Six Advanced Tips for Photography Composition

So you already know that the rule of thirds, leading lines, and framing your photo are some of the basic photography composition techniques photographers commonly use. Here are a few other not so common composition techniques that can set your photos apart from the rest!

I took this photo in eastern Idaho a few years ago.  See how the cabin is placed on the right so your eye travels past the negative space and then feels complete when you hit the right side of the image?

I took this photo in eastern Idaho a few years ago. See how the cabin is placed on the right so your eye travels past the negative space and then feels complete when you hit the right side of the image?

Left to Right

Put the focus point of your subject more to the right side rather than the left. Our eyes are used to reading text left to right, just like you are reading this article, so follow the same idea in your photos. No, this is not the rule of thirds or leading lines; rather, it draws your viewer’s eye in to the photo.

Try this little exercise to see what I mean: Take one of your photos that has the focus point on the left and use some photo editing software to flip it over. See any difference? In the photo with the left focus point, you look at the subject and then quit looking. But in the one with the right focus point, you automatically look across the entire photo. Same photo, different result.

Obviously you wouldn’t want to apply this rule blindly, but in some situations I have found it to make the composition just slightly more interesting.

Cabin in the woods on a foggy morning.

Which photo do you prefer? Frankly, I’m torn between the two. The composition on the left shows the entire beautiful scene, but the composition on the right focuses more attention on the house.

Tell a Story

A picture is worth a thousand words, right? Think about that every time you take a shot. Does that sunset photo show a pretty sunset or does it show a feeling of calm and peace at the end of the day? What story are you trying to make people see and feel when they see your photo? Don’t forget to tell the story next time you press the shutter button.

Telling a story with your composition is nothing new.  You have probably heard that before; however, one thing that I consistently see results from in my photography is paying more attention to what is excluded from the photo than what is included in the photo.  The key to composition is to analyze every single thing in the photo, and then place it in a way that adds to the subject itself.

In the image above, there was a lake in front of the cabin that I thought should be part of the photo.  I included it in the original photo taken on location, but once I got home and looked at the photos on the computer, I wonder if it’s better cropped to only the top-right of the photo.  Do you like the cropped version or the uncropped version?

Simplify Your Compositions

Keep the focus on the subject, not all the details in the scene. Too many details take the focus away from the story your photo is trying to tell and make it more difficult for the viewer to figure out what you are trying to convey. The building behind the family is not part of the family… so don’t put it in the photo (unless it has a great pattern, enhances the photo, or makes a good backdrop)!

Another way to bring focus to your subject is with light. The eye is naturally drawn to the brightest spot of a photo  By using light, positioning, and depth-of-field to make the viewer pay closer attention to the subject, you will capture much more impactful photos.

Triangle composition in photography.

Use triangles in your composition when you have an even number of elements in the frame.

Odd vs. Even

Odd numbers of things tend to be more visually exciting than even amounts. Because of this, triangles are more dynamic than squares (which often look like a frame). Three’s the magic number rather than two or four. Choose seven over six or eight, and nine over ten… You get the idea.

This composition trick works really well when posing groups.  Group photos have a tendency to include lines of people: front row, middle row, and then tall people in the back row.  That makes for a very dull composition.  If you group up the people into a triangle, you can have any even number of people and create a much more dynamic composition.

I recognize there are times that the old giant line photo may work best for very large groups, but when you have a small group, try the triangle composition for more interest.

Model with fedora and sunglasses.

In this shoot, I felt I couldn’t get the intimacy with the model that I wanted when I showed the entire hat. I cropped in on the hat to show a closer look at the model’s face. I think this crop works because it cuts off a major chunk of the hat instead of just barely skimming off the top of the hat.

Crop with Care

I don’t go crazy about exactly where a crop on a person is “supposed” to be, but I do think it is important to crop with care.  My rule of thumb is if you are going to crop off part of the body, crop hard.  Cut off a good chunk.  The real problem happens when you just barely cut off a skiff of the person’s head or cut off half the hand, etc.

