What is Composition in Photography? A Beginner’s Guide

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Composition is everything in photography. It can mean the difference between an average-looking image and an absolute show-stopper.

A mediocre photographer can take a decent shot if they have the right equipment. The only way for that photographer to improve their photos, however, is to get to grips with the fundamentals of composition.

We’re not miracle workers — we can’t transform you into a professional photographer with this article alone. What we can do is introduce you to some basic concepts that should steer you in the right direction.

This post is written as a beginner’s guide to composition in photography. We’ll explore what it is, how to get better at it, and how to improve your photo-taking skills in general. Read on to learn more.

In a Nutshell – What is Composition?

In short, composition in photography refers to how the different elements of an image are arranged. This includes a number of factors including:

  • Where your subject is placed in relation to the rest of the image
  • The lines, shapes, and textures highlighted in the photo
  • The lighting environment of the shot
  • The contrasts and highlights featured
  • The color palette used
  • The focus point of the photo

The final result of any image you take is determined largely by its composition. The better you understand compositional techniques, the easier it will be to improve your photography.

Meeting Expectations VS Going Against the Grain

Once you’re more familiar with approaches to composition, it’s worth exploring the power of both meeting a viewer’s expectations and challenging them. Arranging your images in pleasing, predictable ways can produce incredible results.

At the same time, however, a mark of a true professional is knowing when to go against the grain. Once you’ve put in some practice, it can pay dividends to ask yourself how you can flip the script.

Is it possible to do something totally unexpected with your subject? If so, it might be worth exploring this avenue further. This kind of thinking can produce photos that win awards.

Practice Makes Perfect

Before we jump into the specifics of composition in photography, we wanted to emphasize that reading about composition will only get you so far. The best way to improve your skills as a photographer is to get out there and use your equipment as often as possible.

We know it sounds obvious, but it can be so easy to fall into the trap of reading theory without executing it in the real world. “Practice makes perfect” is a cliche for a reason. Once you’ve read our guide, implement our tips in the real world as often as you can.

Things to Consider When Composing Your Shots

Let’s get into it! The list below isn’t exhaustive, but it contains the fundamentals that are so important for a beginner to understand. Have a read-through and think about how you could explore these elements when you next take photos in the real world.

Subject Position

If you consider nothing else when exploring composition, you should focus on the position of your subject in relation to its surroundings. Subject placement plays a pivotal role in how photos are perceived by their viewers.

It’s your job as a photographer to decide how you want to influence your viewers. Ask yourself which aspects of your photo you want to highlight.

The Rule of Thirds and the Phi Grid

While we’re on the topic of subject placement, your best friend as a newbie photographer will be the rule of thirds. This is a compositional tool designed to make it easier to arrange your shots in a way that pleases the eye.

The general idea is to position your subject(s) within an area of the grid where two lines intersect. If you compose your shots so that they’re in one of the nine ‘boxes’ that the grid creates, you stand a much better chance of producing an image that’s nice to look at.

Taking things one step further is the phi grid. If you know anything about art theory, you may have read about the golden ratio before. First proposed by Italian mathematician Fibonacci, it’s a sequence found in visual elements throughout all of nature.

In short, it’s a cheat sheet for composing gorgeous images. The phi grid is derived from the golden ratio and is used in much the same way as the rule of thirds. Most cameras have a built-in overlay that can be used when taking images. Try out both when taking shots to improve your skills.

Check out our in-depth guide to the phi grid.

Backdrop

Another critical element of photography composition is the backdrop of your image. It’s important to think about not only what you’ll be using as a background but also how much of it you’d like to be in focus.

Think about how your chosen backdrop can complement, highlight, or stand in contrast to your subject. As mentioned earlier, experiment with both meeting and challenging expectations in this regard.

If too much of your backdrop is in focus, it can distract from your chosen subject. That said, certain backgrounds can really elevate the final result of your photo, so it’s worth staying open to aspects that are calling out to you.

Leading Lines and Shapes

A great way to think about photography composition is in terms of your audience’s attention. When you compose your image, you’re deciding where you’d like your viewers to look.

One great weapon in a photo composer’s arsenal is the lines and shapes they choose to highlight in a given image. “Leading lines” are exactly that — they’re lines that lead a viewer’s attention where you’d like it to go.

More skilled photographers can send their audience on a journey, expertly leading them from one part of an image to the next. When first starting out, it’s best to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What aspects of my subject do I most want to highlight?
    1. Are there shapes and lines within my subject that demand more attention?
  2. How can I make sure my viewer focuses primarily on these aspects?
    1. Are there other lines and shapes that might help me frame the shot?
    2. Where can I position my subject to improve its visibility?

