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Knowing photography terms helps improve photography skills. One skill every photographer starts learning as soon as they pick up a camera is composition in photography. Setting up a photograph before pressing the shutter button makes photography striking.
What is Composition in Photography?
Composition in photography centers around the subject’s placement in the frame to make it more pleasing to the eye. It depends on personal style and subject matter, but is built on rules and techniques that anyone can master. Photography composition applies to every type of photography. Wedding photographers, landscape photographers, or anyone snapping pictures in their backyard with their iPhones benefit from understanding composition and utilizing the rules.
Photography Composition Rules
Composition consists of photography elements such as lines, texture, shapes, and colors. How these elements interact, blend, contrast, or “feel” around each other compose a photograph. The goal of photography composition is to set up the principal elements in the image to draw the viewer’s eye to your subject.
Eye movement is crucial to photography composition. Effective composition attracts and moves the viewer’s eyes around a photograph providing impact and meaning to the subject. Here are a few photograph composition rules to make your photos pop.
Rule of thirds
It can sometimes be challenging to decide the best place to put a subject in the frame. You may wonder if a mountain looks better in the middle of the photo or off to the side, leaving room for the blue sky. Try the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds works by dividing the shot into nine equal sections of vertical and horizontal lines. The resulting grid helps you figure out the best place to position any subject. With the imaginary frame in place, place the most critical element(s) in the shot on one of the lines or where the lines meet.
Place a subject on either of the vertical thirds, and the location feels more natural in the frame. The horizontal thirds give a good idea of where to place horizontal points of interest, such as sunset horizon lines or mountain tops. There are endless combinations to use this rule of composition in photography.
Good composition photography sometimes emphasizes symmetry rather than thirds. It all depends on what the photographer wants the focus to be. There’s natural and human-built symmetry all around, and it can be a fun challenge for a photographer to look for it. A fancy staircase or grand entrance to a park or home is more impressive when emphasizing symmetry.
Other symmetrical photo compositions that pop involve reflections. Memorable landscape photos are captured by composing reflections in a body of water symmetrically. In portraits, reflections in mirrors and other surfaces also provide a symmetrical composition that creates memorable photos.
Leading lines is a photography composition rule that draws viewers’ attention to the image’s main subject through both subtle and obvious visual paths for the viewer to follow. Leading lines can be literal lines, like footprints in the sand leading to a sunset, a winding creek, or a fence lining a field of fully-grown corn. They can be less obvious, like a long shadow or curved space that catches the eye.
Frames have various uses in photography composition. Frames can isolate a subject, draw the eye directly to it, hide unwanted items behind it, or give an image depth. Frames can be human-made (such as bridges, arches, and fences), natural (tree branches and tree trunks), or from people themselves (hands framing a face or hugging another person). For urban photographers, a bridge is a perfect example of a framing element. When shooting in nature, trees are used as natural frames for people to stand within.
Using foreground depth in a photo puts a subject into context. Foreground depth works well in “busy” environments, like crowded city sidewalks or an amusement park. By taking a step back to include more of the foreground, the viewer will see and feel like they’re part of the environment. Contrast is also used in the foreground of an image. A dark foreground can frame the subject and lead the viewer into the scene. When the foreground is darker than the main point of interest or has rich colors, it can draw the viewer’s attention to the photo’s focal point.
There are no hard and fast rules for composition, but there are many techniques to try when learning your personal photography style. Here are some creative composition techniques to use in any photography scenario.
Contrast in photography
Areas of high color contrast draw the eye more than anything else. To attract viewers’ attention to a specific element of an image, find a way to add contrast to the component or the area surrounding it. Use contrasting colors with clothing or props to make a subject pop. Overexpose the background making it contrast with the foreground. Or underexpose the foreground, creating a silhouette that contrasts with the background. Photo editing can also control contrast in an image to draw the eye.
Selective focus is a composition technique where the photographer chooses a subject to stress while blurring out the rest of the scene. The subject is sharply focused in contrast to the rest of the image. The viewer’s eyes are drawn towards the isolated subject. Selective focus works best with portrait photography or close-up nature photography. Here, the photographer wants the viewer to see one, sharper image, rather than a busier subject with more than one focus. It’s the ultimate technique to make a subject stand out since it’s much more up close and personal to the viewing eye.
Negative space is the space around the main subject in a photo. It creates a relationship between the focus point and the background. Negative space helps create a more dramatic image by attracting a viewer to it and then leading their eyes towards the smaller area of positive space. The contrast in size makes viewers more curious about the main subject. As a result, viewers take more time looking at it. In a way, the smaller the subject in the positive space is, the more noticeable it becomes.
Frame within the frame
In photography, a “frame within a frame” is like an open door within the photo. A viewer’s eyes automatically look through that opening. It’s a perfect place to put a subject that pops. There are frames all around, like windows, tree branches, alleyways, or buildings. This technique works with anything that creates a “box” for viewers to look through to find the subject.
Rule of odds
The rule of odds is a simple and effective compositional rule to help guide shot choices.
Odd numbers work well in photography. Photographers can use a number of subjects in the foreground or objects in the background. An odd-numbered grouping tends to be more visually appealing than even numbers because odd numbers have a “middle.” With even numbers, the eye tends to fall on the empty space between them, even though the grouping is more balanced. In odd sets, the tendency to see the middle only emphasizes a pattern and even creates symmetry.
There are plenty of photography composition techniques to test. Take time to use one or two compositional rules or techniques at first. As you learn to utilize and gain experience in the various techniques, create a photo book of your best work. You’ll see how you’re evolving and where you can continue to grow.