For example; if the photo is a full length shot of a man with no feet or just one foot, the man will look odd and the viewer’s eye goes right to the missing feet rather than his eyes.

Again, don’t be afraid to cut off part of the body, but remember to do so with care.

Two models tango dancing in a grungy environment.

This photo breaks all of the compositional rules. The subject is exactly in the middle of the frame. But, I think it just works better that way. I tried a few different compositions when taking this shot, but this seemed to work the best for me.

Break the rules!

Don’t be afraid to break the rules and try something new. There are times when breaking the rules is precisely what makes a photo stand out from all the rest.


  1. KingRico

    I do not want to complain but please do not lose the quality that made Improvephotography what it is. I used to look forward to reading the latest article but standards are dropping. This feels recycled and it is disappointing.

    I have taken on quite a bit here and would like to keep learning. Thank you.

    1. V Gio

      O`my how selfish is that.. you have learned much from this site I take it and now that you find that the information is below your standard of expectation … maybe new beginners like myself find this information helpful and are most grateful so if it is below your standards of expectation maybe you need to move on and find something that will appeal to your standards…

      1. PositiveOutlook

        Why so negative? If you have nothing nice to say about a person’s opinion, then don’t say anything at all. Lighten up and smile for once. :-)

        1. KingRico

          Thanks for having something nice to say about my opinion :)

      2. KingRico

        Selfish? Ask yourself what I stand to gain. Then ask yourself who else would stand to gain the same thing.

        This is not the only place I come to learn but is one of my favourite. Whilst I could move on, I am pretty sure Jim knows just a bit more about photography than I do so I think i’ll stay V Gio. I would much rather voice my opinion then hope for improvement, or at least what I have become used to, than just up and leave.

        Maybe new beginners like yourself should learn how to use the ‘Older Entries’ button, just like I did.

        1. Newbie

          It amazes me the audacity some people have. It truly does. If you come to learn, you must give the teacher respect. You have already admitted Jim knows more about photgraphy than you, that’s why you come here. It is not his personal agenda to teach you specifically. He has a broad audience.
          A teacher is a subject matter expert, meaning they know more about the given subject than you yes, however…a good teacher works at the pace of his students sharing all knowledge repetivly so ALL students can keep up. If you don’t like the way someone who is taking their free time, their knowledge, skills, and talent and training people for free…is doing so, then maybe you shoudl actually spend money…and go to a school…instead of griping about someone who is doing EVERYONE a service.
          That of course, is just my opinion.

    2. Binkee

      Hey KingRico. These tips are FREE. If you want higher standards, perhaps purchasing an online tutorial would work better for you.

    3. Patrick

      Im sure Jim is making some major adjustments without Dusty O. I have faith the podcast will stay awesome. Especially considering the amount of money we spend on this information (Free.99)

  2. Richard Beban

    Damn, yeah.

    I don’t want to complain about the advice you give me free, either, but couldn’t you have thrown in a SEVENTH tip? I feel like I didn’t get my money’s worth.


    A Troll

    1. Wade Hone


      Richard, that cracked me up man. 😛

      Jim, Love the tips – Thank you!

      K.R., your post was respectful and stated your opinion clearly in a fairly non abrasive way – kudos for that, though I’m sure you can see why folks may take a bit of offence to complaining about ‘free’ information, most of which many people find quite useful.

      I did appreciate that you weren’t overtly rude or anything – sometimes that’s rare on the interwebz.

      Wade ‘zWolf’ Hone.

  3. SweetNana55

    Jim, thanks for the easy read and quick reminder of things to consider when composing photos. I think the last image works well because that large door on the left provides such a contrast to the wall, that it gives the illusion that the image ends there, thus moving your couple to the left rather than centered. It is an interesting capture.

  4. V Gio

    For 1… I am very appreciative for the info… keep it coming and for those that have made negative comments maybe you need to go into Cake Decorating..

