The following article contains a list of important composition tips to help you take the strongest possible photos. It goes without saying that composition is a very personal creative decision, so there are no truly universal do’s and don’ts. Nevertheless, there are certain techniques you can use to improve your photos, from forming a vision to refining your initial composition in the field. The goal is to make your image’s final message as clear and effective as possible.
Table of Contents
1. Have a Vision in Mind
The first step in making a successful photo is to have a plan – a vision – an idea. In your mind’s eye, see the image you want to capture, and then do everything possible to make it a reality. This is called visualization.
It’s not an easy skill to learn. You need to be so familiar with your camera, your post-processing abilities, and your printing/output characteristics that it’s second nature to picture the final image in your head before you even capture it. That takes a lot of practice.
But good visualization skills are worth it. In the field, you’ll know exactly what you can and cannot do to improve a photo in post-processing. You’ll see ahead of time which elements of the image are going to annoy you later – and how to deal with them as best as possible in the field.
You’re thinking about the best possible version of a photo, then doing everything you can to make it a reality. Every decision you make in the field should be in service of your vision.
2. Make Conscious Decisions
You have a large number of decisions to make each time you take a photo. Many of them are automatic or obvious, and they only matter occasionally (like deciding to change your memory card). But some decisions impact every photo, even if they slip behind the scenes all too often.
Ideally, you’ll want to bring as many subconscious decisions to the surface as possible. Every choice in photography is an opportunity to push the photo closer in the direction of your vision. This isn’t just about composition or creativity; your technical decisions also have a huge impact on your photos and their mood. I’m fond of saying that every technical choice is really a creative choice in disguise – because it is.
The important thing is to not let these decisions fly by on autopilot. When you pick a particular set of camera settings, know why you’re doing so. Don’t just use a focal length because that’s what you had for the last photo. Instead, evaluate the scene in front of you and deliberately pick which focal length will meet your vision the best. And so on, for every decision you make.
3. Keep It Simple
Your vision for a photo is another way of saying your intended message. Which emotions do you want to convey to a viewer? What mood or ideas do you want your photo to express? This is where simplicity plays a critical role.
When you’re making conscious decisions to meet your vision, remember that the emotional message won’t land if it’s hard to understand. Simplify your idea down to its essence; exclude anything from your photo that takes away from what you’re trying to say.
Simplicity might just be the biggest “trick” to improving your compositions. Before you take a photo – but after you know what you want to say – look for any distractions in the frame that harm your message. Get rid of them in your composition, or minimize them as much as possible.
Unless you’re doing studio photography where you have total control, some flaws will almost always appear in the image. But the sooner you recognize them in the field, the less of a problem they’ll be in the final photo.
I recently was photographing salt formations at the Dead Sea around sunset. It was a beautiful location, but a dark peninsula on the left-hand side of the frame made the composition tricky. So, as the light turned good, I packed up my camera and went to the tip of the peninsula itself (thereby excluding it from the composition). I took perhaps my favorite image of the entire trip from that spot.
Although the earlier location had a lot of merits, the peninsula distracted from the hazy, peaceful message I wanted my photo to convey. For the sake of simplicity, I needed to change locations.
4. Watch How the Light Changes
As we’ve covered before, light and color are two of the most important qualities for determining the mood of a photo. High-contrast blue light is very different from pastel orange at sunset. Yet both of them can occur within thirty minutes of each other. That’s why it’s so important to watch the changing light in a scene.
Don’t just choose “both” and photograph the same scene the entire time. Perhaps the light at sunset is perfect for wildlife photography, but it gradually shifts to working better for a landscape instead. In any case, by watching the mood of the light, you can get multiple keepers from a photoshoot rather than just one.
I recently was taking sunrise photos from an amazing overlook, and the obvious landscape for photography faced one particular direction. I could have composed a good photo, set up my camera on a timelapse, and selected the one with the best light later. And while that certainly would have resulted in a keeper, I instead ended up with four different successful images from that single sunrise, the most I’ve ever gotten at a time. That happened because I watched the changing light and focused on different subjects throughout the morning.
5. Balance the Composition
One of the many decisions you should make consciously is whether to create balance or imbalance in your composition. In other words – will the photo lean left or right and create a sense of tension? Or will it have equal weight on both sides, appearing more static but also more harmonious?