Establishing a habit of asking these kinds of questions early on can have fantastic results as you grow as a photographer.

Textures

Texture is easy to overlook as a beginner photographer, but it can really elevate your shots when used effectively within your composition. Is your subject particularly smooth? Sharp? Texturally unique? It’s a good idea to think about how best to highlight these textures.

Conversely, it can also pay to explore how to draw attention away from textures or other elements that you’d rather not feature prominently. Getting to grips with what works in this regard can significantly improve your skills as a photographer.

Lighting

Lighting is of monumental importance in practically every aspect of photography. Composition is no exception. At an absolute minimum, it’s vital that you make sure your subject is well-lit and visible when taking photos.

The next stage in this line of thinking is experimenting with how your light sources are interacting with your chosen subject. Think about the conclusions you came to when considering the lines and shapes within your scene.

Would these elements benefit more from side lighting? What about a unique, backlit setup? Do you want shadows for a dramatic flare in your images, or would you like to eliminate them altogether?

Answering these questions can make it much easier to make decisions when it comes to setting up your shoot and finalizing your composition.

Check out our lighting guide for more tips.

Framing

Framing is adjacent to subject positioning but it deserves its own discussion here. In addition to choosing where your subject is placed within your scene, it can be valuable to think about how the other elements of your photo can compliment it.

In the same way that leading lines can direct the attention of your viewer, framing is all about telling your viewer where they should look. In the real world, improving your framing skills involves a process of trial and error.

Experiment with how you arrange your scene. Decide which element you want to highlight and play around with how you can position your other elements to do so.

Colors and Contrasts

Color is a huge part of good photo composition. People respond very powerfully to a well-executed color palette. Take the time to look at your chosen subject carefully. Which colors immediately stand out to you?

Tweak the settings of your camera to find a color temperature that will best highlight these colors. Alternatively, consider whether a black and white image might be the best way to do your subject justice.

The dramatic flair that black and white images bring can be brilliant for emotional or more ‘serious’ shoots.

Composition Challenges

In case we haven’t driven this point home enough already — practice makes perfect. The more you can get out there and put the tips described above into practice the better. This section contains a few real-world scenarios that offer a perfect opportunity to try out what you’ve learned. Check them out below.

Architecture

harsh lines in an architecture photograph

Check out the harsh lines of this building.

Architecture offers a rich vein of challenges for the budding photographer. Some buildings present harsh, sharp lines. Others use curved glass and smoother elements. It’s also possible for buildings to use both of these elements in tandem.

Find some interesting buildings in your local area and experiment with capturing them. Use the tips we discuss above to experiment with how you compose your scene.

How can you highlight the natural shapes presented by a building? Conversely, how can you “work against” them?

Nature

Nature is packed full of brilliant subjects. In fact, the genre is so diverse that we outline a couple of more specific examples below.

Landscape Photography

lake landscape photo

Which lines call out to you in this image?

The broad, sweeping landscapes found in the great outdoors are a brilliant subject for a new photographer to sink their teeth into. Choose a wide focal length and practice capturing these scenes in all their glory.

In terms of lines and shape, the horizon is a huge element to consider with this type of photography. Another important consideration is focus. With such a broad scene, how best can you focus your camera to do the image justice?

Other Examples

Other examples of excellent nature subjects include:

  • Animals (can you compose a shot that emphasizes their movement?)
  • Trees (what lines and shapes capture your imagination?)
  • Foliage
  • The sky

Macro

macro dandelion photo

Where do your eyes first fall when viewing this image?

Moving in the opposite direction now, macro photography is a phenomenal world of ultra-close-up shots. Your tolerances for focus and movement will be much smaller with this kind of work.

Framing and leading lines are more important than ever with macro photos. The vivid details you’ll be capturing can take a little practice to get right. Don’t be disheartened if your first few attempts don’t come out the way you expected.

Check out our guide to macro photography.

Portrait Shots

 

portrait of a girl in flowers

Note how the photographer has framed this model with the plants in the foreground.

Human beings are an excellent subject to practice composition with. The primary reason for this is that everyone’s face needs a slightly different approach. Different models will look better with different lighting, framing, and compositional setups.

Ask a few friends if they’d like their photo taken. Pay attention to what makes each model look best. You may find that different people need wildly different approaches to produce an image that’s flattering.

Learn about the 3/4 view here.

Final Thoughts

It’s easy to feel intimidated by composition in photography. The reality is, however, that it’s less complicated than many people think. We strongly recommend getting out there and practicing with your camera as much as possible.

Taking photos in the real world will improve your skills far more than any article ever could. Use the tips we’ve outlined on this page when shooting and experiment with how you put them into practice.

You’ll be composing shots like a pro in no time!