Whether you’re a brand new photographer or a veteran that’s been at it for decades, one thing that’s common to both groups is that there is always room for improvement. This is what I mean: even the pros are still learning. That’s part of the beauty of photography – there is always something to improve upon, some new way of challenging ourselves to be better. One way that you can constantly work to improve your images is by focusing on your composition.
Sounds easy, right?
In some ways it is – it’s a matter of training your eye to look for elements that enhance the photos you take. By the same token, it’s also a matter of minimizing distractions that detract from your vision for your photos. In other ways, perfecting your composition is a little tougher than that. There are plenty of “rules” in photography, but they don’t always apply. In fact, a great photo can result from throwing the rules out the window! With that in mind, I’ve selected six things you can do to dramatically improve your photos. Bear in mind that these are only suggestions, but if you practice them, you’ll develop your creative eye and learn some fundamentals of composition too.
Seek Great Light
Ask just about any photographer what makes or breaks a shot and there’s a good chance they’ll say light.
No matter if you’re photographing a person, a landscape, a building, or an insect, lighting can elevate the image to a totally other level. Conversely, poor lighting can ruin an otherwise spot-on image.
Because of this, make light your starting point. When you’re hunting for a scene to photograph, look at the way that light interacts with that scene. Look for interesting shadows or reflections. Inspect the scene for the color of lighting to help you set the mood. Head out during Blue Hour or Golden Hour to capitalize on what many regard as the best lighting of the day.
Then, once you find yourself some good light, consider how it can enhance your image.
In the image above, note how the lighting adds to the overall feel of the scene. The setting sun not only creates beautiful colors in the sky, but it also highlights the texture of the grasses in the foreground.
What’s more, we see the value of the color of light on full display. That is, the soft, warm tones of the Golden Hour lighting warms up the image and helps viewers imagine themselves sitting on this ridge with the sun on their face. That’s the value of lighting!
he importance of moving around your subject to find multiple points of view cannot be understated. Creating a well-composed photograph requires that you find the best angle and perspective from which to shoot so you can highlight the subject most effectively.
This means that you need to move around – look at the shot from a very low or very high perspective. Get in close and take a few steps back. Even if you have a zoom lens, you still need to move around! Don’t rely on your lens’s ability to get you closer and further away. Use your feet, and work hard to find the absolute best point of view from which to create your shot.
In the image above, we can see how moving around led to a better photo. Not only is the photographer down on the child’s eye level, but instead of taking a photo of the child in front of the brick wall, the angle of view down the wall itself adds much more interest to the shot.
So, by moving around, the photo is stronger in a couple of distinct ways. First, there is additional visual interest because of the close-up view of the texture of the wall. And second, there are stronger leading lines directing the eye towards the child.
Patterns and Textures Can Make the Composition Stronger
Our eyes are naturally drawn to patterns and textures, and as a result, incorporating one of them into a photograph instantly makes it more dramatic and compelling to view.
The beauty of patterns and textures is that they not only add depth to a shot, but they can be used in just about any type of photograph. Portraits, street scenes, landscapes, architecture – you name it, and a pattern or texture can help you enhance the beauty of your subject.
These elements are also ideal candidates for creating an interesting abstract photo, like the one seen above. Note how the repeating element of vertical lines gives the image tremendous depth. The repeating horizontal lines are a nice contrast the the abundance of vertical elements, and the slightly curved nature of the horizontal lines also extends the image from left to right.
The alternating pattern of colors is another element of interest in this shot. Note how though there are a wide variety of colors, the image doesn’t feel overwhelming or cluttered. Part of that is due to the tight framing of just one section of this building’s facade and is a good lesson in paying attention to how you can exclude things from the frame to make a stronger photo.
You Don’t Have to “Go Somewhere” to Take a Great Photo
There’s a misconception among some photographers that you have to go to some particular location in order to create a compelling photo.
But that’s just not the case!
Sure, if you go to the mountains or the beach or grab a few models for a portrait session you will likely have a pretty easy time getting a nice photo.
But that doesn’t mean that you can’t find beauty in everyday locations or events that can make for a photo that’s every bit as compelling.
Take the image above as a prime example of this concept. It’s a normal, everyday scene, but the manner in which the image is composed takes it to another level. The lighting is bright, but not overpowering, and the clean, white color of the light helps highlight the interaction between the mother and her son.
What’s more, the image is framed perfectly – it’s close enough to capture the details of both people, but far enough away that you don’t feel like you’re interrupting the moment.
One way to challenge yourself to find the beauty in the mundane is to try your hand at environmental portraiture. In the video above, master photographer Matt Granger offers up a few tips and tricks for taking eye-catching environmental portraits with an ultra wide-angle lens. Follow along and see what you can learn about creating better portraits, even in simple, everyday settings.
Not Everything Needs to Be in the Frame
Something that plenty of beginning photographers struggle to overcome is the desire to incorporate too much into the photo.
This is an especially common problem in landscape photography because there is often so much happening in the landscape to begin with that it’s difficult to find a way to pare down your composition.
However, there is something to be said for clean, simple compositions. Sometimes, going minimalistic with landscapes is advantageous because, without a cluttered scene, you’re more able to highlight the subject.
Note how in the image above the photographer focused on just a few elements of the larger landscape. There’s foreground interest in the rocks, a nice reflection in the midground, and a soft, beautiful sky beyond that.
What’s more, the image has a range of colors and tones, from soft pinks to dark greens and shadows and highlights as well. Just imagine this scene had the image been taken from 20 yards back. It likely wouldn’t have been as successful because it would have incorporated more “stuff” to distract the viewer’s attention.
Instead, we have a well-composed shot that communicates a sense of peace and serenity that viewers can really connect with.
Create Your Photo With Various Layers
When you’re hunting for something to photograph, look for opportunities to combine two, three, or four of the elements discussed above.
You might start out looking for pleasing lighting, and in that context, find ways to take a more unique shooting perspective to frame the subject in a more interesting way. Look for colors, patterns or textures to give the shot additional visual interest. Try highlighting the beauty of everyday objects or events.
The point is that by layering multiple compositional elements into one shot, you’ll get an image that has deeper meaning and facilitates a deeper connection with the viewer.
In the image of the horse above, we can immediately identify several elements that give the image a greater depth of interest. For starters, there’s impeccable lighting, which creates gorgeous whites and blacks for an enhanced dynamic range.
The framing is also spot on, demonstrating that the photographer thought purposefully about the perspective from which they wanted to shoot. What’s more, the close-up nature of the shot gives us a full view of the texture of the horse’s mane and coat, which gives the photo greater dimension.
With that, you should have a better understanding of a few compositional elements that can take your photos from being good to great. Practice each of these tips individually, then see about combining them to really elevate your photos.