Photography has always been the art of selection; as the photographer, you choose what is in each image you capture – and also what’s left out. And it’s the skill with which you make these choices that determines whether other people will react favourably to your pictures – or view them with indifference.


Photography has always been the art of selection; as the photographer, you choose what is in each image you capture – and also what’s left out. And it’s the skill with which you make these choices that determines whether other people will react favourably to your pictures – or view them with indifference.

How you arrange the various elements in a scene can influence the effectiveness of your picture’s design and how well its message is conveyed. But there’s more to good composition than the placement of elements. Lighting, shutter speed selection, aperture settings (and, therefore, depth of field) and other considerations contribute to a picture’s mood and message. These factors will also influence the effectiveness of its composition.

In this feature we’ll look at some tried-and-proven strategies for producing aesthetically pleasing pictures.

Classic Composition Rules
First, a handful of ‘rules’ that are often ignored – but shouldn’t be. Experienced photographers obey these rules almost by instinct. When (and if) they break them, there’s always a valid reason for doing so.

Rule 1: Fill the frame with the subject. This should be an obvious strategy but it’s amazing how many people ignore it. Perhaps they’re not sure what the subject actually is. Maybe their equipment prevents them from composing a shot in which the prime subject fills the frame. Two simple solutions to this problem are to move in closer or use a telephoto lens. (Don’t rely on cropping the shot unless the image has enough resolution to support it.)


This portrait shot demonstrates the application of rules 1, 2, 3 and 6.

Rule 2: Focus on the subject. This sounds obvious but is actually a little more challenging; just what part of the subject should you focus on? If it’s a portrait, the eyes as the ‘windows of the soul’ are the main focus of attention. Try to make them both sharp (use a smaller lens aperture for greater depth-of-field) and, when in doubt, focus on the eye nearest to the camera.

For scenic shots, as much as possible of the subject should appear sharp. This can be achieved by shooting in aperture priority AE mode and using a small lens aperture. Focus about one third of the way between the camera and the middle distance for maximum sharpness in both near and far distances.

Rule 3: Check your backgrounds. Many potentially attractive shots are spoiled by intrusive backgrounds – poles or trees that appear to grow out of subjects’ heads, distracting elements like garbage bins and litter, unwanted people. Learn to look out for these flaws and frame shots to avoid them. When this isn’t possible, use selective focusing and wider lens apertures to blur them out. (Hint: if your camera has a depth-of-field preview button or function, use it to check how much of the subject will appear sharp before you take a shot.)

Rule 4: Lead the viewer’s eye into the photograph. Strategies for achieving this include having trees – or parts of them (or similar objects) – surrounding part or all of the edges of the subject, effectively creating an inner ‘frame’. Subjects with lines leading from the lower foreground into the middle of the picture, can also lead viewers’ eyes into the picture.


Foliage in the foreground creates a frame for the subject and leads viewers’ eyes into the picture.

Rule 5: Viewers feel more comfortable when looking at scenic shots with straight horizons. Slightly off-kilter horizons can be upsetting – particularly for shots including water. Many cameras let you superimpose a grid on the viewfinder and/or LCD monitor to help you keep horizons level. If your camera has this feature, use it.

Rule 6: When photographing small children and animals, best results come from getting down to their level and looking them in the eyes. Shots taken looking down tend to create an impression of observing their activities, whereas eye-level shots produce a sensation of direct involvement. Looking up, in contrast, turns the subject into a ‘hero’ of the shot, emphasising its importance. (But special care must be taken to avoid intrusive background items and wide-angle lens distortions.)
Shooters’ Little Helpers
Some shooting strategies can make it easier to create pleasing pictures. We’ve already mentioned the framing guides provided in many current cameras. These linear grids are overlaid on the viewfinder image or the LCD monitor to help users frame their shots. (They don’t appear on the picture itself.)


Application of the Rule of Thirds framing guide provided in many digital cameras. Key subject elements, such as the two trees and the horizon and dividing line in the middle distance, are positioned on or near the grid lines. The eye is drawn particularly to the points at which the lines intersect and these can be used for areas of special interest.

Linear grids can also be useful when positioning horizons in landscape shots. But, once again, care should be used to avoid a feeling of sameness. Positioning a horizon in the middle of the frame makes pictures too symmetrical and – unless this effect is wanted – is best avoided. Deciding whether the horizon should be high or low is an aesthetic choice, depending on the relative interest contained in the sky and land.


