Composition Techniques for Beginner Photographers

A tran­script of the text fol­lows below.

Many new pho­tog­ra­phers, espe­cial­ly those that don’t have some artis­tic back­ground, have trou­ble with com­po­si­tion. In this video, I’ll do my best to dis­till the idea of com­po­si­tion to its core, dis­cuss how our minds process visu­al infor­ma­tion in a way that could sab­o­tage a casu­al approach to com­po­si­tions and share a few tech­niques for work­ing around these psy­cho­log­i­cal imped­i­ments to cre­at­ing pleas­ing pho­tos. Let’s begin.

What is composition?

In her book, The Art of Com­po­si­tion: A Sim­ple Appli­ca­tion of Dynam­ic Sym­me­try, Michel Jacobs writes, 

Com­po­si­tion is one of the means to express to oth­ers the thought that is in the artist’s mind. We can do this with colour, with line, mass, form, or with the light and shade—all of which should be com­bined to bring out more forcibly the idea of the artist.

In oth­er words, pho­to­graph­ic com­po­si­tion is the way you arrange the place­ment and scale of your sub­ject with­in the con­fines of your can­vas. The sub­ject is the per­son, place, or thing you want to pho­to­graph, and the can­vas is sim­ply every­thing with­in your vis­i­ble frame. Side note: I know many pho­tog­ra­phers take pho­tos intend­ing to crop them lat­er; how­ev­er, at this stage, and for the sake of sim­plic­i­ty, just assume “frame” refers to what you see in the viewfind­er or on the camera’s screen. 

Cre­at­ing a pleas­ing com­po­si­tion starts with under­stand­ing your sub­ject, and then find­ing an effec­tive way of trans­lat­ing that under­stand­ing into a pho­to­graph. Begin­ners often have trou­ble with both parts of the process. They take pic­tures hap­haz­ard­ly, with­out tak­ing the time to con­sid­er their inten­tions. They hap­pen upon some­thing inter­est­ing, point their cam­era, and take a pic­ture assum­ing the result will look as good as what they expe­ri­enced. But unless they’re lucky, this isn’t often the case.

The disconnects between what you see and how you photograph

The way our minds process visu­al infor­ma­tion cre­ates dis­crep­an­cies between what we see and how we pho­tog­ra­phy. We may look with our eyes, but we see with our minds. Let’s delve into the basic psy­chol­o­gy of sight.

Perceptual hypothesis

The Gestalt school of psy­chol­o­gy offers hints at how peo­ple orga­nize visu­al inputs. It pro­pos­es there are two types of visu­al stim­uli, dis­tal and prox­i­mal. Dis­tal stim­uli are those that lie in the dis­tance, out­side your body; they’re the objects you’re look­ing at. Light from dis­tal stim­uli enters our eyes and cre­ates prox­i­mal stim­uli, which are the pro­jec­tions of light stim­u­lat­ing your reti­nas. 

Their dis­tinc­tion is impor­tant because an object’s true shape may vary from the shapes danc­ing across your reti­nas. In vision, the prox­i­mal stim­uli are dis­tort­ed, two-dimen­sion­al pro­jec­tions of their true forms. For exam­ple, if you lay a square sheet of paper (the dis­tal stim­uli) on a table and observe it from direct­ly over­head, its image (the prox­i­mal stim­uli) will look like a square; how­ev­er, if you sit down and look at the square from an angle, it will appear trape­zoidal, because the top of the square is fur­ther from you than the bot­tom. Despite its trape­zoidal appear­ance, we under­stand that we’re see­ing a square. How? 

Our minds are con­stant­ly bridg­ing the gap between dis­tal and prox­i­mal stim­uli by form­ing hypothe­ses about the nature of the real world. A per­cep­tu­al hypoth­e­sis is an infer­ence about the nature of a dis­tal stim­u­lus based on its prox­i­mal char­ac­ter­is­tics. Our minds process visu­al infor­ma­tion and mak­ing guess­es about what real-world forms are respon­si­ble for the pat­terns we per­ceive.

