Composition, in general, can seem like a fuzzy concept to many photographers. Trying to frame an image in a way that “works” is not something that is intuitive, even for people who have been taking pictures for years. And, unlike other aspects of photography — focusing, selecting a sharp aperture, exposing properly — composition has no correct answer. The best you can do is to create something that looks good to you, or looks good to your intended audience. Still, there are some composition tips that can help make this abstract topic a little more concrete. One of my favorites is to give your subjects their own personal, breathing space in your photos, so that they aren’t cut off or bunched up against anything else in the image.
1) Keep The Edges Clear
Ideally, every important element in a photograph should be positioned far enough away from the photo’s edges that it is not distracting.
If you keep the edges of your photo clear, it’s as though you are creating a built-in frame for a photograph. Essentially, you’re drawing a viewer into the image.
It is easy to overlook the edges of your composition. They are the parts of an image that typically attract the least attention. But that is precisely why they matter; if they do attract attention, unless you have a good reason for it, they can lead to photographs that look distracting, messy, and unintentional. The first thing I pay attention to when composing a photograph is the way its frame looks.
It won’t always be possible to compose a photograph in a way that leaves a perfect buffer around all its edges. And if you have minor elements that bump up against the frame, so be it. An image doesn’t need to have a dark, featureless border in order to avoid distracting your viewer. But the fewer elements that appear at the edges — particularly the most important elements of a photograph — the more intentional that your composition will tend to look.
2) Don’t Interfere With Your Subject
Even worse than crowding the edges is if you block a significant portion of your primary subject with elements that are far less important.
What do I mean by this? Say that you’re photographing the reflection of a mountain in a pristine lake. However, depending upon your angle, parts of the lake shore might be too close to the reflection — or even block parts of it completely. Take a look at the photograph below for a particularly bad example:
There are a number of problems with this photo. Not only is the reflection particularly bad, but other elements of the photograph (say, the moon at the top) are cut off awkwardly by the edge of the frame. The end result is a composition that looks haphazard and accidental.
How would I fix this problem? The simple solution is to move my camera to a position that gives each subject its own breathing space. I don’t want anything to interfere with this mountain’s reflection, and I want to ensure that the moon is nowhere near the top of the photograph. Here is the corrected version:
That’s a clear difference. This photograph looks far more deliberate, as if it has a reason to exist.
When you frame an image, you should do so with the intent to provide breathing space for all of your subjects. If they are cut off or blocked by anything else in your photo, the final image will be too chaotic.
Breathing space — between your subject and the edges, as well as multiple subjects — is one of the fundamental parts of composition. Alone, it isn’t enough to guarantee a successful photograph. But if you don’t give your subjects the space they deserve, it is hard to argue that your composition is as effective as possible.
This isn’t a difficult concept, but it is one of the more common reasons why I see some good photographers take bad photos in the field. And that’s simply because, by default, your first view of a scene might not be one with the most breathing space for your subjects. This is the type of thing that takes conscious effort to correct in the field; if you don’t keep it in mind, it is very easy to end up with suboptimal compositions.
When you capture an image, the two words stuck in your head should be deliberate and conscious. Every single part of your photograph should exist intentionally; nothing should be accidental. An image with good subject separation is one of the main steps toward that goal.
Composition is one area where a huge number of photographers — including many who are very, very talented — still struggle. It’s just not an especially tangible topic, and most attempts to explain it (i.e., the rule of thirds, leading lines), don’t go nearly far enough. There’s no perfect answer here, but you can dive much deeper into this subject than the average article or book tends to go. Specifically, if this happens to be a topic that interests you, I strongly recommend our eBook, “Creative Landscape Photography: Light, Vision, and Composition.” (That’s where the breathing space tips in this article come from.) Frankly, it’s true that eBooks in general don’t have a very good reputation. But my hope is that you’ll give this one a chance and see what it has to offer, since all the information in it is designed specifically to be as accurate and tangible as possible, in a field where accurate and tangible tips can be difficult to find.