Five Ways to Improve Your Eye for Composition

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 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!

  • We had someone today at school telling us about contemplative minimalistic photography. Just walk around without even trying and when you suddenly have a perceptive flash, go for it. Just try to make it the obvious subject with only what’s necessary in the shot. For example, we had a ‘color’ theme; I found a subject that was basically bright colored pieces of cloth in front of a blue wall. However, since they were moving and I forced myself not to look at my LCD screen, the blue wall ended up being equally strong compared to the pieces of cloth, whereas I should’ve chosen one of the elements to be really stronger than the rest.

    In other words, here’s my advice:

    Keep it simple!

  • ERinSTL

    I’m a rank amateur at best, so this might be complete nonsense.

    But I learn a lot about composition in post-processing. When you find an interesting subject, try a photo with lots of what the post called negative space all around it. Then play around with a cropping frame in a photo-editing program. Try several different crops: loose, tight, moving the main subject to all four corners or leaving it centered. Maybe even tilt the frame a bit to impart a jarring angularity.

    Different natural sets favor different principles of composition. This kind of exercise can help you figure out what works with what.

  • Michael Owens

    As much as I like to learn composition, I’m still of the rule that if it works for me, the look of the photos I mean, and I’m happy with the content. Then who is to tell me the composition is wrong?

    Photography is like any other art, open to personal interpretation.

    One persons marmite is another persons caviar.

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    lol,, Sir i think you have forgotten, the printing experience is another way to learn photography, especially framing. At least i myself think so.

  • LCN

    Interesting. Having 45 years of photography experience on board, my eye is precisely trained across the same principles (and a few more) as you explained so beautifully. But unfortunately when I talk to the new school of ‘photography artists’, they find this all crap and old-fashion. What I see now are exhibitions filled with the worst pictures ever. I was last week in an event organized to present a number of recent photography graduates in my country. Every mistake and artifact is now seen as a spontaneous kind of expression – it must be shocking, very black, very confronting and most of all against any rule of composition.

  • Al Downie

    Composition and ‘framing’ are two completely different things. Framing is just drawing a box around a picture and cropping; composition means really thinking *before* you take the picture, to make sure that the relationships between all the elements are just the way you think they should be. Zoom lenses encourage the former; prime lenses the latter.

  • Al Downie

    Hooray!! Well said. And God save the 50mm prime.

  • Zack Schindler

    I fully agree with the first suggestion. Bought a Fuji X100 two years ago and being “stuck” with its 35mm lens I found that my composition inproved greatly. Here is two of my better ones.

  • I like point #2, I instinctively work in black and white when I go out to do some street photography. I turn my camera settings to mono so I see in B&W through my viewfinder, this definitely helps me see my compositions better. Artists and painters are also taught to see in black and white in the early stages to help train and develop their eyes for detail.

  • Guest

    I find that one of the best things that helps with composition is not only #2 – working in black and white – but also changing where I’m taking my picture from. Most photos I see are taken at eye level and simply moving higher or lower can change a picture in a profound way. I’ve attached a series I shot that shows what a big difference where you shoot from and also how depth of field can change a ho hum shot into something interesting. Don’t forget to look for interesting textures.

  • scoop

    While I agree that composition is important, and that eliminating mistakes/artifacts is also important, we must remember that photography is art and art must evolve/change or have new dimensions added to it. If wr adhere to rigidly to the “rules” we end up with everyone taking the same pictures over and over. You or I may not enjoy the results but that does not make the art any less valid. Imagine some of the backlash some of the artists we now hold in high esteem must have experienced. Plus even those of us who are more lean towards the traditional side can sometimes learn a new technique from these new styles.

  • LCN

    Well, its all about the triangle ‘when becomes Photography art?’ / ‘What is good Photography?’ / ‘Is Photography a social commodity?’. A difficult force field. In the new wave the process of picture making seems to be of minor importance versus the content, these artists are more subject & content managers than truly photographers and surpass the traditional boundaries into complete visual, conceptual experiments. Do I like that? I find many of these attempts unnatural and the true value content is in most cases weak. It often appears to be some kind of relic of an outbound situation that was partly set up by the artist himself, merely an excuse because he needed an audience so it has be as confronting and non-conformist as possible. Including the techniques. But good photography is in my eyes still a profession built on a quite complicated skill set (training the eye over the years is as difficult as learning to play violin) and a very profound research.

  • Edmund

    There is a lot of sense in your tips but I would make just one comment. B&W seems to have made a comeback which is welcome as it had almost completely fallen out of fashion. However, in Photoshop I repeatedly remove the color to view a B&W image and almost always put it back as a hint of color, even with a night shot, gives something more than in B&W. The best example is your “Negative Space” photo, who can tell whether this is shot in a sandscape or a snowscape? If the sand were yellow and the sky was blue we would all know, the picture would be more vibrant and I think it is rather patronizing to dish color when so many photos depend on the contrast in colors and not just the contrast in tones.

  • Vicki

    I agree with this (as I am an amateur) and have exceptionally poor vision for photography (even with spectacles). More often than not, I have to take what I imagine might be an interesting composition (with space around the subject) and then crop a tiny bit off here or there (or sometimes even crop it from a landscape to a portrait if necessary).