Guess­ing true shapes from incom­plete or skewed visu­al infor­ma­tion works against casu­al pho­tog­ra­phers by cre­at­ing a bias in favour of a form’s true shape instead of its visu­al shape. In essence, what we know com­petes with what we see.

We can observe this in pho­tos fea­tur­ing hori­zons and archi­tec­tur­al forms. Intu­itive­ly, we under­stand that a flat hori­zon should be level—that is, per­pen­dic­u­lar to the pull of gravity—but this under­stand­ing can impede our abil­i­ty to notice when a com­po­si­tion lists to one side. Fur­ther­more, our eyes stay lev­el with the hori­zon by rolling with­in their sock­ets. You can observe this in a mir­ror by slight­ly tilt­ing your head from left to right—notice how your eyes roll in the oppo­site direc­tion of your head’s move­ment. 

In archi­tec­ture, forms com­mon­ly fea­ture straight lines, right angles, and great height rel­a­tive to your ground-lev­el per­spec­tive. Angling the cam­era upwards to cap­ture a building’s facade con­verges its ver­ti­cal lines towards a van­ish­ing point. This is called the key­stone effect, and it’s com­mon­ly avoid­ed by pro­fes­sion­al archi­tec­tur­al pho­tog­ra­phers. Keyston­ing is easy to spot in pho­tos tak­en with wide-angle lens­es, but it’s not some­thing we’re mind­ful of because we intu­itive­ly under­stand the form’s true shape, and that its lines aren’t con­verg­ing but reced­ing into the dis­tance, which we under­stand thanks to depth per­cep­tion.

Depth perception

There are two types of depth per­cep­tion in human vision: binoc­u­lar and monoc­u­lar. Binoc­u­lar depth cues are dis­tance clues derived from the dif­fer­ing views of the two eyes—they pro­vide that dis­tinct sen­sa­tion of an object’s posi­tion in three-dimen­sion­al space. Monoc­u­lar depth cues are dis­tance clues derived from each eye alone, such as motion par­al­lax and pic­to­r­i­al depth cues, which are dis­tance clues that can be expressed in a flat pic­ture, such as a pho­to!

Binoc­u­lar depth per­cep­tion allows us to see a sub­ject, sense its dis­tance in space, and iso­late its form from its sur­round­ings. This lets us over­look visu­al­ly dis­tract­ing ele­ments that would oth­er­wise be more con­spic­u­ous in two-dimen­sion­al ren­di­tions. This brings us to the con­cept of atten­tion.

Visual attention and perceptual blindness

Atten­tion is a cog­ni­tive process that lets you con­cen­trate on a dis­crete selec­tion of sen­so­ry inputs from many com­pet­ing ones. When direct­ing your visu­al atten­tion towards your sub­ject, you become less aware of its sur­round­ings. It can lead to a phe­nom­e­non called inat­ten­tion blind­ness, which is a fail­ure to notice an unex­pect­ed occur­rence with­in your visu­al field because your con­cen­tra­tion is else­where. 

The lim­its of atten­tion cre­ate a prob­lem for begin­ner and expe­ri­enced pho­tog­ra­phers alike. You could be tak­ing a por­trait, con­cen­trat­ing on your subject’s pose, and com­plete­ly miss that their shirt is com­ing untucked and their zip­per is down. Oops!

Visual perception has no borders

Unlike an artist’s can­vas, our visu­al expe­ri­ence of the world has no defined bound­aries. There’s a cen­tral area of atten­tion, and there’s a periph­ery, and beyond that periph­ery lies…an absence of visu­al per­cep­tion. When we look around, we dis­cov­er the views beyond that periph­ery. And yet, when our eyes cross some­thing interesting—something we deem picture-worthy—we must con­sid­er it with­in defined com­po­si­tion­al bound­aries. 

Casu­al shoot­ers sim­ply point their cam­era at the sub­ject, ensur­ing that it’s all-in, and take a shot. They look with their eyes, see with their minds, and assume that’s all it takes. What they don’t con­sid­er is how our minds process that infor­ma­tion to “fix” their per­cep­tion of that view, a view that often doesn’t trans­late into a well-com­posed pho­to­graph.

