Getting photographic composition right

Have you ever looked at a picture and thought, ‘Wow, how did they do that?’ There are likely a lot of elements that contribute to it. The photo could be a composite of stacked shots, great editing and solid gear. But there’s something about it that draws you in and that’s composition.

When a composition is done well it gives you the polish of an accomplished image. I would argue composition is the most important thing to learn – the first skill and talent to spend time honing – while learning about your equipment to achieve the shot you’re looking for.

So let’s start with the very first thing to acknowledge: the rule of thirds.

The Grid & The Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is simply dividing your viewfinder or photo with 2 vertical and 2 horizontal lines to create a 3×3 grid. Some cameras have an option for a bigger grid but a 3×3 grid will be enough. The idea is to place your subject on the lines or around the four points of intersection to create an appealing and satisfying photo.

And it’s satisfying for one of two reasons:

  1. It creates enough breathing room, or white space, around the main subject and the edges of the photo.
  2. It creates symmetry in how the photo is being divided. You would never describe it this way, but your eye sees it, then your brain interprets the symmetry and decides if it is satisfied or not.

For example, using a person looking at the camera with a simple background as the subject, place the center of the person on the vertical line to the left with the top left intersecting point between the eyes and the eyes level with the top horizontal line. You’ve created a balanced shot that satisfies the eye. The rule of thirds is as simple as that.

Whytecliff Park, Vancouver, Canada

So let’s build to get a more striking photo. Here are four steps to add to the rule of thirds.

1. Locate the horizon.

Wherever and whatever angle you choose to take your photo you have to know where your horizon lies. Knowing where your horizon is will result in showing your intention and attention of whatever is the subject of your photo. Using the vertical guiding lines of the 3×3 grid, you’ll be able to easily level your photo and depending on where you choose to place the horizon it will give you the context of your subject in relation to it. Which brings us to the next point.

Lindis Pass, South Island, New Zealand

2. Follow the natural lines.

Wherever you point your camera there are natural lines that lead. It could be the road, the building, trees or a fence. Any or all of the elements will lead you to find your horizon even when it isn’t obvious. Follow these lines and choose where you would like these lines to end or converge and place this endpoint using the rule of thirds. These natural lines can, again, create enough breathing room and the symmetry that’s appealing.

Devil’s Staircase, South Island, New Zealand

3. Know why you’re taking the shot and what you want to say.

I would change the question we first asked at the start of this post, from ‘How did you take the shot?’ to ‘Why did you take the shot?’ Asking a photographer why inevitably leads to a discussion about composition and that can naturally lead to the equipment they used to take it. He/she may not say the word ‘composition’ but when he/she explains their reason why, what they saw and what they wanted to convey they’re also indirectly talking about composition. Take note of the horizon and what’s above and below it and where the natural lines take you.

Now do the same the next time you see an image you want to capture. See what’s in front of you. Take a look through the viewfinder and take note of the horizon and the lines that form. Pay attention to all four edges of what you see and decide what you want to include and what you don’t want to include. Place your subject using the rule of thirds and click. Remember to ask yourself why you’re taking this picture and what about it is striking for you. What is it that you want to convey? And you’ll end with a photo that draws not only you but your audience, in.

4. Take your time.

Take your time to find your image and take your time to hone your composition skills. The more you pause and think through the motions the more you’ll become familiar with your body positioning, your arm positioning and how to find your lines. It’ll become second nature and you’ll see things in your own way and take photos unique to you.

Lastly, add your own creativity and flavor! Have fun in this process and allow yourself to experiment and layer other techniques on top of this. The sky’s the limit (especially when the horizon is in the bottom third of the picture J).