  5. canyonjoy

    Personally I found this helpful. Just this weekend we had a party and took family portrait photo in a setting I created from hay bales, pumpkins, a garden cart. etc. I should have had the cart filled with pumpkins on the left so the people would have been on the right. Food for thought for next year. Thanks!

  6. Evelyn in Oregon

    Thank you! I love being reminded of things that I should have learned. I’m not very good at landscapes, so that tip at the beginning of the newsletter was especially valuable to me.

  7. TriceZ

    I thoroughly enjoyed these tips, I would consider myself an intermediate student, but sometimes I like being reminded of the basics. With Photography you never stop learning and I enjoy everything you provide!

  8. BeBe

    I just came across your website in time to watch your webinar. I found it very exciting. I had been mulling over the very concept you demonstrated, but didn’t have quite enough experience to visualize the needed steps to bring it to realization. Watching your process helped get me to the place where I can now think through the steps with a definite goal in sight. Thank you, very very much. My first impulse when I saw the moody barn picture was…. OOOhhh I’d love to paint that!

  9. Carey

    Good tips as always. Maybe time to turn off comments or have them moderated to prevent negative comments from becoming the center of a topic.

      1. canyonjoy

        How sad for you to think this site is only for your needs. You made your comments, so stop lurking to see if you are important enough to pop up again and again and again.

      2. Seed

        Don’t you wish sometimes you could just hide the ignorant critics.

        Yes, I would have to say you are definitely in the selfish category. It seems you think that just because you know something that everyone else who does not know, should all move on to the next subject. Just for your sake?

        Not everyone comes on here at the same time and learns at the same pace you do.

        It must be awful lonely at the top of your little world.

  10. Mike

    Somebody once told me that once a year you should pick up and read the manuals to your camera and lens, no matter how long you have owned them and no matter how good you think you are at using item I have taken this advice for several years now and it works! I learn, or re-learning something each time – my point is- we should always go over ground that we thought we knew – these tutorials are excellent, please keep them coming!

  11. cc

    Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge.
    A couple of them were extremely helpful and ones that I had never heard before!
    Keep em coming!

  12. Adam

    A tip for cropping at limbs- Try to go at middle points inbetween joints and bone connections, that way they look less like an amputee

  13. Amanda

    I think that it is so awesome and generous of you to share such wonderful tips. I always look forward to your updates and feel fortunate to have found your sight.

  14. Claude Dumas

    Thanks for these nice tips ! The “odd number” one was great, never paid attention to that ! Your site is top notch, extremely relevant and packed with very intelligent content. This is what differentiate you from others !

    Claude Dumas , Montreal, Canada

  15. Cheryl

    Love the information. If it’s free than take it. If you pay for it it better be worth it. I appreciate and enjoy the nice tips I receive. I just recently started receiving these. I agree with Claude and all the other positive people! Keep them coming.

  16. Terrill

    Wow! I know where you got the shot of the red roofed cabin! I was driving past it this fall and it was absolutely beautiful in the evening sun. Had to stop for a photo, and it won Best in Class – Pictoral Category in our Fall Salon. :-) Welcome to Beautiful British Columbia!

  17. Beckygtx

    Thanks you! I really enjoyed this. I think I break the “rules” quite often when I simply like the way a picture feels. This article really hit home for me.

  18. Mark Andrews

    You’ll get this kinda advice on any photography website. I implore you guys and girls out there who really wanna get more interesting photos, without having to over-cook the post-editing, to LEARN YOUR CAMERA! Get to grips with your shutter speed and how it affects motion in your photo. Learn how to creatively use ‘depth-of’field’ within a photo by controlling you cameras F-Stop. LEARN THE MECHANICS of photography and let your subjects find you!

  19. Jaikumar

    Thanks jim have been an avid reader of your tips on various photography techniques. Thanks for inspiring and educating us in pursuing our passion for photography.