How to think compositionally and achieve great results

How can you move beyond absent­mind­ed pho­tos to achieve more pleas­ing com­po­si­tions that work with­in a two-dimen­sion­al medi­um con­strained to a can­vas? The fol­low­ing tips should help you orga­nize your thoughts towards think­ing com­po­si­tion­al­ly in the con­text of the psy­cho­log­i­cal process­es I’ve out­lined ear­li­er. Just remem­ber: these aren’t rules.

Define your subject

In my opin­ion, the first step towards cre­at­ing a pleas­ing com­po­si­tion is clear­ly defin­ing your sub­ject. Think like a reporter: under­stand what you want to show and why it’s caught your inter­est. Under­stand­ing the answers to both will inform your sub­se­quent deci­sions.

Find your perspective

It’s time to explore how you’ll take the pic­ture, and this starts with per­spec­tive. In pho­tog­ra­phy, per­spec­tive refers to your camera’s point of view and it’s deter­mined exclu­sive­ly by the posi­tion from which a pho­to is tak­en. Ask your­self: what’s the best angle from which to cap­ture this pho­to? 

Your body is a great asset for manip­u­lat­ing per­spec­tive. You can crouch down, walk around, lean out, look straight up, lay down, get close…and then clos­er, or take a step—or fifty—backwards. Depend­ing on what you’re pho­tograph­ing, you can walk around or through your sub­ject to find inter­est­ing per­spec­tives.

Gen­er­al­ly, pho­tog­ra­phers seek per­spec­tives that empha­size the subject’s phys­i­cal geom­e­try, the qual­i­ty of light, and its visu­al place­ment rel­a­tive to back­ground and fore­ground ele­ments. Alter­ing your per­spec­tive can make the dif­fer­ence between a pho­to that looks flat ver­sus one that has a dis­tant back­ground and a sense of depth. 

Per­spec­tive also adds an emo­tion­al aspect to por­traits. High-angle shots, where the cam­era looks down at a per­son, can con­vey a sense of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, meek­ness, and insignif­i­cance. These are con­trast­ed by low-angle shots, where the cam­era looks up at a per­son and sig­ni­fies strength, con­fi­dence, and author­i­ty.

Per­spec­tive can also inform the scale of your pic­ture. 

Choose your subject’s scale and prominence

Scale and promi­nence are inter­re­lat­ed con­cepts with sub­tle dif­fer­ences. Scale refers to the appar­ent size of your com­po­si­tion­al ele­ments. You can change the scale by mov­ing clos­er or far­ther, and by zoom­ing in or out. Promi­nence refers to the share of your view­ers’ atten­tion each com­po­si­tion­al ele­ment holds. Gen­er­al­ly, as scale increas­es, so does promi­nence; they have a pos­i­tive cor­re­la­tion.

Nev­er­the­less, there are sit­u­a­tions where a small-scale ele­ment can have great promi­nence. Think of a spotlit singer against the back­drop of a dark the­atre, a spring flower bloom­ing through the snow, or a per­son wear­ing a colour­ful out­fit in a sea of peo­ple wear­ing grey suits. Such com­po­si­tions manip­u­late our atten­tion using con­trast, tex­ture, and colour.

Find leading lines

You can also manip­u­late promi­nence by lead­ing the viewer’s eyes through the com­po­si­tion towards the sub­ject. Lead­ing lines are real or implied straight or curved lines that ter­mi­nate on or point towards your pri­ma­ry sub­ject. They’re a use­ful com­po­si­tion­al tool for achiev­ing promi­nence when con­trast, tex­ture, and colour aren’t work­ing in your favour. 

Use the viewfinder 

Use your camera’s viewfind­er instead of the rear LCD screen, if you have the option. Think­ing com­po­si­tion­al­ly is much eas­i­er when your visu­al field is lim­it­ed to the pho­to­graph­ic frame. The viewfind­er sep­a­rates your view of the frame from the extra­ne­ous dis­trac­tions of your sur­round­ings or the reflec­tions on your LCD and allows you to con­cen­trate on the har­mo­ny of the visu­al ele­ments. 

