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Composition for Beginners

THERE ARE NO RULES!!! …only guidelines.

I remember the precise moment when I first became aware that I was looking at composition in a way that some others do not. It was a photograph I set up but someone else actually took. During a back-packing trip around New Zealand, the bus driver stopped for us to take group photos if we wanted. One girl volunteered to take the photos for everyone else. Along with the others, I put my camera down for her to pick up and take the shot. Now, this was back in the days of film, so it was a month or two later before I saw the result. At first I couldn't understand what I'd done, forgetting I'd not held the camera. She had positioned our group of people smack in the middle of the frame, with the back of the bus chopped off and a big empty space on the right! It had seemed so obvious to me to include the whole bus with our group on the right edge of the photo, it hadn't occurred to me to explain this. It may have been a dreadful photo but at least it taught me something.


There are lots of ways to compose images that will generally give pleasing results, and there are some things which will almost always make for an uneasy composition. However, “uneasy” may be what a photographer wants to convey, so I say again, there are no rules.

It is hugely helpful to understand what generally works well before attempting more unusual compositions. It’s a bit like learning to play musical scales before attempting a piano concerto. A skilled photographer will understand what to do, and when. This skill often comes from a lot of experience.

Some people may be described as having a “natural eye” for composition but even if you believe this isn’t you, you can still learn what “works” and what doesn’t. That's just called experience.

Let’s assume you know nothing about composition. Many people picking up a camera for the annual holiday snapshots will fall foul of a few basic errors. First is to plonk the subject right in the middle of the shot, regardless of anything else - like my back-packers group shot. Second is to chop things off - like the bus in my group shot! Third is to be unaware of the horizon, a real irritation to those of us who habitually straighten pictures that are hanging crookedly. (That was the one saving grace of my group photo!) Any novices paying attention to these three things should see an immediate improvement to their photography. Let’s look a little more closely at each.

  1. Avoiding that centrally positioned subject is usually a good idea. It can make a shot feel unnatural or posed. Many photographers refer to “the rule of thirds”, the principle being that a grid can be drawn on your image (or viewfinder) with 2 vertical lines dividing the image into 3 equal parts, and 2 horizontal lines dividing the image into 3 equal parts. Important items within the composition can then be placed roughly along the lines or the intersections of the lines.
  2. Cutting something in half with the edge of your image is often difficult to avoid but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to avoid it. In fact, even just chopping off a tiny part of an important item in the photo can spoil it. Assuming you have time, it’s wise to check around all edges of your image to see what lies there and make some adjustments until you’re happy. A wise photographer once said to me, “Think about what you’re excluding as well as including”.
  3. It is remarkable how many good photographs are spoiled by a lack of attention to the horizon! There is no excuse – we may have spirit levels on tripods or attached to the camera, and we can easily fix the issue later in the processing. If there's a horizon in your shot, check it.

While we’re talking about horizons, it’s often a good idea to avoid a strong one bisecting your image. It will often work better if moved higher or lower in the image, depending on what that will include or exclude of course.

That’s plenty to be thinking about if this is new to you. Learn to consider these 3 things until doing so becomes second nature.


© David McHutchison (Deemacphotos)
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