Balance is about assessing the visual weight of your scene and simply figuring out whether there’s more on the left or right. I generally want my landscapes to be as balanced as possible, with no real sense that they are “leaning” one direction or another. However, I have seen some documentary photographers and even nature photographers aim for strong imbalances to make the photo feel more “on edge.”
To me, this is the first element of composition that you should learn and think about for every photo, wether you choose to go for balance or imbalance in a given image. In my opinion, photographers who master balance and simplicity already understand the fundamentals of composition, since they know what looks harmonious (balance), what looks tense (imbalance), and how to get there (simplifying the frame). Read our more detailed article on the subject as well.
6. Pay Attention to the Edges
The edges of a photo are just as important as the center. In some ways, they’re more important; a tiny distraction near the edge of your frame has a far greater effect than the same distraction near the center. There’s a reason why vignetting – darkening the edges and corners of a photo – is so popular, since it practically spotlights the rest of the frame without appearing unnatural (so long as you don’t overdo it).
This isn’t to say that your photo should always be dark and empty in the corners. That’s not always possible, let alone desirable. But you should at least think about the edges of your photo while you’re composing.
Keep your subjects away from the far edges unless your goal is to create an unusual composition. Try to cut off the boundaries of a photo in a thoughtful, careful manner. And, in post-processing, crop, darken, desaturate, or clone out distractions along the edges of the composition if they harm your image significantly.
7. Use Contrast and Color Contrast
Another important emotional dichotomy in composition – along the same lines as balance and imbalance – is high versus low contrast.
Photos with high contrast attract the eye and pop out, conveying a sense of intensity and power. Low-contrast images, on the other hand, are more subtle and subdued, but they also have a refined quality to them. Neither type of photo is better than the other, but both send different messages, so it’s important to make this decision in service of your vision for the image.
Madhu wrote a more detailed article on contrast, but the biggest takeaway is that there are multiple types of contrast. Although the classic high-contrast image has bright highlights and deep shadows, you can attract the eye just as strongly through color contrast – placing two opposing colors next to one another. The same emotions apply, though.
So, in the field, seek out scenes and light with contrast that suits your emotional message. And, in post-production, add or decrease contrast (locally or globally) to further refine your photo’s emotions.
8. Know How to Draw the Eye
High contrast isn’t the only feature of a photo that draws a viewer’s eye. We’re attracted to anything that catches our attention in the real world: bright objects, vivid colors, people’s faces, interesting shapes, unusual objects, strong texture, interesting patterns, and so on.
This is very useful information to know as you compose a photo. On one hand, it helps with balance – you can balance out your main subject simply with a bright object on the other side of the photo, since both may have similar levels of visual weight. But beyond that, if you know how to draw a viewer’s eye, you can post-process a photo to emphasize the important elements and diminish the ones that harm your message. This is where the classic “dodge and burn” edits come into play.
9. Give the Composition a Structure
Every photo has a structure to it – an organization behind the scenes. This is essentially the path a viewer takes through the photo, although of course it is impossible to predict exactly how someone’s eye will flow through an image.
I’ve always found it interesting that you can reduce most photos down to a handful of lines and shapes, yet still retain much of the emotional mood of the original image. That’s because the emotions of a photo are fundamentally tied to its structure, perhaps more so than we consciously realize.
So, in the field, give a bit of thought to the structure of a photo. Arrange the elements of your composition as if they are abstract shapes placed on canvas, not simply literal subjects. And, in post-processing, strengthen the photo’s structure through global and local adjustments as needed.
10. Watch for Patterns
Repeated patterns in a photo make your composition feel interconnected and intentional, as if the photographer took a particular image for a reason. But that’s not the only type of pattern in photography. Just as important – maybe more so – are the cycles that occur in the real world, repeating themselves with remarkable regularity.
Several years ago, when I was taking pictures of a glacial lagoon in Iceland, an Arctic tern flew in front of the perfect iceberg. I had set my camera for landscape photography, not wildlife, so I missed the shot. But fifteen minutes later, it flew by the same spot, and I started to think that it was going in circles. I changed my camera settings and waited, and sure enough, what I believe to be the exact same bird flew by a third time, and I captured the photo I had in mind.
