Composition Is Your Friend

Photo by Alexander J.E. Bradley

Photo by Alexander J.E. Bradley

When starting out in photography, we often become obsessed with the technical. Choosing the perfect camera or lens becomes a month-long research expedition and mastering exposure and the camera’s settings can feel like the most pressing task, but this focus on the technical can distract from the artistic and creative. For some of us, the artistic side can feel much more daunting, expressing yourself creatively may not come naturally, but much like the technical, knowing the rules and applying them is what takes our photography to the next level.

Rule of Thirds

The very first rule of composition you must understand and master is the Rule of Thirds. When making pictures, this is where we all start. The Rule of Thirds says that if you divide your frame by two horizontal lines and two vertical lines, your subject should fall on the intersection of these lines (see above).

The wall on the mountain in the background acts as our horizon line falling on our top third and the closer tower falling perfectly at the intersection of the bottom third and right third lines. Photo by Alexander J.E. Bradley.

The wall on the mountain in the background acts as our horizon line falling on our top third and the closer tower falling perfectly at the intersection of the bottom third and right third lines. Photo by Alexander J.E. Bradley.

The horizon line is placed along the line for the upper third. Placing the horizon on the upper third allows us to see more of the landscape which is more interesting than the mostly empty sky. Photo by William Lounsbury.

The horizon line is placed along the line for the upper third. Placing the horizon on the upper third allows us to see more of the landscape which is more interesting than the mostly empty sky. Photo by William Lounsbury.

After you have grasped the basics of this rule, then you can expand upon it. Add a second subject that falls on a different intersection. Add in the horizon or use leading lines to point from one subject to another. The horizon line is of particular importance. When taking a landscape picture most of us will divide the frame in half with the horizon, however, if you adjust your frame, moving the horizon line to the top or bottom horizontal line will create a more interesting and compelling picture. Add in another element, such as a person or a building, and your picture has become even more attractive (see the picture below). The more elements of the frame that you put on these lines, the more interesting your picture becomes. 

Leading Lines

The street acts as a leading line pulling your eye to the Sacré-Coeur in the distance. Photo by William Lounsbury.

The street acts as a leading line pulling your eye to the Sacré-Coeur in the distance.
Photo by William Lounsbury.

Now that you have successfully incorporated the rule of thirds into your photography, you will want to use your composition to emphasise the subject and grab the viewers attention. One of the most effective ways to do this is using Leading Lines. When we look at a picture, we approach it the same way we approach a book. Our eyes start at the top left corner and work its way down to the bottom right, leading lines are patterns and often literal lines that subconsciously instruct the eye how to look at or “read” the picture. These lines can draw the viewer into exploring the image more and going straight to your subject. 

This picture is all lines, but they all work together to draw our attention to the center of the frame. hoto by Alexander J.E. Bradley.

This picture is all lines, but they all work together to draw our attention to the center of the frame.
hoto by Alexander J.E. Bradley.

Framing

The Pyramid at the Louvre is perfectly framed by the archway. Photo by Alexander J.E. Bradley.

The Pyramid at the Louvre is perfectly framed by the archway.
Photo by Alexander J.E. Bradley.

The vine branches frame the doorway as well as creating a sense of place by giving us an idea of the neighborhood. Photo by William Lounsbury.

The vine branches frame the doorway as well as creating a sense of place by giving us an idea of the neighborhood.
Photo by William Lounsbury.

The subject is framed by the bric-a-brac of the store, in the Marché Aux Puces in Paris. Photo by William Lounsbury.

The subject is framed by the bric-a-brac of the store, in the Marché Aux Puces in Paris.
Photo by William Lounsbury.

While leading lines can direct your eye on how to read the picture, Framing can prevent the viewer's eye from leaving. Framing is one of the most basic compositional techniques; however, it is also one of the most effective. By using the environment to add a frame around all or part your picture we are directing the viewer's eye to stay in the picture a bit longer. Where it should slide off the side, the eye hits this visual wall and bounces back into the picture to see what it missed and discover the beautiful picture you have created.

Negative Space

The lanterns fill the empty part of the sky and ballance the picture with Notre Dame on the right. Photo by Alexander J.E. Bradley.

The lanterns fill the empty part of the sky and ballance the picture with Notre Dame on the right.
Photo by Alexander J.E. Bradley.

Using framing in landscape photography is often a useful way to simplify your frame and get rid of pesky Negative Space. Negative Space is how we refer to empty sections of a picture where nothing exciting is happening, sometimes this is a wall or the ground, but most often it is a grey, textureless sky. While framing is a great solution, it will not work for every situation. Finding an interesting item to fill that empty space adds a greater sense of atmosphere to your picture and can tell us more about the environment. Notice in the picture below how the lamp fills the empty part of the sky adding an extra element to a picture of Notre Dame as well as adding more context about the environment. 

The lantern fills the empty space of the sky. Photo by Anna Volpi.

The lantern fills the empty space of the sky.
Photo by Anna Volpi.

Layering

Each character in the frame is doing something different and filling empty spaces in the foreground, middleground and background. Photo by William Lounsbury.

Each character in the frame is doing something different and filling empty spaces in the foreground, middleground and background.
Photo by William Lounsbury.

Filling the negative space most often will requiring using another, often difficult, a compositional technique called Layering. Layering involves using subjects in the fore-, middle- and background to populate the scene. This technique is incredibly useful at creating an interesting and complicated scene in the photograph; however, it requires managing multiple subjects at the same time, and if just one is in the wrong place it can ruin the entire picture. This level of difficulty is also what makes creating pictures with many “layers” so rewarding. When you capture a moment and see every subject is perfectly placed it can feel like you captured a truly unique moment.

Breaking the rules

Instead of falling on a rule of third each subject is divided into boxes by those lines making each square a seperate story. Photo by William Lounsbury.

Instead of falling on a rule of third each subject is divided into boxes by those lines making each square a seperate story.
Photo by William Lounsbury.

Once you have mastered the techniques of composition and feel you can handle any situation, it is time to break the rules. I am a big believer that every rule of composition is meant to be mastered and then broken. Finding a scene where you can perfectly centre the subject or leave lots of negative space to convey a sense of the emotion in the scene and is a great way to make a unique and compelling photograph. The same can be said for the exposure. Making a picture too dark to create drama, or too bright to convey heat are common rule-breaking techniques that can make your photographs “technically flawed” and more powerful for it!

 
The picture is divided in half and centred, but it is the fake symmetry that makes the picture interesting. Photo by William Lounsbury.

The picture is divided in half and centred, but it is the fake symmetry that makes the picture interesting.
Photo by William Lounsbury.

 

Think of composition the same way you approach the technical. Research different styles to find the ones that speak to you. Some photographers become obsessed with leading lines, others with layers. Personally, I love breaking the rules, putting my subject in the centre and organising the picture around them. Not all my pictures are this way, likely, not even the majority, but it is a creative challenge I set for myself that keeps me inspired and trying new things. So set yourself a challenge and go out shooting, you will be amazed at what you can create.

Photo by Alexander J.E. Bradley

Photo by Alexander J.E. Bradley


Author : William Lounsbury

William is a photographer at Aperture Tours and leads tours in Paris. A professional photographer specialising in photojournalism, William enjoys to get off the beaten track and shoot spontaneous moments as they are presented to him.