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Take Time to Practice These Three Composition Skills Around Your Home

Practice composition skills around your home featured image

Now is a good time to practice composition skills. With many people having to self-isolate, it means you may not be able to enjoy regular life. This will include being able to get out and photograph the subjects you typically take pictures of.

Make good use of the time to practice. This is not something photographers do as much as other artists. You can imagine that to play a song on a guitar or the piano, you must first practice it. It’s easy for a photographer to pick up a camera and get a pretty well-exposed photo without the need to practice. This can make you lazy, and not make time to work on aspects of your photography that need improving.

Take Time to Practice These Three Composition Skills Around Your Home
© Kevin Landwer-Johan Nikon D800, Lens 105mm, 1/400 sec., f/10, ISO 400

In this article, I want to encourage you to think outside the subject. Consider taking photos only to work on improving one aspect of your craft – composition.

Find subject material in your environment. Things you would not normally consider taking pictures of. Aim to make interesting and varied compositions by exploring and experimenting.

Practice composition skills

When you practice anything at all, you will get better at it. When was the last time you engaged in improving your composition skills through practice? Have you ever picked up your camera with the sole aim of getting better at using the rule of thirds or any other aspect of composition?

Focus on using negative space for a day, or a week, and you’ll find you incorporate more of it into your photographs.

By repeating what you are doing, you can learn a skill so well that you don’t have to consciously think about it. It will take time and practice to reach this level, but it is quite natural. Whatever you set yourself to practice, in time, you will be able to use that skill without having to think much about it. This is one great way to build your intuition.

Pick two or three composition rules to work on. I’m writing about the rule of thirds, negative space and filling the frame. But you can work on any you like. The key is to not be so concerned about your subject or creating masterpiece photos, it is to practice and learn.

Consider yourself doing this to be like a musician practicing scales. Their aim is not to go out on stage and play scales, but they know that practicing them will help them play better when they do perform.

Yellow mango against blur glass for practice composition skills
© Kevin Landwer-Johan Nikon D800, Lens 105mm, 1/320 sec., f/7.1, ISO 800

Practice the Rule of Thirds

Let’s start with the most well-known rule of composition in photography, the rule of thirds. This is one many people know and use. To put into practice composition skills, you need to concentrate on the rule, not the subject so much.

Don’t worry if you are not producing great photos. This exercise is designed to help you better understand when to use the rule of thirds.

You might like to use a single subject or various things around you to practice composition skills. For this exercise, I walked around my garden and in my house to create compositions using the rule of thirds.

Take Time to Practice These Three Composition Skills Around Your Home
© Kevin Landwer-Johan Nikon D800, Lens 105mm, 1/400 sec., f/10, ISO 400

Experiment with each subject you photograph. Compose it in different ways, but make sure to have it somewhere on one of the ‘thirds’. Don’t only take the first composition you think of. If you place your subject on the left for your first picture, place it on the right hand third for the second one. Then rotate your camera 90 degrees and place your subject on a lower third intersection.

Rule of Thirds grid
The Rule of Thirds grid

Push yourself to try out compositions you normally wouldn’t. Don’t think about your results as right or wrong. Or even good or bad. The point of practice is to improve, so if you’re taking photos you don’t particularly like, think about them. Why don’t you like them? What can you do to improve?

Practice using the rule of thirds until you feel you’ve made some good progress with it. Do you have a better understanding of how to use it well?

Rose one a plain background for practice composition skills
© Kevin Landwer-Johan Nikon D800, Lens 105mm, 1/400 sec., f/10, ISO 400

Using negative space to practice composition skills

Negative space is not a bad thing – at least not when it’s included in compositions intentionally. Negative space is the area of a photograph that is not the main center of attention.

Often there will be nothing at all in these areas – no shapes, lines, or texture.

At other times there will be some detail, but it will not draw attention away from the main subject at all.

Coffee pot in contrast for practice composition skills.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan Nikon D800, Lens 105mm, 1/320 sec., f/7.1, ISO 800

During our photography workshops, one of the most common mistakes I see people make is to leave too much empty space above a person’s head. This is not usually well-composed negative space. It’s there because the photographer was not paying enough attention to what surrounded their subject.

Practice composition skills by creating photos with strong negative space. Use blank areas to help your main subject stand out. Use a blank wall, a shallow depth of field, or a light subject with a dark background.

There are many ways you can include negative space positively in your pictures.

Again, don’t aim to make masterpieces. Making ‘mistakes’ is healthy when you are practicing.

Experiment and try out various compositions, both horizontal and vertical. Leave space on the left, right, below and above the same subject. Study them together on your computer. Which one do you like the most?

Padlock on a grill
© Kevin Landwer-Johan Nikon D800, Lens 105mm, 1/200 sec., f/4.5, ISO 800

Aim to fill the frame

Filling the frame is something I aim to do every time I take a photo. Sometimes this can mean much of my frame is filled with negative space. So long as it’s intentional and adds to the photo, that’s fine.

To fill the frame well it’s as much about what you leave out as to what you include. Most important is to be aware of what’s within the four edges of your composition and make sure that it’s relevant to the photo you’re taking.

Sometimes filling the frame can mean coming in ultra-close to your subject so you don’t include all of it. Other times you may choose to move back or zoom out to include some of the surroundings because they are relevant.

Always look around the edges of your frame. What’s in the corners? Are the background elements supporting your main subject? If not, move it, move yourself, or use another technique to eliminate the unwanted element.

Moving even a little can alter the perspective of how elements within your frame relate to each other. As an example of this, I photographed the same objects on my table. The plastic bottle behind my main setting is distracting.

To eliminate it from my composition, I moved lower and to the right a little. In this situation, I could have also moved the bottle.

coffee set up for practicing composition skills
© Kevin Landwer-Johan Nikon D800, Lens 105mm, 1/80 sec., f/5, ISO 800
coffee set up
© Kevin Landwer-Johan Nikon D800, Lens 105mm, 1/80 sec., f/5, ISO 800

Conclusion

Taking time to practice composition skills may sound a bit boring – just as someone learning the piano might get bored practicing scales.

Try it and see. You may find you enjoy it after a while. Like anything, it takes time for the practice to pay off, so don’t give up easily.

Do you have any other tips you’d like to add? Please share them with us in the comments.

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Kevin Landwer-Johan
Kevin Landwer-Johan

is a professional photographer, photography teacher, and author with over 30 years of experience.

Kevin is offering DPS readers a FREE copy of his new e-book Photographing People – A Guide For Shy Photographers. To enjoy more of his photography and writing, please visit his website.