  20. Sanjit Saha

    Jim, U r Simple! That’s why U r on d ‘Great way’…~~~ Simply U Hammer Simplicity is d BEST TRICK in LIFE & Photo~LIFE, as well.
    Btw, The LEFT with Entire Allows U a more Soothing experience, sply. the Water body, @least to my Mood.
    In d Dancing : If its Cropped, the irrelevant Background is eliminated and the Main character gets more SPACE & Enlarged as well with More Expressive Faces & Upper Torso 2 Claim Ur Eyes & Heart. Whats Ur take?
    Love 2 B in d Pane….

  21. K.G.W.Abeytunge

    The advice about placing the centre of interest on the right side third is a very useful one. I also feel that placing of the centre of interest depends a lot on how the virtual leading lines lead our eyes to the subject of interest.

  22. Hanseon

    Very nice tips! Took notes and will try to apply them when I can.

    As for the last image… I don’t think you broke any rules of composition at all. It’s a great composition and I think it’s because of the leading lines coming from the four corners of the frame; Also balance: I noticed the subjects are off-center and leaning to the left of the frame because of the posture of the dancers (imagine being in that position) and the large door on the far left gives the left side of the frame heavy but is kept balanced by the low ‘door’ (I think it’s a door) on the right side of the frame.
    Just my 2 cents.

  23. Cynthi

    Great article! I’ve noticed lately that I tend to shoot most of my portraits vertically and when I push myself to shoot horizontally it changes the whole composition and feel of the photo. Just another thing to think about. :)

  24. Roberto Santiago Rodriguez

    This is very informative; i must admit i did not think about Composition in this way. i do disagree with “most people read left to right”, remember how many millions read in the opposite direction in Asia,the middle East. i would like to have a broader audience and relate to different people around the world and not just the West.

  25. SPP

    Hmm.. interesting post, though incorrect. Most of the world reads left to right. Its only the middle eastern languages like Arablic etc are read from right to left. Not a majority! Japanese is read top to bottom, not all of Asia.

    So in other words, majority of people on earth read left to right!

    Then again most those in other places who reads right to left, you mention, do not really care about these writings, posts or photographs! Never mind!

  26. SPP

    Hmm.. interesting post, though incorrect. Most of the world reads left to right. Its only the middle eastern languages like Arabic etc are read from right to left. Not a majority! Japanese is read top to bottom, not all of Asia.

    So in other words, majority of people on earth read left to right!

    Then again most those in other places who reads right to left, you mention, do not really care about these writings, posts or photographs! Never mind!

  27. Julie Strater

    Agreeing with Roberto Santiago Rodriguez. I want to have a broader audience. Maybe “most” of our world reads right to left, but billions do not.

  28. Alan Steward

    The photo at the top of the page is just awesome, you mention about drawing ones attention from left to right as we generally read. However I also found the cloud formation drew me in to the house as well, don’t you think the clouds act as a big arrow?

    Fantastic photo an d clearly taken by a professional, I am truly enjoying your site Jim and I found by chance (a Kim Roach video)

    Awesome stuff you have found a new fan :-)

    1. jazz

      I think the picture at the top of that house is unreal.
      Look at the sky? In real life you will never see the sky so blue. I think post processing is over done. the picture will look much better with just normal blue sky.

      1. Author
        Jim Harmer

        @Jazz – I think you weren’t there to see the sky. I was. It was incredible in real life! Actually, I don’t think the picture does it justice.

  29. AJ

    I would disagree that the bottom photo breaks “all the rules”. In fact, I don’t think it breaks any rules.

    Firstly, the centre of mass of the couple is to the left of centre, they are not dead centre (unless you account for the trailing leg – which doesn’t occupy much space). If you cropped the right of the photo to make the couple dead centre, then it would look wrong (I tried it). Also, the door on the left add balance, as it takes up space, making the couple appear somewhat more to the left of centre than they really are.

    What other rules does the photo break? The couple are in the light, whereas the rest of the photo is in the shadows. The are some leading lines with the ceiling and the wall. The couple have space to breathe and there is a sense of depth.

    I don’t mean to be critical, the post is very useful. However, I don’t think this is an example of a photo breaking all the rules.

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