Improve Your Photos With 10 Elements of Composition

Improve Your Photos With 10 Elements of Composition

Have you ever seen photos with practically flawless composition and wondered why your photos aren't quite at the same level. You can get there, but you just need to learn how to structure your composition. That's why we're sharing 10 elements of composition to help you improve your photos.

The Main Thing to Know About the 10 Elements of Compositions

Before we get into our list of 10 elements of composition, I just want to give you some principles to keep in mind on your next photography session.

Many people come across some beautiful scene, interesting object or fascinating person and they just want to start snapping away. That's good if you need to catch something before it disappears. Sort of like documenting the existence of Big Foot.

In most other cases, you want to evaluate your scene for a great composition. Think before you snap away on your shutter button. I always do better if I take the time to think, though that's also why I don't have a photo of Big Foot.

What do you think about?

Think about what creates visual impact for your viewer. Are the colors powerful? Are there interesting lines or shadows? Take some time to consider what will make your viewers want to stop and look at your photo. That's a tough thing to do in the modern age. People flick through Instagram photos with hardly a second per photo. If you want to stop someone from doing that, you need to capture something with impact.

You found a great subject. Wonderful. Now what?

Look for elements that build upon your subject. Add what you need, subtract anything that takes attention away from your subject. For some photos, I understand that's easier said than done. It's hard to move a mountain or a tree a little to the left. In those cases, you need to move yourself and change the way you approach your composition to eliminate distractions.

For a good example of adding things that build upon your subject and removing things that take away from it, just look at advertising photos. A good photo for a product or service carefully creates just the things the vendor wants you to see, and includes nothing else.

That's because the photo has a message, and so should you. What's the story of your photograph?

1: Unity

We start our elements of composition with Unity.

How many elements should you have in your photograph? Should it be busy or minimalist? Although I tend to prefer minimalist photos these days, that isn't necessarily an indication of a good photo. You want to ensure that the different items or elements in your photograph work together to tell your story. That doesn't mean that you can't have contrasting themes, but there needs to be a unifying theme running through the photograph.

Have you ever seen one of those photos of Santorini at sunset? All of the white buildings with blue tops nestled together by the sea. Those elements work together and give you a sense of place. It's a very serene location to view. You can compare that to something like Portofino in Italy, another seaside town. Instead of one set of colors for each building, they have a multitude of colors with those buildings crowded upon each other. Yet, it works together in one color palette. Both of these locations have elements that belong together and provide a sense of unity in the photos.

London's skyline is a bit more disturbed. You have a plethora of old buildings occasionally punctuated by something modern – The Shard, the London Eye or the Gherkin. They stand out amongst the masses of other rather boring old buildings. The cityscape lacks a sense of unity.

In some cases, you can introduce contrast by adding an element that just doesn't belong in the photo, but yet has a reason for being there. Life magazine did this very well with Olympic athletes. A gymnast on a pommel horse in a wheat field. A downhill skier perched on the ledge of a skyscraper. The theme of Olympic athletes representing all of America came across with a unifying message and story.

There are times when I visit a location and start thinking about a photo, and then put the camera down without taking a shot. That's because the scene is a disunited hot mess that won't interest anyone. When that happens, I have a few choices. Sometimes I narrow my field of view to find something with a bit of harmony and unity. Either that, or I pull out a subject that belongs in this ugly environment and see it works.

The important thing is to test. You can take any photo you want, but think hard about the ones you show if the photo lacks unity throughout.

2: Balance

Photographs have something we call visual weight. You can achieve visual weight, or balance, with a number of methods.

  • Symmetry
  • Asymmetry
  • Concept
  • Tone
  • Color

A simple way to think of Symmetry in balance is to have your photo dead center – even on all sides. I know, you're told to follow the Rule of Thirds, but that's a rule to break on occasion. Symmetrical subjects often carry a sense of power along with their innate sense of balance.

Asymmetry allow you to start placing elements on different parts of the photo. However, you need to maintain your sense of balance. So if something is in the lower left corner, perhaps you need another element in the upper right. Think of it as adding a counter-weight to your photo, as in this example below:


My subject is the building on the left, but the trees on the right provide my counterbalance for asymmetrical balance.

Symmetry and Asymmetry provide visual balance with objects, but you can do the same with your color palette or tonal range. A monochrome photo with ranges between highlights and shadows can provide your tonal balance just as well as symmetry or asymmetry. There's nothing that says you can't combine these different types of balance in one photo.

Balance is a wonderful way to get creative in your photography.

3: Movement

We think of still photos as being still. To some, that seems elegant. To others, it could be incredibly boring. Movement is one of my favorite elements of composition.

Just because you're taking a still photo doesn't mean that you can't provide a sense of movement. Movement often means using a little (or a lot) bit of blur. Our eyes know that blur comes from motion, so don't be afraid to use a slow shutter speed now and then.

