac-toe game.


How the rule of thirds looks like. Where the lines intersect are the points in which to place your elements.

Rule of Odds

This may sound a bit odd (sorry, excuse the pun), but our brain looks for evenness and symmetry. So this principle asserts that having an odd number of objects in an image will be more interesting and, therefore, more pleasing. By having one or three elements is better than two.


Odd numbers of elements are more pleasing and interesting than even ones.


Keep the horizontal lines level and the vertical lines straight. This is particularly important if you shoot landscapes, seascapes and cityscapes. Leading lines are also very effective for drawing the viewer to where the focal point is.


The red lines are to show the horizontal lines are even and the vertical lines are straight.

Color and textures

Color and textures are a great way to demonstrate good composition.


Here is an example of color and rule of thirds for this composition. Notice the curve elements.

Negative space

This is an abstract concept which describes the space around your subject, otherwise known as ‘white space’ that draws your eye to it. Basically like ‘sky’ or a blurred background that provides the main emphasis on the subject.
Think of it in terms of letting your main subject or object breathe by giving it room.

As photography is about creativity, rules are not meant to be strictly adhered to. In the bikini photo, although I used two of them and they are symmetrical, I used color to contrast the elements and by not placing them in the centre gives the photo a more pleasing compositional effect.


Although I used two pairs of elements and I know that these are even, the color contrast and using the rule of thirds still makes this image a good composition.

Right, let’s get the camera out. Most DSLR cameras have built-in grid lines and some have a virtual horizon or a spirit level. If your camera has none of these options, you can always add a leveling aid, such as a hot shoe-mounted spirit level or use the focusing points within the viewfinder.

Use your tripod to help you frame your shot so that you get a good composition. Look through the viewfinder, see what elements are in the frame. Then take a look at the scene in front of you with both eyes, then go back to your viewfinder, recompose, then shoot.

Practice will improve your understanding and shooting better compositions. Don’t expect to get it in one go. Give yourself time.

Last, but not least, cropping your images in post-editing. Whether you use Camera Raw, Photoshop or Lightroom, cropping your photos will give you a better understanding of how the principles of composition apply.

You can easily straighten crooked horizon lines by using the Crop Tool or get rid of barrel distortion in buildings using the Lens Correction filter in Photoshop. Or simply change the image dramatically from the one you shot originally. All of these edits can be done non-destructively, so you can crop to your hearts content!


This is how the photo at top of this article was shot, yet when I cropped in tight on the model to the right, it gave me a different shot.

To summarize, like any complex subject that goes beyond just one article, I hope I have illustrated some useful tips to show the importance of composition in your photography. Please share your comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Sarah Hipwell is an independent professional photographer based in Dublin. She specialises in high-quality corporate, stock and portraiture photography. Her background is in Design. She received her BA in Hons Design from the University of Ulster, Belfast. She has many years commercial design experience working as a designer and as a trainer for large multimedia companies. See more of her work at SarahHipwell.com or at 500px.

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  • I think I first see the cardboard frame idea in the book – “Drawing on the right side of the brain”. If you want to learn how to “see” I would recommend picking it up, although you will have to be a little open minded as its a book on drawing not photography.

    The only issue with the cardboard frame is deciding what distance from your eye the frame should be and hence what focal length lens to use. I guess that’s all about learning what your lenses “see”.

    All in all, a nice beginners guide on composition. Thanks for sharing.



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  • Great article and tips!! I really like the idea of a cardboard cut out!!


  • Sarah Hipwell

    Many thanks N Veal, glad you liked it!

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Thanks Ronnie, good point re focal length. This article is a just a small and general guide for beginners to try and understand composition in easy steps, without the overload of too much information too soon.

  • Totally agree. Good work on the blog. 🙂


  • David King

    In the “old days” shooting large format 8×10 in the field, we often used a viewing card. By cutting a 4×5 inch opening, when held a hand-span from your face you saw the rough equivalent of a normal lens (such as a 50mm lens on a full frame DSLR). Held at half that distance gave you the rough equivalent of a 28mm lens and twice the distance was about the view of a light tele about 135mm.

    It was a gandy way to find a shot then only have to set up the gear once.

  • John Voss

    Excellent suggestions that can have an immediate impact. Using a viewing card is a huge help when learning (or discovering) where to put the edges (Mark Citret’s phrase, I think). I’ve been using one for decades, and make new ones as needed from the rectangle that’s cut out of a mat, using the same tool.

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Thanks David, great tip!

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Many thanks John.


    cool. i learned a lot from this article . Now i know a little about how to take a picture

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Cool Niya, thanks for your comment.

  • Jim

    I agree with some of the suggestions in this article regarding going to museums and studying master artist. However, artist have not used the “rule of thirds” for centuries. I don’t know any master artist, including the ones mentioned in this article that use the “rule of thirds”. They used Dynamic Symmetry, design using the golden section. I’m not talking specifically about the golden section rectangle which is 1.618. The golden section system of design incorporates root rectangles as well, the root Phi, the Phi rectangle and the 1.5. Henri Cartier Bresson did not use the “rule of thirds” either. Master artists used root rectangles, sometimes straight, and sometimes overlapping them to design. The rule of thirds offered nothing in design and no master artist uses it. I just wrote an entire blog on my website about this and have many books on design. The rule of thirds is not a design system. In fact, Myron Barnstone once said that to only know the rule of thirds in design is to be poverty stricken. He was dead on.

  • Roberto

    I liked it a lot. I’m a begginer. And I also agree on calling them guides instead of rules.
    The idea about the cardboard is great. I also think that usually we don’t see as a camera, at least, I don’t. I look at something and say, this is great, but when I put my camera, we don’t see that tree branch in the middle, that garbage bag, or whatever. I’m trying to make an effort to think how I would frame something without my camera, but the cardboard is a great idea. Thanks 🙂

  • Praveen

    Its really useful tip 🙂 thanks 🙂

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Cheers Praveen.

  • James Ruddy

    Even for people who have been doing photography for decades it’s still refreshing to go back to the basics every once in a while to review them. Very good article.

  • Sarah Hipwell

    Thank you James!

  • MartyD


  • Fiona Pereira

    Thanks for the great tips. I like the viewing card idea and am going to try it.

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