Composition is one of the most important skills you can learn as a photographer. It’s also one of the trickiest elements for beginners to master, and even experienced photographers struggle to perfect their image arrangements.
Fortunately, composition has nothing to do with professional gear or expensive destinations. It’s all about observation and analysis of the scene, which anyone can learn, no matter their financial situation. Sure, you may wish to invest in a book or two to help you really dive into compositional techniques, but you can also find plenty of information here on dPS. That’s why learning to effectively frame your scenes is a much more cost-effective way of becoming a better photographer than buying a new camera or lens!
Below, I share my five top methods for improving your composition skills – so if you want to level up your images, read on!
1. Learn how to use your camera properly
If you’re hoping to create amazing compositions, it’s important that you first master the basics – which means you need to understand your camera so well that you can take photos without thinking.
Try this exercise: Close your eyes and pick up your camera. Now, without peeking, which buttons and dials adjust the aperture, shutter speed, and autofocus? How do you select the active AF (autofocus) point? How do you apply exposure compensation? If you can’t perform these operations without looking, spend some time reading your manual, then practice until you can. Remember, you should aim to become so familiar with these settings that you can adjust them automatically – with no more than a glance at your camera.
One tip: Cameras have lots of menu options, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed as you think about settings. However, I suggest you ignore nearly everything and keep your approach simple. Here’s how:
- Always shoot in RAW format and set your white balance to Auto. (You can tweak the white balance afterward when post-processing.)
- Don’t touch settings such as lens corrections, contrast, dynamic range, noise reduction, sharpness, and highlight preservation. If you shoot in RAW, these will all be irrelevant.
- Don’t switch between metering modes. Stick to one and learn how it works.
- Understand your camera’s focus modes and when to use each one.
- Learn how to select and adjust the active AF point so you can make the camera focus where you want.
- Make sure you know how to switch to Manual mode (and when it’s a good idea).
- Learn how to apply exposure compensation, preferably without taking your camera away from your eye.
For most forms of photography, you don’t need to know anything more than that. The idea is to know your camera so well that you’re not distracted by settings, and you can instead concentrate on observing the subject and finding the best possible composition.
Remember: Fiddling with your camera’s settings is a distraction. The more attention you pay to your settings, the less you pay to the composition of your images.
2. Force yourself to look beyond the obvious
When you find an interesting subject, you may be tempted to just take a shot and move on – but the first view you see may not be the best or the most pleasing. It may take minutes (or even hours) before you find the perfect angle and frame.
So don’t rush! Instead, if you encounter a subject worth photographing, spend some time with it. Try to look beyond what first attracted you to the scene. This is called “working the subject.”
- Photographing from a handful of different angles
- Swapping lenses
- Getting closer and farther away
Also scrutinize your subject carefully. There may be something interesting that you overlooked! For instance, if you’re taking someone’s portrait, it might be because they have a captivating or beautiful face. But what else is interesting about them? Their clothes? Jewelry? Tattoos? Look beyond the surface and see what you can find.
3. Educate your eye
Practicing with your camera is a key way to improve your composition skills – but you can also learn a lot by studying the work of master photographers. (Bonus: Looking at the work of top-notch shooters is a lot of fun!)
So pick some photographers whose work you like. If you’re interested in a very modern style, you can find folks on Instagram, 500px, or Flickr. If you prefer a more classic look, head to your local library and check out the books in the photography section.
(Personally, I like looking at photos taken decades ago. Photographers back then worked with much simpler equipment and didn’t have our technological advantages. Yet the best still created beautifully composed images!)
Of course, while simply viewing others’ photos can be helpful, if you want the best results, it’s important to really analyze the compositions. As you look at each image, ask yourself these questions:
- Is the photographer working in black and white or in color? How would switching from one to the other have affected the composition?
- What is the focal point of the image? Is it positioned in the frame according to the rule of thirds or could there be other principles at work?
- What shapes and patterns do you see?
- Is there any negative space in the photo? How much room does the subject have to breathe?
- Is the photo balanced or unbalanced?
- What is the visual relationship between the various elements in the scene? Which elements are dominant and which are secondary in importance?
- Can you tell which lens focal length the photographer may have used? How would using a different focal length have affected the composition?
- Does the image feel physically deep? Why or why not?
Questions like these will deepen your understanding of the photos, and the answers can inform your work as you evolve as a shooter!
4. Work with geometry
Every time you approach an interesting scene, look for shapes that you can include in your frame. Thinking in terms of shapes rather than objects can be difficult, but over time, you’ll get better and better at seeing the scene more abstractly.
If you’re struggling to identify shapes, a good place to start is with anything made by humans; we tend to build things with recognizable shapes, such as triangles, squares, and circles.
Once you become proficient at identifying shapes, aim to find repeating shapes as well as relationships between different shapes. Repeating shapes create patterns and symmetry that can form the basis of an interesting composition, while tension between different shapes can make for a compelling shot.
When you look at this next photo, what do you see?
At first glance, it’s a photo of an outdoor cinema screen in a Chinese village. But look more closely, and you’ll start to see shapes. The rectangle of the screen is an obvious one. But did you notice the diamonds made by the pattern in the flooring? Or the organic shapes of the Chinese characters on the wall?
Bottom line: If you can train yourself to see shapes and work them into your images, your compositions will come along in leaps and bounds.
5. Use punctuation and gesture
Punctuation and gesture are two terms that have been developed by professionals; Jay Maisel talks a lot about gesture, while Bob Holmes talks about punctuation.
You see, punctuation is the addition of something interesting, often a human figure, that completes a scene. The photo on its own might be mediocre, and it needs that little something extra to lift it above the ordinary. Punctuation is an especially important part of travel and street photography.
For example, this photo is made stronger by the presence of the woman in the doorway:
In his book Light, Gesture and Color, Jay Maisel defines gesture as the thing that reveals the essence of the subject. Everything has it. Gesture takes us beyond the superficial to the essence of the subject and reveals itself through observation.
Imagine you are photographing a mountain. What do you see? Maybe it’s the shape of the mountain against the sky, the texture of the rocks scattered over the surface, the steepness of the cliffs, or the way that clouds wrap themselves around the summit. All these things are part of the gesture of the mountain – they’re the things that make it what it is.
With people, gesture is a mixture of body language and attitude. If you are capturing a street photo, gesture may be in the body language or appearance of your main subject. If you are making a more formal portrait, it might be something in the model’s expression or body language that helps create mood or communicate character.
In this photo, the pose and expression of the dancer are gesture:
Punctuation and gesture are advanced concepts, and I’d recommend first familiarizing yourself with the composition basics. However, it’s worth thinking about how you can apply them to your photos from the beginning as they can certainly help make your compositions stronger.
Ways to improve your composition skills: final words
Composition is an essential skill for each and every photographer. Yes, it takes time to master, but it’s worth the effort; once you get a handle on it, the quality of your photos will improve immensely.
So remember the approaches I’ve shared. Spend plenty of time practicing with your camera, but make sure you also analyze the work of photographers you admire! That way, you can improve your image arrangements as quickly as possible.
Now over to you:
Do you have any other suggestions for ways to improve your composition skills? Please let us know in the comments below!