Positioning the horizon high in the picture focuses viewers’ attention on foreground details and is a useful strategy when the sky isn’t particularly interesting.


The sky becomes the ‘hero’ in this shot because of the low horizon, even though there’s plenty of interest in the remaining parts of the scene.


Zooming in changes the view of the subject to make the trees and river the main focus.

Depth-of-field control can also be a compositional tool for focusing viewers’ attention on different parts of the frame. This requires use of the aperture priority AE shooting mode. People’s eyes are naturally drawn to areas with sharp focus so, by using a wide lens aperture and the right shooting angle and distance, you can blur out those parts of the scene that are of less interest – and also those that distract the viewer’s attention from the ‘main game’.

Try to make the main subject stand out from the background. Use a dark background to highlight a light subject – and vice versa. But take care with very light backgrounds, particularly if you’re shooting with a small-sensor digicam, because they can influence exposure metering and cause under-exposure. With backlit subjects, they may also cause lens flaring, which reduces overall contrast. Contrasting subject and background colours will achieve a similar effect.


Selective focusing has been used to isolate the main subject from a distracting background. The maximum lens aperture of f/5.6 was used with a focal length of 200mm on a Nikon D200 camera body for this shot.

Don’t be afraid to crop images to remove unnecessary elements – even if it changes the aspect ratio. Many shots work best when cropped to almost panoramic proportions. This strategy is useful for images that will be displayed on a widescreen TV set with a 16:9 aspect ratio.


These illustrations show how an image can be improved by cropping to a 16:9 aspect ratio.

Shutter speed settings can be used for selective blurring to direct viewers’ attention. They can also be used to create different sensations in viewers. Most photographers recognise the effect created by using very long exposures to blur moving water. This creates a tranquil impression that can enhance the general ‘feel’ of a landscape shot. In contrast, fast shutter speeds will ‘freeze’ running water, creating an impression of speed and action.


Very fast shutter speeds are necessary when you wish to ‘freeze’ the motion of subjects like waves. A shutter speed of 1/2000 second was used for this shot. (Note that the horizon – at the top of the wave – is positioned roughly one third of the way from the top of the picture.)

Try composing shots as diagonals, working from the top left or bottom left corner. Moving from left-down to right-up will produce a calmer effect than building from the opposite, more dynamic diagonal.


Strong diagonals can create dramatic compositions.

When photographing moving subjects, leave space in front of the subject. The composition will create a more dynamic impression if the picture is composed from right to left.

Take advantage of the inherent distortion produced by wide-angle lenses to include a wider subject area and/or create a sense of space. Be aware, however, that excessive distortion – particularly in the form of converging verticals – can be disturbing to look at.

For shots of everyday buildings, use an angle that includes at least two sides, instead of just the front. Shots showing only the front of a building are best reserved for formal structures like churches and government buildings. Consider including related subjects as part of the foreground – a branch of a tree, a postbox or gate, even if slightly out-of-focus.

Pay attention to shadows. Don’t assume your photographs will record details in shadows, even though you may be able to see them. If your camera provides a dynamic range expansion setting, use it to ‘open’ the shadows without dramatically increasing noise. For deep shadows in close subjects, take advantage of fill-in flash.

Breaking Rules
While rules of composition can be helpful for novice photographers, experienced photographers also understand that breaking the rules can often produce more interesting photographs.

Dramatically tilted horizons can be used to create an effect of motion or dynamism.


Dramatically tilted horizons can turn a rather mundane subject into a graphic design. High contrast and deep, almost black shadows accentuate the sense of drama.

Unless you wish to create an impression of spaciousness or isolation, avoid large empty spaces like clear blue sky, dull monotonous plain or smooth water surface. Look for something to add interest and contrast, such as a cloud, bird, ripple or hanging twig or branch.


The low horizon and small size of the main subject (the three campervans) lend a sense of isolation to this picture.

Small figures can provide a sense of scale in dramatic landscapes. Ultra close-ups can make viewers feel more involved – or even threatened by the subject. Symmetry can be useful for some subjects, either to increase the impression of regularity in a design or to produce regularity from perceived chaos.

Deep, almost black shadows can add structural drama to architectural subjects.

Because personal aesthetic tastes differ from one individual to the next you can’t be prescriptive about composition. However, following the strategies outlined above will give you a better chance of creating pictures that most other people will relate to and enjoy.
This is an article from Photo Review Magazine Issue 43.
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