Photo Basics Lesson #4: Creative Composition

In part 3 of this photography basics series, I taught you how to shoot in aperture priority and manual mode on your camera.  In this lesson, I'm going to teach you how to develop strong compositions in your photos.

Here's the thing about composition.  There are a few basic rules of composition that you'll easily understand from this article, but you'll soon see as you get out and practice photography that finding a strong composition is a process of trial-and-error which you'll only learn with time and practice.

Simply put, composition means meticulously selecting what elements will appear in the picture, and then carefully placing those elements in the frame to create a creative, balanced, and interesting organization.

Composition Example

Ever had a driver's license photo taken?  Or a mug shot?  Hopefully not the mug shot, but we all know how horrendous those photos look.  You can look your absolute best when you get to the driver's license place, but the photo always makes you look terrible.  Why?  Because they position you in the middle of the frame, and then make you square off your shoulders to the camera.

From the photo below, you can see a humorous example of how photographers often envision a picture, and what the camera actually captures.  It's funny, but unless you start paying attention to your composition, your pictures will always look like mugshots.

Driver's license photos always look terrible because they pose you in the middle of the photo and make you square off to the camera.

The Rule of Thirds

Imagine a tic-tac-toe board placed on your picture.  The rule of thirds says that you should place whatever is most interesting or eye-catching in the photo on the intersection of the lines on the photo.  That's really all there is to it!

If you're shooting a portrait, decide which eye of the model is the focal point of the image.  Usually, it's the eye closest to the camera.  Then, adjust the framing of the picture until the eye is on the intersection of the imaginary tic-tac-toe board.  Bingo!  You followed the rule of thirds.

The same is true when shooting a landscape.  In many or most landscapes, we like to include some of the foreground up close to the camera so as to give the sweeping landscape a sense of depth.  So if there is an interesting rock or plant in the foreground, I'll place it on the bottom-right or bottom-left intersection of the frame.  The same is true without a foreground element.  You can place the horizon on the top or bottom third-line so that the horizon doesn't cut the picture in half.

If you want to go deeper, I wrote a much more complete article about the rule of thirds.

The REAL Rule of Composition

Ask most amateur photographers in the world what composition is, and 90% of them would answer something like “The rule of thirds and leading lines.”  Those are certainly important principles to follow, but I have found that these basic principles are far too simplistic.

When I go out and shoot, I usually find that trial-and-error is the only way to get strong compositions.  I loosely follow the rule of thirds and other compositional principles, but mostly it's about getting down low and shooting up, or finding something to stand on to shoot down, or moving my tripod an inch here an an inch there, and really playing around until everything in the picture looks balanced and solid.  Don't over-analyze the rules.

In the next lesson of this Photography Basics series, I'm going to talk about proper focusing techniques.

If you want to go deeper and master composition, Jim's Block Method Composition video course is an amazing resource to learn composition. You'll learn how to create the perfect photo before you even take out your DSLR.

In the next lesson of this Photography Basics series, I'm going to talk about proper focusing techniques.

27 thoughts on “Photo Basics Lesson #4: Creative Composition”

  1. Hey friend. It’s me again.

    You have code showing in the last paragraph of the section entitled: “Photo Basics Lesson #4: Creative Composition.”

    It looks like this below:

    [sws_blockquote_endquote align=”left” cite=”Jim Harmer (yep–that’s me)” quotestyle=”style01″] Simply put, composition means meticulously selecting what elements will appear in the picture, and then carefully placing those elements in the frame to create a creative, balanced, and interesting organization. [/sws_blockquote_endquote]

  2. Awesome u hv been a really great help…actually I nevr understood the exposure triangle evn though I read a lot of articles on it..bt seriously ur article ws a great help to me….thanks

  3. I disagree on the “trial and error” part. Sure you can go out and just shoot away and see what works, but in order to be able to improve any further than that, you have to research WHY it is that certain shots work better than others. You may in some sense pick up an intuition for that by trial-and-error, but you will only become a master if you consciously understand the principle behind it, i.e. study perception and aesthetics. There’s actually interesting research going on in that area, but unfortunately, as with most art related topics, funding is scarce.

  4. I dont understand the rule of thrids. i never have. I mean I get that im supposed to put whats most interesting along the lines or the spots, but how am i supposed to know what that is? Or what if there are multiple interesting things in that scene? They wont all fit into the rule of thirds.

    My media teacher last year was teaching us “photo composition” she never showed us any of her own photos, (if she even had any) she basically just said that “you place the most important thing on the spot where the lines cross.” Then she gave us a camera and made us take a bunch of pictures, but when she saw my pictures she said i shouldve put other things along the lines and spots. So thats what i dont get, how do i chose whats supposed to be in the rule of thirds?

  5. Rules suck photos and art are subjective just because “Professionals” say this should go there or that goes there doesn’t mean there right
    Just shoot what you love and enjoy and above all have fun doing it.

  6. This series is fantastic! Last year, I bought a Nikon D50 with zero idea on how to use it but a lot of motivation since I was growing Baby Ng at the time. The camera ended up stuck in its bag never to see the light of day until now. After reading your first couple posts, I felt inspired to pull it out of the bag to give it a try. You have made the intimidating dSLR approachable! A million thank yous and a huge good job.

  7. I don’t even have a camera yet. I’m reading up on photography before I go out and buy an expensive DSLR because money is really tight. So far it sounds good and I’m still interested in trying photography. Now I need to pick a camera. If you can recommend any that would be great. I was looking at the Nikon D3300. Thoughts? Thank you 🙂

  8. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge. I am truly amazed at how generous some people are with sharing. I have had cameras for years and only ever moved the settings form auto to P which I thought meant portrait and S which I thought was for scene. Now I know what they really mean I cant wait to try out my new camera!!

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