When taking a photograph, one of the things that can help you achieve better results is to pay careful attention to the how the image is composed. Essentially, what this entails is observing the scene that you wish to photograph, choosing which of its elements to include in your shot and deciding how to arrange them within the frame.
When it comes to composition (or any other aspect of photography), there are no hard and fast rules to follow or secret recipes that guarantee the result you want - so all of what I’ve written below should be ignored as you see fit. In my opinion, the most important thing about a photograph is that it does what you want it to do. Getting it ‘technically correct’ can often help you take photographs that achieve this but, at the same time, some of the most exciting photography is compelling and interesting because it breaks the rules. If it looks right to you, then it’s right.
That said, here are some things that can be useful to keep in mind when you’re composing a shot.
Identifying the subject.
Before you even lift your camera to take a photograph, you should be thinking about what the subject of your photograph is. In other words, the thing that caught your interest and made you stop walking to reach for your camera. Being able to identify your subject is what will help you decide how to compose your photograph.
If you’ve stopped to photograph a person, that person is, of course, part of your subject. Even so, there are people everywhere who you’re not interested in photographing. What is it about this one that you wanted to capture? Is it something they’re wearing? A facial expression or a gesture with their body? The way the light is falling on them? Whatever it is, that’s the subject.
When it’s an object, it may be slightly less obvious what attracted you to it but that should still be pretty easy to identify. As with the example above, there’s usually something about the object that caught your attention. If it’s a neon sign hanging in a window, it could be the words on the sign that interest you but, equally, it could be the way the light is falling on and colouring everything around it. If it’s an old building, it could be a detail like the aged texture of the cracked and faded plaster, or it could be the way the entire structure is shaped. If it’s a boat, maybe it’s the unusual colour of its sails, or maybe it’s simply the sheer size of it.
Often, the subject of a photograph consists of more than just a single element of a scene. It may be that different objects have combined to create an interesting result. For example, it may be that something has been lit in a particular way or it may be the way an element is positioned in its environment. It may also be that there is no specific person or thing in the scene at all but you think that all the colours within it look beautiful together or you want to capture the softness of the light around you or, in fact, you enjoy the vastness of an empty space. Even the absence of people and things can be a subject in itself.
When composing a photograph, what matters first and foremost is that you understand what made you want to take the it. That’s not so that you can decide whether to take the shot or whether to walk away. It’s so that you can figure out how to take the shot in a way that best captures and conveys your subject.
Generally speaking, the subject should be the most prominent element in the shot - or at least among the most prominent things. In this context, ‘prominent’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘large’, it means ‘noticeable’. If the subject of the photograph is the thing that drew your attention to the scene in the first place, it follows that you want the viewer of the photograph to have their attention drawn to that same thing. What you probably don’t want is for the subject to get lost amongst the rest of the image. There are various ways that this can be managed.
Positioning the subject within the frame.
Having understood what the subject is, composing a shot becomes largely about where in the frame that subject is positioned. Again, there are no fixed rules and if something ‘feels’ right, that’s all that ultimately matters. Many photographers learn ‘the rule of thirds’ fairly early on which is something that I think is worth having an understanding of but also not obsessing over. There are, in my opinion, far more fundamental things to consider when positioning a subject.
Once you lift your camera and go from observing the world directly with your eyes to looking at it through a camera viewfinder or screen, the most significant change is the sudden presence of a hard rectangular border, framing your view. This is obviously a pretty dramatic difference in the way that we usually see our environment, making the edges of that frame one of the most important areas to keep an eye on when composing a shot. Having the content of your scene suddenly cease to exist when it reaches the edge of the frame is distracting but also unavoidable since, of course, the frame of the photograph cannot be infinitely large. What can be avoided, however, is positioning any of the important elements of the scene on or so close to the edge that the frame distracts from them. With the subject being the most important element of the scene, you’ll almost certainly want to avoid positioning it too close to the frame - or worse, having the frame cut through it so they drop off the edge of the image completely!
Avoiding this kind of mistake should come naturally to most people. However, even after several years of shooting and hundreds of thousands of compositions later, I’m still guilty of forgetting that this same principle applies not just to the left and right edges of a scene but to the upper and lower borders too. If the subject involves a person, for example, it’s important to avoid having their head crashing into the top of the frame or their feet dropping off the bottom. Firing off a few dozen shots of a great subject only to realise later that I’ve chopped them off at the ankles is something that has made me want to throw my camera out of a window on more occasions than I care to admit.
Whilst this principle should be applied first and foremost to the subject of your photograph, it’s also worth keeping in mind when considering the rest of the scene too. In an ideal scenario, even the less important elements will be given a bit of breathing space, resulting in the borders cutting through only the least interesting areas of the image.
In a situation where it’s difficult to control exactly how your subject is positioned within the frame (for example, when your subject is moving around a lot or you don’t have time to consider the framing too carefully), it usually makes sense to err on the side of caution and shoot from slightly further away. This creates more space around the entire scene, allowing more room for error and giving you the opportunity to chop off the parts you don’t want by cropping the final images.
Positioning the subject relative to the rest of the scene.
The idea of giving your subject ‘breathing space’ doesn’t only apply to its proximity to the edges of the frame - it also applies to its relationship with the elements of the scene that sit around it. In the same way as having the image’s borders crashing into your subject pulls attention away from it, another object or person in the image can be equally or even more intrusive. When looking through the viewfinder and trying to consider everything else, it’s very easy to become so fixated on the capturing the main subject that everything and everyone else in the scene gets ignored. It’s extremely frustrating to have framed a shot perfectly, only to find that there’s something positioned so close up to the subject that your eyes can’t help but wander over to it.
