12 Elements of Composition in Photography, Part 1

With so many images all around, what will make someone stop and look at yours?

Grasping elements of composition that naturally draw eyes to an image or part of an image will help take your photography to a new level.

Rule of Thirds

Just put your subject in the middle of the viewfinder and click – right? Wrong.

For a more professional and balanced image, imagine dividing the scene into thirds both horizontally and vertically.

Composition photography - Rule of Thirds
[Photo Credit: Rachael Olson]

Make the focal point of your photograph land near one of the intersections. This will be more visually pleasing than centering your subject.

Here it is simply put: just move the frame so the subject is slightly off-center. Voila! An instantly more appealing picture.

Leading Lines

Composition photography - Element of Repetition

Lines in a photograph can lead the eye to the focal point. Slightly titling the angle of the camera can make the lines more effective. (Note: one of my pet peeves is when someone just tilts the camera with no rhyme or reason to be “artistic”. Make sure the choice to tilt the camera fits with the lines of the scene).


Composition photography - Element of Shapes
[Photo Credit: Rachael Olson]

Most every picture has one or more shapes in it. (Think Sesame Street where they look for shapes everywhere). To make a photograph more interesting, you can change the composition to highlight the shape differently, like moving it to the side rather than centering it. You can also look for repeating shapes in a scene as an indicator that it might make an interesting image.


Composition photography - Element of Repetition
[Photo Credit: Alisha Shaw]

Repeating shapes or patterns adds a little flavor to your pictures. Feel like that would make your picture too busy? Well, it’s actually easier to focus on what is simple, so a repeating pattern may lead a person to your simple subject.


Composition photography - Element of Contrast

By being aware of contrasting tones in an image you can make it more intriguing.

The best way to see the effect of contrast is by examining a black and white photo. In fact, black and white images are pretty blah without a good amount of contrast (think of it as the widest variety of discernable shades of gray – ranging from black to white).

It’s the contrast between the subject and the background that makes the subject stand out. The eye is naturally drawn to light. If the lightest part of the scene is not where you want the viewer’s eye drawn, then recompose or find a way to light your subject.

The mood of the photograph is affected by the intensity or subtlety of contrast. High Key photographs only have light tones (white to light gray) and feel bright and clean. Low Key images are more dramatic.

To understand another element of the importance of contrast, think how a landscape is more appealing when the sun is low compared to the appeal of the landscape at noon. There is more contrast between highlights and shadows with a low sun.

Look for contrast when composing your photographs, but also, you can increase it in a photo editing program.


Composition photography - Element of Space
[Photo Credit: Rachael Olson]

This is really just something you need to think about – there really aren’t rules involved here. Keep in mind what you want the focus to be. Will the background, foreground, or anything in between detract from your subject? Oftentimes simpler is better. Negative space (the space around the subject) can help balance the picture or it can be distracting, drawing the eye away from the subject. (See post on simplifying for maximum impact).

In summary:

Remember that rules are made to be broken. I admit to breaking the rule of thirds often. But there’s a difference between not following the rules because you don’t know them and CHOOSING to not follow them because you have a better idea.

Read “12 Elements of Composition in Photography, Part 2” next…

4 Replies to “12 Elements of Composition in Photography, Part 1”

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