So, watch for patterns – not just visual repetition that appears in a photo, but also patterns and cycles in nature. If you miss the shot you wanted, chances are good that a similar scene will appear again eventually.
11. Match the Tripod to Your Composition
The easiest way to use a tripod is to set it up at its full height, then attach the camera and start composing. But that technique can be quite harmful if it’s your default.
On one hand, how often does the best possible photo really match up with an eye-level tripod? Maybe for some images – like distant landscapes or wildlife in the sky – it doesn’t really make a difference. But in many other cases, the best compositions are much lower to the ground. It could be wildlife at eye level with your subject, landscapes with a dramatic foreground, street photography to capture the reflection in a puddle, and so on.
Second, before you set up your tripod in a given spot, you need to have a good reason to choose there rather than somewhere else. Composition should begin well before your camera is on the tripod. Otherwise, you might anchor yourself to a frame out of convenience rather than quality.
Instead? Walk around, try different heights, tilt the camera, change lenses, compose – and only then match your tripod to your composition.
12. Keep Moving
Along the same lines as the prior tip, it’s important to remember that photography is not a spectator sport. Sometimes, you almost have to fight the scene in front of you to wrest free the best composition. You’ll need to move around, walk or run into place, try out different angles, and rarely stay still.
As much as I like the sound of standing by a tripod as the sun sets, sipping a warm drink and enjoying the atmosphere, that’s rarely what ends up happening. Instead, I tend to dash around like a madman as the light changes, jumping from one vantage point to another. Even at overlooks where there isn’t much of a different location in the first place, I still change lenses and compositions whenever a spark of inspiration hits.
Some exceptions are when you wait around for ages in a wildlife blind or on a street corner to catch the perfect moment, or arranging a tabletop studio scene meticulously. In those cases, you might not be moving much, but you’re definitely still putting in the effort to capture a good photo.
13. Give Your Subjects Breathing Space
When you’re composing a photo, it often helps to give your subject a sense of breathing space – not placing other subjects too close, and especially not crossing the primary subject with one that isn’t as important.
For example, if you’re photographing a mountain in the distance, take the time to move around and change the composition so the peak isn’t covered by a nearby tree. The same goes if you’re photographing a flock of birds, for example; you don’t want them to cross one another and become distractions.
Breathing space alone is not enough to guarantee a good composition. But it’s still important; give your subjects the space they deserve, or your message could get lost and muddled.
14. Unify the Photo’s Emotions
Many of the tips so far have danced around the topic of emotion, such as balance, light, color, and structure. All of these elements, among many others, are part of that decision-making process you practice for every image. If you can make it so that all these elements work in tandem, each working in service of a singular emotional message, your photo will be successful on many different levels.
This is what I mean by unifying the photo’s emotions. If the light in a photo is soft and gentle, but your subject is jagged and harsh, the image’s emotional message is unclear. If your composition is dynamic and imbalanced, and the structure of the photo is a tense series of jagged lines, does your subject convey a similar mood? Or is your composition like that by accident?
Every decision you make is a chance to skew the emotional message of the photo in the direction you want. Crowded or empty; bright or dark; low or high contrast; blurry or sharp – and so on. The key is to make these decisions deliberately and intentionally. The more choices you can make consciously rather than by happenstance, the better.
15. Refine Your Composition
Last, and among the most important tips in this list, is to refine your composition when you’re taking pictures. Work with the scene. Take some sample photos and see how they look, analyzing them critically to see what works and what doesn’t. Compare the emotional message – the vision – in your head, versus the image on the back of your camera screen. How do they differ?
Not everyone’s style of photography works well with refining the same composition. Some people prefer spontaneity and on-the-spot emotional decisions. That is an equally fair approach, although even then I believe photographers will benefit from refining the idea in their head and the goal they have in mind. We also have a longer article on the refining process if you want concrete examples of how this works in the field.
At the end of the day, though, the real takeaway is that there’s always room to improve. Not just in a single photo – in your overall composition and visualization skills, too. No one out there has “solved” composition, and there’s a lot of personal style involved as well, so finding an endpoint here isn’t really the goal. The biggest piece of advice I can give is to just keep taking photos along the way.