Rapid Composition - How to Compose a Photo Quickly

Rapid Composition – How to Compose a Photo Quickly


 CompositionThe following post is from Australian photographer Neil Creek who is part of the recently launched Fine Art Photoblog, and is participating in Project 365 – a photo a day for a year – on his blog.

Composing a photograph well can seem to be a mysterious art: hard to master, even harder to explain. Knowledge of the “rules” of photography helps, but who can go through some checklist in their head every time they put eye to viewfinder? The real world waits for no one, and if you delay to think through every compositional possibility, you can easily miss the moment.

In the five years I’ve been pursuing photography, I’ve found that I’ve gone through a progression of not thinking about composition, to thinking too much, back to not thinking so much. Or at least it seems like I’m not thinking much. I’ve practiced “seeing” the photo before I take it so many times that it’s become a reflex, and nowadays I find myself rapidly assessing a scene, considering possibilities and picturing the shot before I even look through the camera.

I find that when I see a possible subject for an interesting shot, I disengage part of my brain, and I ignore the details. My eyes flick over the scene, looking for shapes, patterns, colours, light and form. I shuffle these elements around in my mind’s eye and see how they fit together. In this way I quickly and almost sub-consciously get a feel for the scene and composing a photo becomes a more natural process.

How do I do this? Recently I visited a local art gallery and explored the grounds looking for some interesting scenes to illustrate what I mean. Below you will see three different scenes. For each scene I have illustrated and annotated my thought process.

Starting wide I assess the big picture, then I zoom in on the photo I want. I describe what compositional elements I think are important in the final photos and I try to explain why. These are a look inside my head as I go through the thought process of capturing a photograph.

Flowers and Rubber Duckie

Composition-21. Oooh! Pretty flowers! They’re down pretty low to the ground, and the wind’s blowing around a lot. I’d better go to Shutter Priority to freeze the movement. So if I’m shooting low, what’s going to be in the background?

2. Well those ducks sure are different! That could make an interesting splash of colour behind the flowers, but it might be cool to blur them in the DOF so it’s not really obvious what they are.

3. Ugh, the pond’s a bit overgrown, and there’s garbage floating in it. Gotta make sure that’s not visible. The low angle and narrow DOF will help that.

4. Alright then, time to get down on the ground and see how it looks through the viewfinder.


Zooming In

1. Ahh this has potential. Ok, get down REAL low, hold those reeds in the background back a bit with my foot, balance the “mass” of the flowers around the right one third line.

2. Great, opening up the aperture blurs the overgrown pond, and the ducks are nice and ambiguous. Lets put them on the top left intersection of thirds. Wait for the sun to come out. Waiting, waiting…. *click*

Have a look at the result:


Bricks Before Blue


1. This building may have potential, but it’s looking pretty bland at the moment, especially with the sun behind the clouds. Those bricks have great texture though, and that wall will be lit from a low angle, which will bring it right out.

2. That curved wall is unusual too, I wonder how I could bring those two elements together, and eliminate all the boring stuff?

3. Maybe a low angle looking up past the curve into the sky could make for an interesting geometric minimalist photo.


Zooming In

1. Looking good! The sun makes a big difference. The curved lines of the bricks are leading the eye nicely into the centre of the image.

2. This wall is showing the texture I had hoped, and it looks great against the blue. The lines also lead the eye right into the centre of shot.

3. Okay, lets position the top of that wall so it’s entering shot on the bottom third.

4. Now where to put the curved wall? Ok the top edge can just dissappear out the corner, and I’ll put the part where the curve really gets going on the top third line. *click*

Have a look at the result:


Clouds Reflected


1. Hmmm, the sky’s looking pretty nice at the moment. It would be nice to work that into a shot somehow.

2. That reflective wall of windows is pretty cool too, ahh and they’re reflecting the clouds from the other direction too.

