Photographic Composition

[ This page won the Los Angeles Times Launch Point Award ]

“Composition” refers to the way you arrange or “compose” the objects which will appear in your finished photograph.

Most camera users are not really photographers – they are “snapshooters” who just “point and shoot” without really giving much thought to achieving a pre-determined outcome in their photographs.

When taking pictures of people, most photographers do not get close enough to the subject. Alfred Eisenstadt, late dean of Life Magazine photographers, summed it up like this – “If your pictures are no good, you weren’t close enough.” Pretty simple, isn’t it? The easiest way to improve your pictures is simply to move closer to the subject (or have the subject move closer to you).

One professional photographer gave a simple way to make sure you get close enough. He said to do it this way -

  • Compose the picture exactly the way you want it.
  • Now, before you take the picture, cut the distance between you and the subject in half.
  • Now compose the picture again just the way you want it.
  • Now, before you take the picture, cut the distance between you and the subject in half again!
  • Now you can take the picture!

Some things to look for in order to improve your composition are:

patterns — repetition — similarities — opposites — color patterns —
contrasts (both in light patterns and subject matter)

Watch the background – most people completely ignore it. The background can either enhance your subject or detract from it – especially in people pictures. The lamp post growing out of a person’s head is almost a photographic legend. Throw the background out of focus by using a large lens opening. If you’re using a fixed-focus camera, then you will have to move the subject or the background objects (if possible) to eliminate the distraction. Pick up trash which might appear in the picture. Arrange your photo so it emphasizes the intended subject – not extraneous objects.

The “law of the thirds” -

Regarding composition, most people will place the primary subject in the absolute center of the picture. This is a sure way to produce absolutely boring photographs! See below concerning using the “law of the thirds” in your composition.

As mentioned above, placing the subject in the exact center of the photo creates a static and boring composition. The Old Masters of painting used a simple rule called the “law of the thirds” which can be applied to photography as well as to painting. The rule simply states that the subject is placed off-center about one-third of the way into the framing of the photograph.


Place your subject at one of the areas indicated by “subject” in the above diagram. An example of the “law of thirds” is shown in the photograph below.

Example of the “law of thirds”

Another rule regarding “thirds” is that you should never split a picture exactly in half, either vertically or horizontally. Many photographers violate this rule when taking scenic pictures which include the horizon.

Regarding “rules” – remember this – “Rules are made to be broken” (well, usually not, but sometimes this is acceptable). If you feel that your picture looks better with the subject exactly centered – then by all means break the rules!

Have a definite purpose in mind – get close – watch that background – utilize the “rule of the thirds” – and notice the improvement in your photographs.

This page on “Composition” is a winner of the Los Angeles Times Launch Point Award

Updated: January 7, 2014 — 10:14 pm
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