    I can only work on the composition in editing on the large computer monitor. It’s rare I can make a good composition in-camera.

  • Cheryl Garrity


    I always enjoy your articles. I always learn something new or you remind me of things I need to remember.

    Is it possible that a photographer can over-use a favorite compositional element? I ask this because I use leading lines and negative space very often, and I use the “rule” of thirds most of the time. Just take a look at my gallery and it reflects these compositional elements almost exclusively.

    I would appreciate your take on this. Am I limiting my potential as a photographer
    by concentrating on some elements and ignoring others?


  • haw80ag

    so that the next time you are out to take pictures you can better see in wich way you whanto to compose your photo right ?

  • I’m also a big supporter of #2. I shoot RAW but with preview set to monochrome and that really helps me visualizing the world around differently.

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    Wow.. thanks. Today’s world focuses on latter approach?

  • Nalanti Goosen

    I have found many photos sometimes don’t a have main subject or a “eye catcher” When I compose I’m always looking for something that will pull the interest of the viewer to prevent their attention jumping around from place to place on the image. Once I have found my Eye catcher I do a once off check again to make sure I don’t have any distractions that will take away from the subject I have in mind.

  • Hi Cheryl, this is a great question. On one hand I think that the way you approach composition becomes part of your style, even if it’s on an unconcious level rather than deliberately using certain compositional techniques.

    On the other, I think it does us good to play around with doing something different. Do you use a telephoto lens for most of your photos? Then try using a wide-angle instead. Do you use wide apertures to make the background go out of focus? What happens if you stop down? Do you shoot in colour most of the time? Then try some black and white.

    You can apply the same to composition as well. In your case try ignoring the rule of thirds and create some photos with central compositions. Maybe play around with the square format. Deliberately ignore lines, try taking some photos without any leading lines.

    You might find this just confirms that the approach you take already works really well for you. Or you might find a new way of seeing your subject. Either way, I think it’s fun and instructive to shake things up a little from time to time by doing something different.

    Hope that helps.

  • Nice tip, thanks. Changing your viewpoint can make a dramatic difference to composition, especially with wide-angle lenses.

  • Yes, cameras with electronic viewfinders are great for black and white. For readers who are not aware of this, if you shoot in Raw and set the camera to a black and white mode, you’ll see a monochrome image in the viewfinder which helps when composing in black and white. But as you’re shooting Raw you still have the full colour file if you want to make a colour version of the image as well.

  • Interesting discussion. As a side note, I remember when I used film (before digital cameras were available) dust spots were seen as bad by most photographers and scratches usually meant the photo was binned. Now photographers using film like to include these things as part of the character of film. Interesting how viewpoints can shift over time.

  • I like this tip. I think it’s a great idea to take a variety of photos of an interesting subject (it’s called working the subject) including some from further away and playing with cropping in post-processing. You’ll learn a lot and can apply it when taking photos in the future.

  • Interesting concept – I’ve never heard of this approach to photography before. Keeping it simple is always good advice!

  • Leyden

    I never new it had a name ‘contemplative minimalistic’, I just thought of it as shooting from the ‘gut’ and don’t waste ‘film’ [which thankfully, is an old habit that serves well].

  • Guess someone suddenly decided to give it a name at some point in time!

  • This is really great. As a portrait photographer, I find myself doing the same thing over and over, so this is a great read to really go out and shoot creatively and challenge myself. I think I will take each point as a challenge, and work on it. I currently have a 24-70 so locking the zoom ring would be a great idea. I try to keep it at 50-70 during portraits, but I find myself zooming out from time to time, and I need to stop doing that! I just need to step back. Thanks for the ideas!

  • Xshooter

    You might want to rethink this. The great painters and photographers may know a little more than you are willing to admit. There are fundamentals to every form of expression, be it writing, painting, drawing, music or photography…they are worth mastering (or at least attempting to.)

  • Michael Owens

    No. Sorry. The basics yes, but you can not learn personal interpretation. As the saying explains, its personal thinking. What is wrong with that?

    You obviously think I should conform, but why? Are you afraid of people seeing something different to you? Do you not like it? We as humans are individuals, just like our tastes are.

    At the end of the day, I do not shoot personal images for anyone else but my eye… as I said before, unless a client wants something specific, I will shoot my way.

    Just because these famous painters/musicians and photographers do something, doesn’t mean I have to like it, I might respect their vision, but I don’t have to agree.

    In simple terms, like what you like, dont what you don’t. 🙂

  • Cheryl Garrity

    Thank you for taking the time to provide such a thoughtful answer. I have been occupied in my county’s Studio Tour for the last several days and haven’t been reading my email.

    After I read your response to my question, I spent some time cropping some photographs to square format. Some of them actually looked better. Most often I use small apertures to capture my landscapes and will likely continue to do that. I don’t make
    use the middle range of apertures like f/8 or f/11 so I could improve in that area.

