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5 Easy Photography Composition Guidelines

You may not realise this, but every time you bring your camera up to your eye you're making decisions about composition. Simply put, composition is how you choose to frame the picture you're about to make. Many books have been written about composition. And while no two people are likely to frame the same scene the same way, there are some general guidelines that can help you make your photos more interesting and engaging.

The Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is a guide to help you show your subject off to best effect.

When you look through your viewfinder or at the LCD monitor screen on your camera, it helps to imagine a noughts-and-crosses grid over the scene. The grid segments the image into nine squares, which are created by superimposing four lines over what you can see.

Note that some Nikon cameras even have a menu option that allows you to turn on gridlines in the viewfinder (or on the screen). These gridlines are a guide to help you frame your image and won’t show up in your final picture.

Notice where the four lines intersect. The rule of thirds suggests that these intersection points are the best places in which to position the most important elements of your composition. Doing so will generally result in a more energetic and interesting image.

The subject doesn’t have to be directly on an intersection (also known as a 'power point'). As long as it is close to it, your image will be dynamic and well composed. Try a couple of different compositions to find the one you like best.

These same gridlines can help you to keep your horizons level and the vertical elements in your photo straight.

© Diane Berkenfeld

D4, AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II lens, 1/1600s, f/4, ISO 200, Centre-weighted metering, Aperture Priority.

Here you can see the grid overlay on the image of two Inca Terns: their heads are placed at the intersection of the lines according to the rule of thirds.

© Diane Berkenfeld

D4, AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II lens, 1/1600s, f/4, ISO 200, Centre-weighted metering, Aperture Priority.

This image of two Inca Terns at the zoo is an example of the rule of thirds.

© Diane Berkenfeld

D4, AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II lens, 1/800s, f/4, ISO 200, Centre-weighted metering, Aperture Priority.

Here you can see the gridlines showing placement of a subject according to the rule of thirds.

© Diane Berkenfeld

D4, AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II lens, 1/800s, f/4, ISO 200, Centre-weighted metering, Aperture Priority.

This image of a giraffe sitting in the grass at the zoo is a great example of the rule of thirds creating a pleasing composition.

Where to place the horizon line in your composition

Most pictures look better if the horizon is positioned above or below the middle of the frame (not directly in the centre of the image). The exception is when shooting a reflection. In this case having the horizon in the centre can work well because it creates equal elements at the top and bottom of the image—the scene above and the reflection below.

© Diane Berkenfeld

D100, AF VR Zoom-NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED lens, 1/5s, f/22 ISO 200, Spot metering, Manual.

When photographing a landscape, place the horizon closer to the top or (as in this case) bottom of the frame.

© Diane Berkenfeld

D4, AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II lens, 1/800s, f/4, ISO 200, Centre-weighted metering, Aperture Priority.

Normally you want to place the horizon line closer to the top or bottom, not right in the middle of the frame. However, when you're photographing subjects and their reflections, it is OK to break this rule.

Lean Into the Frame

When photographing people and animals it's best to have them looking into the frame. If there’s action in your picture, leave more space on the side of the frame where the action is headed. It looks more natural and gives the viewer a sense of the motion and story of the picture. Place your subject so the most open space in the image is in the direction it is facing.

© Diane Berkenfeld

D4, AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II lens, 1/640s, f/4, ISO 200, Centre-weighted metering, Aperture Priority.

© Diane Berkenfeld

In this image of a black swan gliding on the water, the bird is centred and the composition is not very interesting.

© Diane Berkenfeld

By cropping the image, we can move the subject to the top right of the frame for a more interesting composition.

In the final image, the subject is directing the viewer's eye through the frame: following the rule of placing more empty space in front of a subject. © Diane Berkenfeld

Leading lines

When photographing buildings or other strong linear subjects, compose your image so that the architectural elements lead the viewer’s eye through the photograph. These 'leading lines' can be the main subjects of the image, or they can be used to take your viewer to a specific area within the photo—an important focal point.

Curves also make for interesting compositions. They serve a purpose in bringing the viewer's eye to different parts of the image. Curves can be the main subject, or (as with leading lines) they can be a means of highlighting focal elements.

© Diane Berkenfeld

D100, AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED lens, 1/60s, f/4, ISO 200, Centre-weighted metering, Program.

This image is an example of how the curved lines of a subject can lead the viewer's eye around the frame, following the curving lines.

© Diane Berkenfeld

D100, AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR lens, 1/90s, f/5, ISO 320, Matrix metering, Program.

This image has strong leading lines that bring the viewer's eye from the right of the image, to the left, down the hallway.

Patterns and Textures

Subjects with repetitive patterns can make for interesting photographs as well. Patterns that are found in nature, or those that are man-made, can give your image a strong composition. Look within elements of a scene to find patterns. For instance: you may see a crate full of apples and think nothing more of it, but with a tight composition on just the fruit you’ve created a repeating pattern of color and shape. Also look for deviations in patterns. What if that crate of apples were all red, but someone placed one yellow apple in the box? Now you’ve got a repetitive image with a break in the pattern (the yellow apple) creating a strong point of focus.

Textures can also work to your advantage. Get in close, either by zooming or using a macro lens. When shooting patterns or textures, you don’t need to capture the entire subject. Textures can be soft, like the feathers on a bird, or harsh—like peeling paint or wood grain.

The rusting and chipped paint on this fishing boat lends itself to a study in texture. The bright sunlight hitting the boat shows off the texture of multiple layers of chipping paint and rust.

© Diane Berkenfeld

D3X, AF-S DX Micro NIKKOR 85mm f/3.5G ED VR lens, 1/200s, f/7.1, ISO 160, Matrix metering, Program.

Look Carefully

Most people aren't thinking about composition when they look at photos but they do know when a photo is pleasing to look at, even if they can't tell you exactly why. To improve your composition skills, spend some time looking at the photos taken by people whose work you admire. Pay attention to how they position their subjects within the frame. Look at their choice of background. What was included in the image, and what might have been left out? Now, review some of your own photos and ask yourself how you might have made the picture better by changing the composition.

These guidelines are just a starting point. Remember, for every rule there is an exception. Don't be afraid to step outside the box if it makes for a better photo.


Feature article and imagery contributed by Diane Berkenfeld.