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Photography Composition 101

May 6, 2014 Gina Gallup

tomato art

This image demonstrates the rule of thirds –
plus it fills the frame.

I have been taking a photography class this last semester and have enjoyed it more than I anticipated. I finally get things like f-stops, ISO numbers and shutter speed – and how they relate to each other in controlling the light that creates a photograph. I understand focal lengths, histograms and exposure compensation. But beyond learning about technical settings and how to work my DSLR camera, I have picked up composition tips that can make any photo better, even if taken with the simplest point-and-shoot model or smartphone.


Rule of Thirds

This technique guides the placement of the subject within the shot. To use the rule of thirds, imagine dividing up the image with two horizontal lines and two vertical lines, creating a grid of nine equal quadrants as shown below.


The intersecting lines highlight the four strongest focal points of an image. The subject should be placed on, or very near, a line or where two lines intersect. While it may seem counterintuitive, placing the subject off-center in a photograph actually makes the shot more balanced. The rule of thirds technique works because the natural tendency of the human eye is not to rest in the center, but to wander with the subject.


Horizon Placement

If the horizon is part of the image, it should land on one of the horizontal lines above. That means it should be in the lower third or upper third of the image, not right in the middle. If the sky isn’t interesting, put the horizon on the upper third. Also, keep the horizon straight.


Fill the Frame

An image is more powerful when you move in closer or zoom in to the focal point. Empty or dead space detracts from the image. Also, in general, big is better. If the entire object or scene isn’t interesting, then maybe the details are. This principle of zooming in closer to the subject can also be applied when taking photos of people.




Avoid Mergers, Intruders and Tangents

Have you ever seen a photo of someone taken in front of a fireplace and it looks like a plant is sprouting out of the person’s head? That’s a merger, and it can look weird and take away from the image. An intruder is something that is barely entering the frame, like a piece of a branch or a corner of an object. It should either be in the photo, so it’s obviously part of the composition, or the shot should be re-framed to remove it. A tangent occurs when part of the main object is just barely touching the edge of the frame, creating an awkward negative space. It’s better to recompose to give the edges more breathing room or zoom in tighter to the object.


Use Odd Numbers

When shooting a grouping of objects, it’s better to shoot three or five than two or four. It’s traditionally the same in decorating: odd numbers are more interesting.


Have Room for Your Subject to Move

If shooting someone in motion, leave room in the frame for the subject to move into.  When the moving object is almost out of the shot, it’s not as pleasing to the eye as when you see the area where the runner will run or car will race.


The goal is to have one subject or group of subjects that dominate the shot.

Unique Point of View

Most people take their photos from a normal view: standing up and looking at the image as we traditionally see it. It can be more interesting to shoot from other, non-traditional angles. For example, get down low and shoot up, or climb higher and shoot down. Maybe walk to a different angle and look for an alternate view.



Declutter your image, as my teacher would say. If there are unnecessary objects that can be removed or cropped out, do so. The goal is to have one subject or group of subjects that dominate the shot. You want the focal point to be obvious, in focus and well lit.



Try a unique point of view.

I hope you can use these tips and experiment with the composition of your next photographs. It’s all digital, so it doesn’t cost more to try new and varied shots. Also, shoot both horizontal and vertical – a vertical shot may yield a stronger image, so try both.


Happy shooting!

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