Photography is a complicated art form. The elements of exposure, composition, light, subject matter, moment, and many others all come together to make a single two-dimensional image that is presented to a viewer. Learning all of this is time-consuming and difficult. Taken step-by-step, however, each of the elements can be methodically learned and combined to form your own photographs. Once you know how to operate your camera an extremely powerful tool you can add to your kit is a starting knowledge of composition.

Composition is the arranging of elements within the frame of a photograph. Despite what many articles or videos may tell you, it’s less about following rules and more about utilizing a set of guidelines to find an appropriate way of describing the scene you have in front of you with the camera in your hand. Every scene is different. Some will be simple, some will be much more complex. With that being said, here are five elements of composition you can draw on to help your viewer see what you want them to in your photographs.

We’ll start with probably the most well-known composition technique: The Rule of Thirds.

Rule of Thirds

The first is the ‘rule’ of thirds. It is very simple. You divide the frame into 9 equal rectangles, 3 across and 3 down as illustrated below. Many camera manufacturers have actually included the capability to display this grid in live view mode. Check your camera’s manual to see how to turn on this feature.
The idea is to place the important element(s) of the scene along one or more of the lines or where the lines intersect. We have a natural tendency to want to place the main subject in the middle. Placing it off centre using the rule of thirds will more often than not lead to a more attractive composition.

In this photo, the horizon have been placed roughly along the bottom third of the frame and the most important and closest bird along the line to the right. The photo wouldn’t have the same impact if the larger bird had been placed in the center of the frame.

In this photo, all the architectures have been placed the horizon along the right third of the frame. Most of the mountain and lake sit along the left third and the lake line itself occupies the bottom third of the frame.

Centered Composition and Symmetry

However, there are times when placing a subject in the center of the frame works really well. Symmetrical scenes are perfect for a centered composition. They look really well in square frames too.

This photo was the perfect candidate for a centered composition. Architecture and bridge often make great subjects for a centered compositions.

Scenes containing reflections are also a great opportunity to use symmetry in your composition. In this photo, a mix of the rule of thirds and symmetry has been used to compose the scene. The tree is positioned off centre to the right of the frame but the perfectly still water of the lake provides the symmetry. You can often combine several composition guidelines in a single photograph.

Foreground Interest and Depth

Including some foreground interest in a scene is a great way of adding a sense of depth to the scene. Photographs are 2D by nature. Including foreground interest in the frame is one of a number of techniques to give the scene a more 3D feel.

In this photograph, the rocks in the river provided a perfect source of foreground interest. Adding foreground interest works particularly well with wide-angle lenses.

Frame Within the Frame

Including a ‘frame withing the frame’ is another effective way of portraying depth in a scene. Look for elements such as windows, arches or overhanging branches to frame the scene with. The ‘frame’ does not necessarily have to surround the entire scene to be effective.

In this photo, the stone door has been used to frame the sea views. The use of scenery viewed through the a opening was a common feature to portray depth.
Frames also could be arches, windows or others. Look at the photo below, this time, the net creates a frame around the scene containing the cars and road. Notice that even though the ‘frame’ doesn’t actually surround the whole scene in this case, it still adds a sense of depth.

Using a ‘frame within a frame’ presents a great opportunity to use your surroundings to be creative in your compositions.

Leading Lines

Leading lines help lead the viewer through the image and focus attention on important elements. Anything from paths, walls or patterns can be used as leading lines. Take a look at the examples below.

In this photo, the patterns of the building and road have been used as leading lines. The lines on the ground all lead the viewer to building in the distance. You’ll also notice that a centered composition has been used for this scene. The symmetry of my surroundings made this type of composition work well.

Leading lines do not necessarily have to be straight as illustrated by the picture above. In fact curved lines can be very attractive compositional features. In this case, the path leads the viewer to the right of the frame.