Again, all of that probably comes fairly naturally to many people but what often gets forgotten about is what’s happening in the background. Despite there being physical space around the subject itself, prominent objects or people behind the subject can be just as distracting as something crashing into your subject from the side - or even slightly obscuring it from the front. I think the reason this is so easy to forget about is that these background objects can actually be very far in the distance in real life so they don’t seem like they should be an issue when considering a shot. Yet, if they line themselves up just right, they become surprisingly prominent in the final image.
In the above example, it was possible for me to control the background quite easily - all I had to do was adjust my position before taking the shot. However, when the background is constantly changing (usually as a result of people or cars moving through it), timing as well as positioning will effect the result of the shot. In these instances, it’s necessary to not only find an angle that eliminates any distractions from your subject but also to pick a moment that does that too. The principle is the same though - it’s about drawing the viewer’s attention to the right place.
Shooting in fairly dynamic environments such as on the street or at a wedding (as opposed to rural landscapes or studio portraiture) can make this a significant challenge - but keeping it in mind and trying to find the right moment to press the shutter can make the world of difference to the impact of a final image.
Providing context for the subject.
Everything covered so far has revolved around eliminating distractions and excluding elements from a shot. That’s because one of the easiest and most common ways to prevent the viewer from being drawn to the most important things in your photograph is to include things that pull their attention elsewhere. However, as much as the presence of other elements can be disruptive, they can also be necessary in order for an image to make sense - and even help add impact to the subject. So long as they don’t encroach on the main attraction, they can be the difference between a bland scene and one that’s exciting or intriguing.
It’s often quite difficult to differentiate between the elements in a scene that are intrusive and those that are adding something positive but this is why it’s so important to have a real understanding of what your subject is (beyond simply the main element in the frame). Knowing why you stopped to take the photo and being able to identify each of the elements that came together to capture your attention will make the biggest difference in helping you decide which you want in and which you want out.
At the very least, your image needs enough information to ensure that your subject makes sense. If you see a group of people playing basketball and you want to capture the enthusiasm and passion being expressed by one of the players, there are more elements to your subject than simply the player’s face - even though that’s probably where most of the energy and excitement is. In order to understand the scene in the same way as you do, the viewer needs to be shown where the person is, what they’re doing, what’s happening around them and so on. To achieve that, perhaps you need to show enough of the player’s body for it to be clear that they’re dressed to be playing sports or for it to be obvious that they’re moving quickly. Perhaps you need to position yourself so that a basketball or a net is within the frame if the specific sport is important to you. Perhaps the competitive element is part of your subject - in which case it’s probably best to include one or some of the other players. Without any of that, with nothing more than a sweaty grimacing face in the frame, you may not be fully capturing what is you set out to. Conversely, it may be that none of the context is important to you at all and you simply want to portray, I don’t know, the expressiveness of the human face. In that instance, you may prefer to come in extremely close so the face alone fills the frame. Either way, neither the basketball, the net, the other players or anything else will likely be the most significant element of your image but any or all of them may be part of your subject. If they are, then treating them as such will ensure that their presence within the frame adds impact to your image and helps your viewer see what attracted you to the scene in the first place.
The most important thing to have a true and complete understanding of when deciding how to compose a photograph is what your subject is. The thing that attracted you to the scene in the first place. That’s usually somewhat more complex than ‘a church’ or ‘a family’ or ‘a train’ so identifying the subject means being aware of the qualities of the scene that attracted you to it. Without knowing why and what you’re shooting, it’s very difficult to know how you should be shooting it. The decisions you make when composing your image are entirely dependent on what you feel the subject of that image is.
Generally speaking, the subject of the image should be free from distractions and be given ‘room to breathe’ so that the viewer's eyes are drawn towards it and not distracted while they are there.
When it comes to framing the shot, this is as simple as ensuring that the most important parts of the scene are not interrupted or pushed up too close against any of the four borders of the image. While the subject doesn’t need to be placed directly in the centre of the action, it usually needs at a least a little distance from the very edges in order to feel like a notable part of the photograph and to make for comfortable viewing.
Similarly, the subject needs to be somewhat free from the distractions provided by all the other elements in the scene. At least free enough that it isn’t competing for attention and leaving the viewer confused about where they are meant to be looking. That means positioning yourself so that anything in the scene that’s particularly eye-catching isn’t going to crowd your subject or peek out from behind it to steal the limelight. In more dynamic environments, this also means keeping an eye on how the subject’s surroundings and background are changing, timing the shot so that you avoid capturing anything you don’t want in there.
Again, this doesn’t need to be taken to the extreme - most forms of photography benefit from capturing at least some level of visual interest aside from the subject (or we’d all be trying to shoot everything against a plain white background and things would get boring pretty quickly). In fact, many images rely on the inclusion of supporting elements aside from the main subject in order to make sense of the scene. Being fully aware of what your subject is makes it much easier to understand the importance of each component part of a scene and will enable you to assemble a composition that shows whatever it is you wanted it to show, in the way you wanted to show it.
With all of that said (and at the risk of labouring the point), none of anything I’ve explained above is a golden rule that must be followed, nor does any of it guarantee a great photograph. All of the images I’ve shot and enjoyed have probably been technically poor on some level. And, as with any art, much of the most important work that exists today exists only because conventions were broken. At the same time, having an awareness of framing and composition and making informed decisions about how you want to shoot will, ultimately, help you to create images that do what you want them to do.