3. It might be nice to use those bushes to frame the shot too, and contrast the blue of the sky.

4. If I go over to that path, I can look right up to those windows and the clouds beyond.


Zooming In

1. This could be tricky to expose, I’d better go a stop under the metered exposure to avoid burning out the sky. I can pull the bottom half back up in Lightroom. So, lets put those windows around the bottom third line.

2. That post can go on the right third line, and I’ll make that my vertical as well.

3. Nice! I can put that large cloud right around the top left thirds intersection.

4. And now we’ve got a cool recursive cloud thing going on in the reflection, and it’s even helping balance the composition around the centre. *click*

Have a look at the result:


Thinking about a composition can really help make better photos, but dwelling on rules and technicalities can cause missed opportunities. The best way to find a happy balance is to get out and practice. Shoot heaps of photos, and do it often. Even if you don’t have your camera with you, if you see something that would make an interesting shot, close one eye and imagine how you would compose it. You don’t need a camera to practice photography!

Pretty soon you’ll find yourself rapidly composing photos, and you’ll barely be conscious of it.

In addition to posting his Project 365 photos to his blog, Neil also runs a monthly photography project. This month’s topic is all about The View From Below.

Read more from our category

Neil Creek is a professional photographer from Melbourne, Australia. He has been shooting with a DSLR since 2004, and blogging about his experiences since 2006. Neil has authored five ebooks and a video training course, all designed to help others improve their photography. View Neil's folio at his home page. Learn about his publications here.

Some Older Comments

  • Brendon Mikronis January 13, 2013 08:48 pm

    Is there any chance that these pics were taken at the Wheelers Hill Library? funny, i just came across this page after searching for composition techniques and realised I have been to this place before! funny... You've made some interesting pics from this otherwise not SOOO interesting place... Well done!

  • Ray Seow December 22, 2011 10:01 am

    Neil, excellecent step-by-step instruction. You make a good coach!

  • Deona Spies November 3, 2011 06:31 am

    Now, THIS has really been helpful. More please?

  • Peter Wuttge October 4, 2011 12:04 am

    You wrote:
    "Thinking about a composition can really help make better photos, but dwelling on rules and technicalities can cause missed opportunities"

    The rules ar not made from human .. they are a result of the way how humans feel ... so You can see that in Your last foto: Ther is NO point where the eye can rest all lines are crooked and don' t lead to one point, so the picture seems "not ready .. unsettled"

    Would You follow Your own advices (closing one eye) maybe You would make one step to the right hand side, one meter or two, then shoot the picture and the lines of the window frames would lead to the clouds above. This picture is not an example "how to brake the rules" ... ;-)

  • Chad August 27, 2011 05:25 am

    Great tut and interesting. I think the last bit of advice "close one eye and imagine how you would compose it" has completely changed te way i look for a scene. Thanks heaps.

  • rich August 8, 2011 03:05 pm

    nice photo composition... liked it

  • Nick June 6, 2011 09:39 pm

    Very good job!

    Short, fun and direct to the point!


  • Isang April 11, 2011 09:15 pm

    Brilliant! I am glad to come across your article. I will try the same thing on next time I take photos.Thanks!

  • Hanemu February 17, 2011 03:14 am

    I discovered this article thanks to the DPS Composition Special Edition. I often take photographs with my husband, at the same location, and his photos a most of the times much more interesting than mine :(. These examples really show how somebody with a good "eye" can turn almost anything into an interesting photo: the one with the clouds is a killer, I would never have thought about photographying this buiding! More of these examples would be great! Although practice is important, reading how some people decide what to shoot and how to frame it is extremley useful.

  • Deedee Gaudette December 7, 2010 01:31 pm

    Great article. I loved the marked up photos and the "stream of consciousness" comments. Very helpful. Thanks.

  • Daniel Winter December 5, 2010 08:02 am

    Thanks for letting us inside your mind!
    Very, very useful and inspiring!

  • Kevin October 26, 2010 11:25 am

    i came across DPS only a couple of months ago and i really enjoy the articles that are published. its fabulous information, ideas and tips. thank you neil very nice article. iv learnt something again.

