Composition

Humans don’t absorb all the detail in a scene or image instantly, but instead we selectively scan it. Our eyes are first drawn to eyes and faces, certain colours and areas of high contrast. To test which area of an image is the main focal point, turn it upside down and note which area your eye is pulled towards. This trick turns the photograph into an abstract, making it easier to be objective.

There are compositional rules and techniques that you can use to keep a viewer’s eye within a photograph for longer, or to bring attention to a certain area of the image. There are also ways to make an image more pleasing and harmonious or – conversely, more unstable and unbalanced – the effect you are aiming for depends on your intentions for each shot.

A successful composition – like a successful exposure – is one that creates the effect intended by the photographer; whether that’s a sense of space, pleasing aesthetics and visual harmony or claustrophobic framing, disruptive aesthetics and visual tension. Consider how the portrait will be used and seen: Will the image be displayed as a large print on a wall, or as a tiny shot on a website page? Where do you want the viewer’s eye to go to first? What path do you want their eye to take within the frame?

While there are many guidelines and ‘rules’ for this area of photography, these are generally intended to create attractive compositions. Depending on your desired intentions, you may want to achieve something else entirely. In addition, relentless applying the Rule of Thirds or The Golden Ratio to every shoot will inhibit your creativity and result in images that look repetitive and uninspiring.

Developing your own compositional style will help set you apart from other photographers, so learn the rules but also experiment with breaking them.

Foundations: Image Formats

The vast majority of cameras provide a set, rectangular image frame. However, photo editing software enables you to access other formats too, inclu...

Foundations: Cropping

A crop is the removal of unwanted elements from the frame in order to improve the composition or to increase the focus on other elements. For examp...

Foundations: The Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds provides a guide as to the most impactful place within the frame to place key elements. Imagine two horizontal lines that split ...

Foundations: The Golden Ratio

Like the Rule of Thirds, the Golden Ratio is a guideline for positioning elements of the image within naturally powerful areas of the frame. It is ...

Foundations: Angle and Viewpoint

Positioning your subject in a location is only one part of the puzzle - even in a studio environment, you need to consider where you will be positi...

Foundations: Visual Balance

Every element in a photograph has a 'visual weight' attached to it, and a harmonious composition is one in which these elements are arranged in a w...

Foundations: Lead-In Lines

Lead-in lines are strong compositional elements that guide the viewer's eye around the image, and draw the viewer's focus towards the subject. For ...

Foundations: Frame Within A Frame

You can use elements of a scene to provide an additional frame within the edges of the image. This could be a full frame, on all four sides of the ...

Foundations: Eye Contact

Having the subject look straight down the lens gives a feeling of direct eye contact when the image is later viewed. Just as in real life, eye cont...