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Learn Photography

Beecher's Handouts >

19 – Composition

1 – Introduction

Don't Worry About It

Many of my beginning students are overly concerned about their composition skills.

I've found that most photographers have an innate sense of composition.

However, Do Learn More

Those who learn to identify the available compositional tools-when they're behind the camera-will do even better.


Composition is the arrangement of the visual elements of the photograph.

What You're Arranging

1) Geometric elements, such as lines, shapes, and curves

2) Contrasts of tone, color, light, in-focus/out-of-focus areas, and geometric elements

3) Repetitions of tone, color, light, in-focus/out-of-focus areas, and geometric elements

4) Being in-balance or out-of-kilter, between tones, colors, light, in-focus/out-of-focus areas, and the geometric elements

5) Subjects

Location - Edges & Corners

If any of the above are near the edge of the photograph, or are in a corner, they will attract more attention from the viewer.

A photograph can, occasionally, imply something that's outside the frame.

Location - Planes

The photograph can have more depth if items are placed in the foreground, middle ground, and background planes.

Goal of Composition

The goal of composition is to convey to the viewer what you want them to see and feel.

Everything in the frame should be making a contribution.

When the composition works, all of the elements have a tension with each other, which relaxes the viewer's eye.

He or she can absorb the photograph without distraction.

How to Learn About Composition

Study your pictures.

Self-criticism is often easier when the pictures are not fresh.

Objectivity increases with time.

Study the composition of other photographers also.

2 – Guidelines

The guidelines below are not rules.

The only rule in composition is that everything in the frame should be adding to what you're trying to communicate.

Your style of composition is valid as long as you're communicating what you want.

The guidelines are divided into three areas:

1) Vantage point

2) The frame

3) Planes

4) Other

3 – Vantage Point

If it's not good, change your vantage point.

Most photographs are taken at eye level.

Many photographs can be improved by placing the camera elsewhere.

4 – The Frame


Because your camera is easier to hold horizontally, you may tend to take all your pictures this way.

Some photographs call for a vertical composition.

Edges & Corners

What you place on, near, or just outside the edges and corners is very important.

These areas are very visible to the viewer, but difficult to see when taking the picture.

Bulls-eye Pictures

You may place your subject in the middle all the time.

Experiment with other placements

Rule of Thirds

Divide your viewfinder into thirds, sort of like tick-tack-toe grid.

Again, this is called a rule, but it's only a guideline.

Place subjects of interest along the lines of the grid, or at points where the lines intersect.


Generally, you want:

• Horizons to be level.

• Buildings, interiors, formal gardens, and the like, to be straight.

Some cameras can be set to display a tic-tac-toe grid in the viewfinder.

The grid can be used to apply the rule of thirds guideline.

The lines also make it easier to photograph level horizons.

Your camera may also have a floating horizon line in the viewfinder.

When the line is level, your camera is level.

4 – Planes


The background can help or hinder your picture.

However, it's very hard to pay attention to what is happening back there.

Check the background and do the following.

Focal Length

Push the background further away by using a wide-angle focal length.

Or, bring it close by using a more telephoto focal length.


If the subject is less than twenty feet away:

• Use a physically large aperture, such as f/4, to blur the background.

• Use a physically small aperture, such as f/16, to make the background sharper.


Things in the background may merge with the subject.

The classic example is a telephone pole behind a person's head.

Also, make sure the horizon line does not line up with a person's eyes.


The foreground is often not used well.

If your photograph is not being improved by an empty foreground, then do the following.

• Change your vantage point.

• Zoom in.

• Place something in the foreground, such as shooting through the cattails on the edge of a pond.


Use something in the foreground or background to frame your subject.

For example, place a tree on one side of the picture.

Or, place your subject in front of an out of focus arch of a rose arbor.


Close one eye to judge how a scene will look as a photograph.

You can add to the feeling of depth in the following ways.


Use receding or converging lines in the picture.

The lines could be a road, for example.


Add depth by having lots of separation between the subject and background.

There are three ways to do this.

1) Make the background out-of-focus by using less depth-of-field.

2) Make the background lighter or darker, or a different color, than the subject.

Blue tends to recede, as do lighter colors.

3) Use backlighting or side lighting. The bright edge on the subject will give a feeling of separation from the background.


Haze in the background is a cue to our brain that the scene has depth.


If you add something of known size to your photograph, the viewer will be cued as to the size or distance of the subject.

The small person in the distance, with a much larger person near the camera, is a strong depth cue, for example.

Removing Depth

You may wish to remove depth.

Do the reverse of the above.

6 – Other Factors


Think of the colors in your viewfinder as if they're objects.

The colors can have forms.

Number of Elements

The visual elements are the lines, shapes, tones, colors, objects, and subjects in your image.

Odd numbers of visual elements tend to be more pleasing than even numbers.

Physical Support

Things need physical support in a picture.

Avoid cropping a leg of a table, for example.

Otherwise, it will look like it is about to tip over.

Visual Support

You may need to use visual support.

For example, let's say you can't get an entire bridge in your viewfinder.

If you take the picture, the bridge will have support on one side of the picture but not the other.

However, if you take the photograph when a sailboat is under the unsupported part of the bridge, the boat will lend visual support to the bridge.

Visual support can be provided by less tangible factors, such as a darkening at the bottom of a photograph.

Words & Faces

Words and faces in your photographs may be distracting.


Some photographers take pride in never cropping.

Other photographers don't pay attention to any such strictures.

Cropping People

Avoid cropping people at their joints.

Cropping tops of heads is a matter of taste.

Some photographers don't, while others, do.