Photography Composition for Beginners (Where to Start)

Composition will make or break your shots – let’s start at the beginning
By Simon Burn – subscribe to Simon’s YouTube channel

Recently, I had a couple of conversations with people who had bought cameras, and wanted to get more serious about their photography. Once they’d figured out the basics of using their camera, they were faced with the next challenge – photography composition, how to create better images.

This is something all beginning photographers go through: how to go from taking “happy snaps” that merely record a moment, to photographs that feel composed, that involve the eye and cause viewers to stop and study the image. The answer is understanding some of the basics of composition.

So Many Photo Composition Rules

If you start to study composition, you’ll hear about the rule of thirds, diagonals, triangles, symmetry, contrast, patterns, frame within a frame, balance, rule of odds, visual tension, negative space, s-curves, foreground interest…

Wow, now I see this written out, it does look bewildering! I realize that I take composition for granted, I see a view I want to capture and rarely think about how to compose it, it just automatically happens.

Here’s what I do think about when I’m shooting: the reason why I’m shooting the image, the story I want to tell, the balance of colours, the details I don’t want to include, and most importantly for me, the effect the light is having on the image.

You Won’t be a Composition Rock Star on Day One

So what advice can I offer to someone starting out?

I thought back to when I was kid wanting to be the next guitar god like Mark Knopfler. I bought a guitar, and didn’t have a clue where to start. I took lessons and was soon very discouraged that I couldn’t learn to play Sultans of Swing after the first lesson.

Instead, I was told it all starts with a learning a few basic chords, and to build from there.

A Starting Point for Photo Composition

OK, so let’s apply that to photography. Here is my advice for what I believe is the best starting point to mastering composition.

Of all the photo composition techniques, I would first learn and get an instinct for using the rule of thirds.

Look through your camera settings to see whether you can show a rule of thirds grid on your screen as you shoot. This will help you place the focal point of your shot on or near one of the intersections of the grid or along one of the lines.

Finding the right place for your focal point will create a pleasing balance in the picture and allow the eye to travel around the picture.

While new photographers tend to place the focal point dead centre, the result is often an awkward shot that doesn’t invite exploration. (However, with experience, you’ll find there are times when you can create balance by having the focal point in the centre. We’ll leave that for another lesson.)

Experimenting With the Rule of Thirds

Here’s an example of the rule of thirds in action.

Here’s the focal point of the photo in the centre of the frame

I re-framed the shot to place it on a horizontal third line

Here it is on a vertical third

I reframed it again to put it on the intersection of a horizontal and vertical third

How is that looking to you?

If you get used to trying these options with everything you shoot, you will develop an idea of what works best in different situations.

In theory, there is no right or wrong. All of them are choices we make, and that is the key. In composition, it is critical to make a conscious decision in how you position objects in your frame.

You need to take the time to look through the viewfinder and move the camera around so that you have your focal point where you want it in the frame. Often, just moving the camera isn’t enough. You have to physically move a few steps to get your framing right.

The aim here is build your own aesthetic sensibilities, of what feels “right” to you personally.

Start by positioning your subject in the centre of the frame and then move around the frame, shooting as you go. What looks best to you?

Considerations With Rule of Thirds Compositions

Here are a few things to think about:

If you place an object in the top third of the frame, does it have enough space above it, or does it feel like it’s getting a haircut?

Conversely, if the object is in the bottom third, does the space above it contribute to the feeling you’re trying to convey?

Now, look at left side versus right side. Which side should the object be on? Does it feel more natural on one side or the other? Often the shape of an object will dictate that choice.

The position of the object you’re focusing on plays a part too. For example, if a building is facing to the right, then positioning it on the left side of the frame – facing into the frame – will likely work better than positioning it on the right side of the frame and facing out of the frame. That would create tension. But of course, you might want to create tension or unease to make a statement.

We’re lucky to be shooting digital, since it costs nothing but time to experiment. The key is to study the shots afterwards and learn from them.

Strengthen Rule of Thirds With Diagonals

Once you have a feel for how the rule of thirds can work for you, I would suggest you start looking for compositions where you can introduce diagonal lines within the frame that help lead the eye towards that focal point.

Here are two examples that illustrate this nicely:

A single diagonal lead-in line takes the viewer’s eye to your focal point on the top left third intersection

Here there are multiple diagonal “lines” leading to the focal point

This image starts to break the rules to great effect. The focus is on the right foreground, yet the focal point is out of focus, positioned using the rule of thirds. The diagonal lead-in lines take you there, over-riding the area in focus.

Contrast also plays an important role here, but that’s a topic for another time. I’ve controlled the viewers’ eye and guided them through the image, and there’s a story being told. The person walking into the tunnel is going to experience these impressive murals, or maybe she already has and she’s walking away. Does that work for you? It worked for me.

Master Rule of Thirds and Diagonals for Powerful Images

Rule of thirds combined with diagonal lead-in lines work together to help tell a story. That’s all I’m covering in this article, it’s enough to be getting on with.

Of course, all of these rules we hear about aren’t really rules. I would look at them more as guidelines.

Photography is very subjective, and creating the “right” composition is a decision only the artist/ photographer can make.

Having said that, these “rules” are talked about and referenced for a reason, as they are proven to be aesthetically pleasing techniques that can enhance the appeal of an image.

I’m a believer that rules should be broken, but we do need to learn the basics first.

Oh, and I never did get beyond the first couple of basic chords. I sold the guitar and bought a camera.

Simon Burn

Simon has been a photographer and creative director in the UK and Canada for over 25 years.

He worked with Andy for multinational corporations and brands before veering off to work on travel, tourism, food and lifestyle projects. Simon has travelled all over North America and Europe, working with consumer brands, tourism associations, and resorts. His work has been published in books, graced the covers of magazines, featured on TV; and he’s also worked with other photographers in the role of creative/art director and photo editor for publications and brands, in addition to being a photography competition judge.

In 2018, he started his own YouTube channel to share his love of travel and landscape photography and filmmaking.

ExploreDiscoverShoot is borne of Simon, Andy and David’s combined creative, business and technical skills, a strong entrepreneurial flair, and passion for photography and content creation.

The opportunities to work with other creators, share ideas, and promote creativity and knowledge, is a driving force with infinite possibilities.

Simon Burn

Simon has been a photographer and creative director in the UK and Canada for over 25 years.

He worked with Andy for multinational corporations and brands before veering off to work on travel, tourism, food and lifestyle projects. Simon has travelled all over North America and Europe, working with consumer brands, tourism associations, and resorts. His work has been published in books, graced the covers of magazines, featured on TV; and he’s also worked with other photographers in the role of creative/art director and photo editor for publications and brands, in addition to being a photography competition judge.

In 2018, he started his own YouTube channel to share his love of travel and landscape photography and filmmaking.

ExploreDiscoverShoot is borne of Simon, Andy and David’s combined creative, business and technical skills, a strong entrepreneurial flair, and passion for photography and content creation.

The opportunities to work with other creators, share ideas, and promote creativity and knowledge, is a driving force with infinite possibilities.

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