Movement in Photography

If I write an article on how to get tack sharp photos, I know that it's very likely to get a lot of traffic. Photographers are enamored with tack sharp photos, no matter if they're boring or not. It has less to do with telling a story and more about mastering a technical skill. There are times when you want a tack sharp photo. However, some stories require a bit of blur.

Panning a photo with a moving subject is a great way to show motion. Using a long exposure on headlights and tail=lights show motion on a street. You can drag your shutter on a performer or athlete to show their motion. If you want, combine that slow shutter with a rear-sync flash to get the best of both worlds – a sharp subject followed by a ghostly blur.

4: Rhythm

Perhaps rhythm is one of the easiest elements of composition to use, yet also one of the most misunderstood.

Photographers can use rhythm in their photos to show progression or direction. A flight of stairs is one example. It's essentially a series of the same object progressing in one direction or another. Repeated pattens of any kind of items provide your photos with a sense of rhythm, and they lead the viewer's eye. Sometimes you can interrupt that pattern to create visual interest within the pattern, instead of leading to your subject.

Rhythm can appear with shapes, colors, repetition or progression. Our minds love rhythm, which is why it's an essential part of photography, music and other arts. We're drawn into patterns, but we also like an occasional disruption to the rhythm or pattern. That's why songs have a verse and a chorus a few times, then a bridge, and back to a verse and a chorus.

The audience loves a chorus so we can join into parts of the performance and sing “I Love Rock n' Roll”, but that gets boring if we just do the same thing over and over again. That's why songs include a bridge. It's a relief from becoming bored with repetition and rhythm. Yet than it's followed the familiar rhythm to close out the song.

Think about what this means for your photography. Rhythm is familiar and comfortable. We enjoy it for a while, but then we need a break or a disruption. Use rhythm from time to time, particularly to lead the eye or to progress from one place to another. Use disputed rhythm as a form of interest itself. However, I wouldn't create an entire gallery of work based upon rhythm, unless you can find a way to do it in a unique way with each photo in the group.

To me, rhythm is like a seasoning used to taste. It's just not meant to be the meal.

5: Subject

What does every photo need?

  • Background
  • Light
  • Subject

Every photo needs a subject. If your photo doesn't have a subject, then there is no hero in your story. I look back on some of my old photos and wonder what I was thinking. The sad part is that I know what I was thinking.

Oh, this looks nice. Snap.

There is a difference between being someplace that you like, or being with someone you like, and presenting it for others to like. That's the difference between a snapshot and a piece of art.

I've taken a lot of vacations on Sanibel Island in southwest Florida. It's a peaceful little place. I enjoy it there, particularly because of a lot of memories from previous trips. However, I have to be honest and say that it's not really a beautiful place. I like it for the ocean, the laid back pace on the island, and because I know how to unwind there.

When I tried to take some photos to show what I liked, I realized that the results just didn't capture anything interesting to show anyone else. The Gulf of Mexico is there, and so are a lot of canals. There are plenty of scrub brushes and other vegetation. The problem is that it just doesn't make for a lovely landscape or seascape location.

People do not like a photo just because you have an emotional attachment to the subject.

I've come across many boring portraits of people who are likely wonderful to be around. What do portraits have to do with my favorite vacation island?

You can't just plop any old thing down and make someone else care about it in your photos. Maybe you can use some interesting lighting, but then your story becomes about the light and contrast – not your subject. You may as well shoot an abstract photo and be done with the notion of a subject rather than have an uninteresting subject.

People want subjects that tell a story, spark some curiosity, or make them feel something. You have to find the emotional impact within your subject that you can convey to others in order to bring your photo to life.

6: Contrast

Contrast is a great way to grab visual interest. Tonal contrast, color contrast, or as we discussed earlier, contrasting subjects. Sort of like placing a bull fighter surrounded by ballerinas. Be careful with contrasting subjects, though. The viewer needs to be able to make sense to unify the different subjects, or they'll just get confused.

Why is there a bullfighter amongst the ballerinas?

If your photo doesn't indicate any answer, then you lose your audience. Sometimes that context comes from a supporting article or story. It may come in the context of a gallery of photos. No matter how you do it, make sure that your viewer understands the context of your subject contrast.

In most cases, using tonal contrast can really make your photos pop. Bear in mind that tonal contrast also affects your colors. You want to make sure that you don't add so much contrast that human skin turns orange or some other unsightly color. The idea is to enhance the photo, but there is a tipping point where you can add so much tonal contrast that it beats your subject with the ugly stick.

Color contrast is exceptionally popular for color grading. Almost every movie poster uses some form of Teal/Orange color grading. You aren't stuck with just those colors, though. Break out your Color Wheel and find some complementary colors to use in your own photos.

7: Proportion

You can have some great fun using proportion as one of your elements of composition.