Minimize distractions

Try to min­i­mize dis­trac­tions. Dis­trac­tions are any intru­sive ele­ments that com­pete for visu­al atten­tion with your pri­ma­ry sub­ject. They can man­i­fest as tex­tures, shapes, and colours. Giv­en what we now know about visu­al atten­tion and depth per­cep­tion, the first step towards min­i­miz­ing dis­tract­ing ele­ments is to look at your sub­ject with one eye or through your cam­era. This imme­di­ate­ly com­press­es the 3D world into one plane, and lets you look for back­ground and fore­ground ele­ments that would oth­er­wise detract from your sub­ject. Next, check the vis­i­ble out­line of your sub­ject for inter­sect­ing lines and shapes that could be con­fused for being a part of it. A com­mon exam­ple would be scrag­gly branch­es or street lamps erupt­ing from your subject’s head. Addi­tion­al­ly, you can min­i­mize fore- and back­ground dis­trac­tions with selec­tive focus of your lens. 

Level horizons

In gen­er­al, you should try to keep your pho­tos lev­el unless there’s a good rea­son not to. A sub­tle slant can look like a mis­take, and most often is. Grid­lines in your camera’s viewfind­er or screen can help you achieve lev­el hori­zons. You can also lev­el a crooked pho­to after the fact using pop­u­lar edit­ing apps. By the way, a cant­ed-angle or Dutch angle describes a pho­to that’s inten­tion­al­ly set off-lev­el. 

Be mindful of headroom and lead room

When you look at some­one and make eye con­tact, their eyes are cen­tred in your visu­al field and occu­py your atten­tion. When casu­al shoot­ers take this life-long habit and apply it to their pho­tog­ra­phy, their results fea­ture too much head­room, which is the dis­tance between your subject’s head and the top of the frame. Por­traits where eyes and noses are in the cen­tre of the frame often look slop­py or incom­plete because most of our atten­tion is at or below the cen­tre line. Next time you’re about to take a por­trait, assess whether the space above your subject’s head is adding or sub­tract­ing from the shot. 

When look­ing at pho­tos, it’s com­mon for us to expect space in front of a mov­ing sub­ject or the direc­tion of their gaze. Lead room, some­times called active space, refers to the dis­tance between the implied direc­tion of your subject’s motion or gaze and the edge of the cor­re­spond­ing frame. Dead space refers to the space behind the active sub­ject. There’s no con­sen­sus for what con­sti­tutes a good amount of lead room, but it becomes obvi­ous when there isn’t enough. A pho­to can have a lack of bal­ance when the direc­tion of a subject’s gaze or motion is imme­di­ate­ly imped­ed by the frame. It cre­ates a sense of con­fine­ment.

Watch your edges

Inat­ten­tion blind­ness can lead to dis­trac­tions in your pho­tos, and some of the most notice­able ones occur at the bound­aries of your frame. You can guard against these by scan­ning your eyes along the edges of the frame to ensure dis­tract­ing ele­ments aren’t intrud­ing into your com­po­si­tion. If you notice a dis­trac­tion, adjust your com­po­si­tion, and repeat the scan.

You should also watch the edges of your frame for unin­ten­tion­al or awk­ward crop­ping of your sub­ject, espe­cial­ly when tak­ing por­traits. A com­po­si­tion can look slop­py when the frame’s edge crops off a small part of your sub­ject, such as half a foot, a sliv­er of the shoul­der, or an ear. Look along the edges to make sure that small bits of your sub­ject aren’t inad­ver­tent­ly cut by the frame. And when you must crop your sub­jects, such as in close-up or medi­um-scale por­traits, make sure the crop reads as inten­tion­al. 


And there you have it, a rule-free intro­duc­tion to think­ing com­po­si­tion­al­ly while avoid­ing some of the cog­ni­tive traps that can lead begin­ners to take poor pho­tos. If you have requests for future top­ics, let me know in the com­ments, and I’ll address them in future videos.

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