  • Jim Martin August 3, 2010 05:05 am

    Thanks very much for this helpful tip. I enjoyed the way you set it up - stream-of-consciousness photog talk! Keep it up.

  • OB Juan July 6, 2010 12:52 am

    I try to visualize what the picture will look like as a finished product and thanks to digital camera's I can normally look at the picture in review and decide if I have something to work with. I take a lot of pictures, delete the boring ones and often I'm surprised how great they turn out, as are my friends. I seem to have a good eye for making decisions about to crop or not which helps.

  • Bojan May 10, 2010 08:47 pm

    Very good and usefull article... Especially for people who want to "more then photography", but still not sure what to do, how to do...

  • sude soysa March 27, 2010 11:55 am

    A very important aspect of photography very simply explained, well done. I will put into practice the methods learned through this article.

  • Airam March 18, 2010 08:08 am

    Ah, I loved this post! Very, very interesting and definitely useful. More like this one, please? :)

  • J Lloyd January 20, 2010 05:35 am

    Interesting explanation of what goes through your head when composing a pic, I always find explaining things to other people helps make you think about it more yourself, in this case it's made me consider how I do it myself!

  • Ariana Murphy December 18, 2009 10:06 pm

    What a great article! I always learn so much from DPS! I would love to see similar articles explaining things like focus, DOF, lighting, etc. with such clarity.

  • Sandy December 14, 2009 04:48 pm

    Thanks, Neil for the excellent article. it has opened up the mind to think on the lines of taking a well composed shot. I would love to read more of similar articles and tips.

  • Tashreeq Ely November 26, 2009 06:57 pm

    I found this really useful and who love to see more articles like these. It's educational, informative and straight to the point. thanks!!

  • Kiryowa Ronald October 27, 2009 08:17 pm

    Its a very helpful Tutorial and I wish other articles were written. Seeing how the entire shot is composed in the mind of the photographer all the way through to the beautiful final image, its a wonderful teaching guide. please keep it up>

  • Nano October 13, 2009 03:34 am

    Great article and thanks.

    I have this "F8 and be there" mentality and it requires some self-discipline to overcome it. Your thoughts and demos will certainly help.

  • jetty September 9, 2009 11:56 pm

    really I am very much thankful for these tips.I now realized that I am taking photos since 1998 blindly.
    thanks for your service to photography.


  • mrsrobinson July 31, 2009 04:25 am

    Illustrating your thought process is an excellent teaching tool....thanks so much!

  • aron June 20, 2009 04:36 pm

    thank you so much for the tips this has been really really helpful!!! terima kasih (in malay language)
    from Malaysia by the way!

  • JOhn June 5, 2009 11:28 pm

    This type of tutorial is very helpful and I wish more similar articles were written. To see how the entire shot is composed in the photographer's mind all the way through to the final image is an awesome teaching tool and I would love to see more of this type of tutorial! Kind of reminds me of when football announcers take you through a play that just transpired :)

    so more, more, more of this please!

  • Remi May 25, 2009 11:31 am

    Thanks a lot Neil. That's the difference between a pro and amateur. You go out and when you find a potentially interesting subject, you compose it visually and mentally. As you said, go out and shoot lots of photos to practice. I'll definitely take your advice.

  • DaniGirl May 13, 2009 12:47 am

    Found this really insightful -- love the peek into the photographer's brain. More like this, please!

  • Al March 22, 2009 05:06 am

    I really like this article,very well done.Disecting the first photo and then showing the end result works great.Thankyou

  • mona March 18, 2009 11:22 am

    great article... the progression along with the illustration makes for a quick but informative piece. Thanks!

  • aseancat March 6, 2009 04:19 pm

    Hope you have more of this type of composition tutorials. a before and after breakdown of a scene, how to look at the scene, what part of a scene to include and exclude. Please post more tips! Thank you so much for this article and for sharing. I like to take pictures but get more frustrated the more pictures I take. Looking at the same scene, am boggled as to why others get keepers while I usually trash everything. just to give you an idea, my pictures are mostly like the 'before' images above. Any suggestions how to improve my compositional skills or the way to see things?