Think of proportion as the relationship of size between elements in your photo. Maybe you've seen photos where someone cups their hands and pretends to hold up the moon. or squeezes a tall building between two fingers.

There are times when you can use proportion with intent, and other times where it screws up your photos by accident. That's most likely to happen with a wide angle lens. Here's one I did intentionally.

Proportion in Photography

This is my friend Colleen. She lives in New York and she has a blog about rubber ducks. I used a wide angle lens for this portrait knowing it would distort her hand and the size of the duck. The background of the New York City view from the top of the Empire State building added to her story. It's her place and the ducks are her thing.

Why does the duck look so large?

Because it's closer to the lens than she is, and that proximity exaggerates its proportion compared to her and everything else. You can use this technique as a storytelling device, or you can get burned by it when you last expect it.

I generally try to be very aware of the plane that my subject occupies with its relationship to the lens. When something reaches toward the lens, I know it's going to seem rather large in proportion to the rest of the subject. That's why you see photos of a lounging model with enormous feet close to you and a very tiny head far away.

Keep this in mind for smartphone photos. Many photographers like to get a somewhat lower angle when taking portraits. Yet doing that with a smartphone, which uses a wide angle lens, can emphasize the wrong part of your subject. Instead of flattering them, you just make them look short and fat.

8: Space

Nobody likes a crowded photo. Your subjects need breathing room. Not only does that help isolate them to draw attention, but eliminating distractions creates a more pleasing photograph for your viewer. As I said earlier in the article, there's a reason why so many advertising photos include a product shot without any distractions.

You can use Space in your photography to communicate different things.

My favorite photos of New York City aren't the ones with row after row of skyscrapers. Instead, I love the photos that show the space in Central Park, surrounded by buildings.

In most cases, you want to think of your photo in terms of Active Space and Dead Space. If you have a living subject in your photo, the Active Space is the area ahead of the subject. The dead space is the area behind it. You probably want to have the larger area as Active Space. It gives the viewer the notion that your subject has room to move.

Doesn't matter if your subject is a race car or a bear in the woods. It's going somewhere. Do you want it to drive off the edge of the photo? How rude.

Your subject doesn't have to move in order to use another type of space.

Copy Space in Photography

Earlier we talked about Balance. Not all balance has to come in your photo. That's because there is a world of opportunity to sell photos tagged with the phrase “copy space.” Advertisers need images with room to insert their add copy. The combination of your photo and their copy provides the balance.

If you want to get into stock photography and find a market that many other photographers are ignoring, start taking photos with room for copy, and be sure to tag them with the phrase “copy space”. Buyers are searching for those photos and they could find yours.

9: Texture

This isn't something I often say in public, but I love texture. Rock, stone, trees, fabric…whatever. I love me some texture in photos. Nothing makes a photo seem quite so tangible as a bit of texture.

Like most elements of composition, there are different ways to use texture in your composition.

Texture in Photography

A big part of my travel photography is picking up photos of textures. I use them for backgrounds, or to blend into my photos. Living in Central Florida, Walt Disney World offers a treasure of textures for any photographer. You don't even have to spend the money to go into the parks (though that is where many great textures reside). There are textures in a lot of the areas that are free to visit. House of Blues, Disney Springs, the various resorts. Each place has a theme and they're decorated with a variety of textures in different grains, shapes and colors.

Don't live in Orlando and don't plan to come here?

That's good, we have enough tourists. You can find textures where you live, city or country. I have bird's eye views of grass, pavement, sidewalks and anything under foot. You can take texture photos of buildings, barns, walls, etc. Get some canvas or burlap cloth for great textures. Go find some interesting wood or shoot the bark on a tree.

Textures are familiar to people because we understand them by our sense of touch. When you include texture in your photos, you're playing on memories of another sense. It's a great way to support your story by adding the right textures.

10: Dimension

How many times have you heard it said? Foreground, middle and background. That's how you add a sense of depth and dimension to your photos.

Dimension in Photography

If you want to give your photos a three dimensional feel, then remember to have layers in your composition to include elements in the foreground, the middle, and the background. The row of trees in this photo provides my foreground. The piton mountains are in the middle, and the low hanging clouds provide my background.

It's a simple formula, though I sometimes find it abused. I can't count how many times I come across a portrait with some leaves, branches or other natural element appearing blurry in front of a model. To be honest, I don't think your foreground should obscure your middle, particularly if that's your main subject.

Why We Use These 10 Elements of Composition

You don't need to cram all 10 elements of composition into one photo, but it doesn't hurt to combine them when the situation calls for it. The purpose is to use the right element of composition to provoke an emotional response from your viewer. They help you tell a story. Maybe they make someone wish they were with you when you took the photo.

What do you have to lose by trying?

Do you have other elements of composition that you use? Please share them in the comments below to help other readers.

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