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Five Ways to Improve Your Eye for Composition

An eye for composition is one of the things that elevates the work of the best photographers above the rest. One of the best ways to learn about composition is focus on applying one idea at a time. You can treat it as an exercise that will help you improve your composition skills, the same way that piano players practice scales. Here are five ideas to get you started.

#1 Use a single lens

Lenses have an enormous influence on the look of a photo, and the best way to learn exactly what effect they have is to spend some time using just one lens. Ideally it would be a prime lens, but if you have a zoom you can use a piece of tape to fix the lens to one focal length (some lenses have a locking switch you can use instead).

If you use a single focal length you will become intimately acquainted with its characteristics.

While it is useful to own multiple lenses, the ability to switch from one to another may mean that you don’t get to know any of them very well. This exercise helps overcome that tendency.

Improving Composition

Wide-angle lenses (in this case 33mm on a full-frame camera) help you fit more into the frame. They are lenses of inclusion. You can get more of the background in the photo with a wide-angle lens.

Improving Composition

Telephoto lenses (here, an 85mm lens on a full-frame camera) help you exclude the background by cropping it and using a wide aperture to throw it out of focus.

 #2 Work in black and white

Improving Composition

My favourite recommendation for learning more about composition is to work in black and white.

Colour is such a powerful element that it dominates most photos. It becomes more difficult to see and appreciate the underlying building blocks of composition like texture, line, pattern and tonal contrast. Take colour away and all these things become easier to see; once you are aware of them, you can start using them to improve the composition of your photos.

For example, in the black and white photo above, did you notice the shapes in the photo? I’m referring to the white rectangle of the cinema screen (yes, that’s what it is), the shapes of the Chinese letters and the diamond pattern in the stones on the ground. All these things are easier to see in black and white.

#3 Repeating patterns and shapes

Improving Composition

Another thing to look out for is repeating patterns and shapes. When I took the photo above I noticed that the repeating shapes of the cards made an interesting composition.

There are two strong elements to this photo. The first is the pattern formed by the lines of cards. The second is the lines created by the shelf edges and the cards themselves. I took the photo at an angle so the lines created by the shelves moved diagonally across the frame.

Train yourself to recognize patterns and shapes, so you can use them in your compositions.

#4 Lines

Improving Composition

Most photos have lines of some sort running through them.

Straight lines (like the horizon) stretch across from one side of the image to the other. Horizontal lines can create a peaceful feeling, whereas diagonal lines are exciting and dynamic. Vertical lines fall somewhere in-between.

Curved lines are a little more relaxed and meander through the image rather than moving directly across it. You’ll often see a mixture of curved lines and straight lines in landscape photos, where a gentle curve through the foreground and the horizon line work together to create a peaceful landscape photo.

The photo above takes advantage of diagonal lines that cut through the landscape leading to the horizon (another line). I used a wide-angle lens (18mm on an APS-C camera) to exaggerate the perspective and add depth to the scene.

#5 Negative space

Improving Composition

Negative space is the empty space in a photo. You may have read that you can improve a photo by getting closer to the subject. This is often true, but there are times when you need to step back and give the subject room to breathe.

In this photo I used a wide-angle lens (24mm on a full-frame camera) to fit in as much of this bleak and wild landscape as I could. The human figures in the distance give a sense of scale and space.

The gray sand and clouds form the negative space within which the figures and the grassy hillocks sit. The negative space creates a sense of distance and physical space.

Learning to see and use negative space gives you another tool you can use when composing photos.

Your turn

These are some of my ideas for developing your eye for composition, but what about yours? What exercises can you suggest to our readers? Let us know in the comments.

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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