  • liz March 5, 2009 11:53 pm

    This was a good re-confirmation of solid composure rules. I enjoyed it, especially how you went step-by-step to find how you'd shoot the scene. I'm always trying to find different ways to shoot something, so this was really interisting!

  • Dawie March 5, 2009 06:35 pm

    Fantastic tips here. I'd like to see more of these type of stuff.

  • Jacques March 5, 2009 05:59 pm

    Fantastic article. For once, someone has explained the thought process to me. All my photo's end up like the initial ones and just by linking into your thought process has opened my eyes. Thank you very much.

  • Nery Encarnacion March 5, 2009 04:11 pm

    wow.. i like how steps were explained here in this article!! a must read for an entry level photographer!

  • Karla February 24, 2008 06:01 am

    Thank you for the article. Extremely helpful.

  • Richard February 20, 2008 09:34 pm


    Id love to see this style of article by Neil become a regular here...or on his own site.

    Either way, I found it very, very useful and would love to read more like it.

  • Joakim February 19, 2008 04:02 pm

    Great tutorial. Now I can practise my photography even those (sad:)) days I don't have my eqiupment with me.

  • Sharon February 19, 2008 06:16 am

    Thank you - a very interesting and informative article :)

  • Boris T February 18, 2008 01:19 pm

    great description - its always interesting to see how others think about photos and composition, especially when they've already got it down to a reflex! - very helpful tutorial

  • sherry February 17, 2008 04:04 pm

    This was really great and helpful.

    Also, what you said at the end - "You don’t need a camera to practice photography!" - I love that!

  • Mandy February 17, 2008 07:35 am

    This is a great explanation for composition, great to see how your thought process worked and some really nice results from what was some very normal photos.

    Just shows what you can produce when you really look at a subject.

  • sabira February 16, 2008 08:29 am

    very interesting and helpful tips for me a beginner

  • Sahul February 15, 2008 11:02 pm

    The author has written very clearly with the 'before' total composition which looks uninteresting and the 'thereafter re-composed composition at another angle to make the composition interesting and yet there are some people who complain that there aren't any 'before' shots ...

    Bravo Mr Neil for that interesting and explicitly explained article on composition. God bless.

  • Herbert February 15, 2008 09:04 pm

    Great work, thank you for the inspiration to this "mysterious art"

  • Luciana February 15, 2008 03:26 pm

    Excellent article! I love the steps...You have inspired me... Thank you very much.

  • christina February 15, 2008 02:43 pm

    This was a wonderful article. I'm a beginner and sometimes I struggle trying to find the right composition. Often times overthinking myself into a bad photo. I loved the markups and everything was simply laid out. This was extremely helpful and full of great tips. Thanks!

  • Leo Rolim February 15, 2008 12:10 pm

    Great tutorial!
    I love how you make it so simple and easy to understand!
    Those are great photos. Hope everyone who reads this can take better photos :)

    Leandro Rolim

  • jayvie February 15, 2008 10:00 am

    Please give us more of this composition illustration. It helps me learn how other photographer's brain works on composition. I like the scribbling in the photographer and the final outcome. It makes understanding easy.

  • Ryan February 15, 2008 09:56 am

    This was very helpful, will make me look at initially boring situations and give them a second chance.

  • Peter Carty February 15, 2008 07:33 am


    Great article! You have presented a worthwhile topic in a clear concise way.

    I recently wrote an introduction for a series of digital photography tutoring sessions proposed for a local camera club. It focused on the need to visualise the shot before aiming the camera.

    This line was not popular with other photographers as it seemed some like to develop the shot as they shoot. Others consider there is insufficient tiome to run through the mental analysis.

    You have highlighted the need to practice so that the visualisation becomes instinctive. I believe that is the key.

  • Louella February 15, 2008 01:57 am

    I love the way this article is very practical. Thanks very much for sharing!

