Composing your Pictures

Don’t just take pictures. Make pictures.
Point-and-shoot technology has progressed to the point that just about anyone can take pictures that are in focus, properly exposed, and fairly well lit, freeing you to concentrate on artistic aspects.
The challenge that remains is to compose a good picture by controlling how the subject is seen and what emotions are felt by the viewer. This can be done through composition—the relationship of the elements in an image with each other and with the frame.
You know that good feeling you get when you snap a great shot? Well, just follow these guidelines, and you’ll start to see things differently through the viewfinder—and take great shots more often.
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Be a picture director.
Take an extra minute to compose your photograph so that the reason you are taking it is clearly evident. Control your canvas by moving subjects, props, or your angle to add context and see things in a better way.
woman sitting at table
Share the Inspiration:
"I love to experiment with composition, especially with photography because you can create a very interesting image out of an ordinary place. I carefully cropped it so that the woman sits off to the left facing the light while including other elements of her room. Notice how the rectangular shapes play off each other, creating an interesting composition."
— Vera, Rochester, NY. Visit my blog.
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picture of doors on buildings
Share the Inspiration:
"Snow has the amazing ability to simplify a landscape. I was struck at how the two trees stood out from the snow and winter sky."
— Andrew, Austin, TX Visit my website.
Focus on the good stuff.
Don't include too much. Extra elements can confuse things. Strengthen your subject by eliminating all unimportant components and background clutter.
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Share the Inspiration: "Positioning the horizon line along the upper third reveals the dramatic play of light and shadow on the grassy foreground." — Wendy, Scotland. Visit my blog.
Move it from the middle – the Rule of Thirds.
One of the most common mistakes of amateur photographers is placing the subject smack dab in the middle of the frame. This makes a picture more static and less interesting. That's why one of the most popular guidelines in both photography and painting is the Rule of Thirds.
Imagine a tic-tac-toe board over your viewfinder and position the subject along one of the lines or at one of the intersections. If your subject fills most of the frame, position a focal point (like those smoldering eyes) at one of the intersections.
With landscapes, keep the horizon along the lower third to give a feeling of spaciousness. Position the horizon along the upper third to give a feeling of nearness or intimacy.
Break the rule… If you find a viewpoint in which symmetry is key, or in a portrait if you want to convey engagement or confrontation such as in Vera’s portrait of a Senegal family. (below)
three females sitting on cot
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Portrait of young woman
Share the Inspiration:
"The horizontal clapboards add just enough interest. The striped pattern is echoed in the subject’s shirt.
— Andrew, Austin, TX.
Visit my website.
What’s that thing behind you?
Before you shoot, take a look around for an uncomplicated backdrop that complements the subject instead of competing with it. Beware of trees or poles sprouting from your subject's head. Even better, find a background that draws the viewer's eye to the most important part of the picture.
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woman walking with cow down a country road
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view of kitchen looking into living room
Above: Vera, Rochester, NY.
Wendy, Scotland.
Lines that lead.
Lines are everywhere around us. In people, trees, walls, shadows—you just have to look for them. These natural lines can strengthen composition by leading the viewer’s eyes toward your subject. Diagonal lines can add energy. Curved lines can add soft elegance. Using a road or path as a leading line can add depth.
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Step into another dimension.
Framing your subject with elements in the foreground can also add scale and depth to pictures. Overhanging tree branches, doorways, anything that covers at least two sides of the photo can give a three-dimensional effect that invites viewers into the image.
lake and trees
Share the Inspiration: "I was on a bike ride and came across this opening in the trees. I was struck at how they framed the brightly lit pond. This shot in panoramic format reminds me of a scene from a movie."
— Jack, Spencerport, NY
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Go vertical.
Rotate the camera 90 degrees to compare the different effects on composition, even when you might not think it necessary. A composition that naturally lends itself to horizontal can make a stunning vertical picture.
Young woman lying down in leaves
Share the Inspiration:
"The vertical version, right, is a little bit out of the ordinary - I like the more minimalist/graphic approach."
— Andrew, Austin, TX.  Visit my website.
Young woman lying down in leaves
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self portrait looking up
Share the Inspiration:
"I love to play around with different angles. Here is a self-portrait that was shot in a parking lot."
— Vera, Rochester, NY.
Visit my blog.
Photography is like a circle – There are no right angles.
Experiment with different angles. Eye level is great for a lot of shots. But if you want more from your photos, you have to explore. Get close and fill the frame. Crouch down and shoot up at your subject or shoot along the floor. Get up on a chair or table and shoot from above. Just be careful or you might be icing your ankle while viewing the results.
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two dogs running down path
Wendy, Scotland. Visit my blog.  Visit my blog.
Watch out for the edge!
If your subject is in motion, give them plenty of space within the frame to move into.
Break the rule
... If you’re trying to create a feeling of tension.
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Pears on a table
Ann, Rochester, NY
Find your balance.
Off-center subjects can be balanced on the opposite side of the frame with leading lines, shadows, and objects in the foreground or background.
Balance can also be achieved by creating simple geometric shapes. This makes images naturally easier to decipher and more pleasing to the eye. This photo is a good example of subjects creating a triangle, which brings strong balance and unity to the image.
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flower and grass
Andrew, Austin, TX.  Visit my website.
Leave something to the imagination.
Sharp, detailed images are the norm. That's why it can be fun to purposely leave your main subject a little out of focus. Just focus on something in front of or far beyond the subject to create a dream-like effect.
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Learn first. Ask questions later.
Once you understand and internalize these guidelines, feel free to work outside them. Follow the rules until you know when to break them. That’s what great photographers do.