    As for color and black and white, color is my favorite. My black and white photographs have received more recognition. So I may need to concentrate more of my attention on them.

    think you are right about shaking it up, but the ”thirds” and “leading lines” seem to have become so ingrained that it is hard to force
    myself to ignore them. I may need an “intervention” to become free from their influence. Seriously, the potential to use these elements seem to attract my attention and influence me to want to make a

    As for the negative space, I think my use of that comes from
    a difficulty of seeing good composition in a scene that has a multitude of elements. Again those visible lines or even implied lines feel comfortable.

    Your suggestions lead me out of my comfort zone and I know I
    need to go there to improve my photography.

    Thanks so much!

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  • AshtonNekolah

    I totally feel what your saying, and I have to agree on your points on what you really mean. Today the word of art has bin abused so much as to whatever goes is acceptable and the younger generation accept this as the new wave of photography when in fact it is not. Post processing also have a new meaning as well, it’s really not the same as a wild life photog that spent hours out there capturing the essence of the way animals behave as to people abusing animals to stay still and take photos of them, is this ok? I guess so because most really don’t care about the other factors as such. To me i am shooting for about 4 years now and only now i am beginning to really see the difference between real photography and art what people are calling art. There are to much wrong with today’s work flow with digital making it so easy to capture and transfer a image instead of the core processing that use to be done from the darkroom, the appreciation is not there anymore making this business somewhat washed out and run down anything goes and its ok when it really is not ok. but I respect all those that took the time and patience to capture and process it shows in there work and that is all i look for today. Training the eye is not as easy as one may think, that takes allot of trial and error until mastered and that takes years to perfect to the point where you no longer have to think about it anymore, a musician don’t think about the what is next, they just play to the notes on the paper to create that smooth flow and one thing is for sure very few people can also do this in photography and even art to that perfection.

  • AshtonNekolah

    Another good way to improve your composition is to walk around the same location before shooting anything take the time too see and visualize in your head first the possibilities and try to shoot it exactly the way you see it in your head. if for any reason its not looking the way you want it to, that means your focal length is wrong. Everyone has a focal length in there head (the way you really like to see the world) use this lens and master using it then your images will reflect your vision. Master the one focal length you love most then try others latter. because the more you can create and see they way you want to see, the more motivated you will be to always shoot. it is this way you will be shooting more and more than you normally would if you get less images that fit your vision.

  • Thanks for your comments everybody, it’s really interesting to read your ideas. Plenty of good suggestions to think about!


    I studied music composition in college. My professor told me that it is called music theory because it is always theory. But he also told me that before I start breaking the rules of composition I must first learn the rules of composition. That, he said is the difference between art and sloppiness. Photography is a skill…a skill that if learned well can be used to create art.

  • Michael Owens

    Composition musically is very different to arranging a shot. You know this. The analogy is vague at best.


    Arranging a musical piece is about creating something pleasing to the ear (in spite of what seems to be the trend these days), while arranging a photographic shot is about creating something pleasing to the eye. Either way, it’s composition.

  • Michael Owens

    True. But as you say, some music like all art, is open to interpretation and regardless of the composition, some like it and some don’t.

    Which brings me back to my original point, composition really doesn’t matter.

    If I was a musician, I’d compose for me, not to please others, and I do so in my photography, unless on a paid shoot for someone else.


    I don’t know your skill level, but I think too many people use “art” as an excuse not to do the work. As for me, I am a singer of songs and a teller of tales (SOSTOT) so I am basically an entertainer. If I care only about me and not my audience then I fail. As a photagrapher, if I take the self interested route and only please myself, I won’t sell many photos, and again I fail.

  • Michael Owens

    Well, that’s you blinkered. I got into photography to please myself, and will do so in my (broken rules) of composition.

    I work to the adhered rules when commissioned to do so, as I said earlier, which you obviously discounted.

    Oh, and as for being lazy, and unsuccessful because of your inability to accept people can and do work outside the box, you are wrong.

    I am one of thousands like me, who live a fruitful life, because of my ‘art’.

    I find it laughable you tried to supplement your point by saying ‘I don’t know your background but…’ before launching into a personalised opinion of work ethic.

    I think you personally have a problem with people who are not on your wavelength when it comes to ‘art’.

    That to me is more disrespectful and on that basis, I will be ending this conversation with this my final sentence :-

    To each their own, live and learn, no regrets.

  • Gregg Hasenjaeger

    How about contrast. Contrast is more than black and white/dark and light.

  • Wario Flybwoy Jarso
  • One of the best tips I got was along very similar lines; was to take 3 different pictures of every subject. First is what caught your eye as an interesting shot, the basic standing handheld shot. Then try some other perspective of the same shot. Finally do something really wild and different with the same shot. When you get home delete the 2 least favorite of the 3 shots.

  • Camera Man
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  • conwywoman

    Have a look at “Mitsang” on the web, a form of contemplative photography that is as much philosophy as art

  • wheresaldo

    To help to understand composition rules, I made this iPhone / iPad app that overlays composition rules on your photos in the Apple Photos app:
    Photo Extension Composition

  • Laura Bode

    I’ve gone out several times with a single lens to challenge myself to move around, closer or further away, to get the shot without relying on a zoom to get me there. I’ll do this with a 50mm or 35mm as they are the only prime lenses I own.

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