  • Luis Matias February 14, 2008 11:46 pm

    Excellent article. This reflects the process that I’ve been trying to accomplish for a long time with some good results. Of course that I’m always learning and your examples are very good tutorials... Do you or anyone have more?

  • mikeboy February 14, 2008 10:35 pm

    this a really good article!

  • Ash February 14, 2008 04:02 pm

    Great article! It is easy to figure out the tech details of taking a photo but difficult to get the aesthetics. That is where an article like this helps.

  • Simon February 14, 2008 03:51 pm

    Article of the year so far.

  • Joey Rico February 14, 2008 02:48 pm

    wow great article!!!!! very helpful!!!!!

  • don jonson February 14, 2008 07:08 am

    Very useful and good article. I like how its explained in a way everyone will understand!

  • AC February 14, 2008 07:05 am

    Excellent article. I really liked the way the reasoning behind the snaps was explained. Also, the transition from bland to beautiful is brilliant.

  • Flavio February 14, 2008 06:03 am

    Best article! Creative, technicall, simple, ...

    The best article so far. And I thought you couldn't come with something new afterall...

  • Chris Homan February 14, 2008 05:16 am

    Great article!!! This really addressed a question I had been struggling with for a while. Wonderful!

  • Klaidas February 14, 2008 04:54 am

    A very well written article, with inspiring examples. Was fun to guess what the end shot will look like after seeing the surroundings :]

  • Jack February 14, 2008 04:08 am

    Thank you very much for doing this article. I cannot say that I have been doing this for years. I am still trying to learn how to take a decent picture. My knowledgeable photography friends tell me that I should watch where my wife stands since her pictures are much more interesting than mine. But this "explore the thought process" approach is even more helpful. Thank you for doing it.

  • Paul February 14, 2008 03:53 am

    Superb article. Even if the end products aren't all to my liking the way the 'thought process' is explained is brilliant. It says 'look first shoot second' it says if you find something you like think about how you can get it to into a shot in an interesting way. Really really good article

  • KRIS February 14, 2008 03:50 am


  • geotography February 14, 2008 03:36 am

    Superb Piece! Thank you for your generous offering.

  • Canadian Mum February 14, 2008 03:29 am

    Great article. I really appreciate the before and after photos... describing your steps in finding the right vision.

  • HeyJules February 14, 2008 02:52 am

    Fantastic explanation of how we do what we do (or how we should be doing it!) I think I do most of this in my head also but probably not as well thought out as you do so this really helped me think about how to do an even better job of composition.

  • Thomas February 14, 2008 02:32 am

    Well the rules are okay one thing i dislike with your guide is that it would be better to show a before picture A which is bad and a similar photo B which is good. All your A pictures have different angle,content and meaning if you like.

    Picture of House taken bad way -> Picture of House taken good way, would be better !

  • Smitty February 14, 2008 01:31 am

    Great article, Neil!

    As a novice, I'm really beginning to see all of the interesting subjects around me, but am having a tough time figuring out how to put them together into interesting and compelling compositions. I loved seeing your brain in action as you went from an ordinary and boring photo to something far better!

    I would love to see more of these...

  • Lee February 14, 2008 01:17 am

    Excellent article. This reflects the process that I've been using for a long time without even realizing it. I'm learning something about the "rules" of photography all the time. In many ways, I've been intuitively doing things correctly and picking up the rules later. Probably not the best way to go about learning photography.

  • My Camera World February 14, 2008 01:11 am


    This is a great article you have wrttin to illustrate how to think and composition and finding the right elements in scenes around us.

    As you may know I am a big fan of marking up images to show the though process in analyzing scenes or photographic images.

    While looking at great images is always wonderful, I think the mark-up process really helps people understand how to get these great images.

    Niels Henriksen

  • Vladislav February 14, 2008 12:35 am

    Nice hint.
    But I think this tips with regular practice - is more effective combination!

    Thank's for nice article and nice site ;-)