Three Simple Steps to Better Composition in Your Photos

Composition Basics

09-28-2011 // Rob Sheppard

Composition really underlies all of photography. At its core, it is about communication and how you show off a subject to an audience. A good composition helps the viewer understand something, whether that is about the subject, about color, design, light, a story about the world, something. A poor composition communicates those things poorly so that the viewer struggles with the image.

That’s important to you as a photographer. You want people to "get it" when they look at your photos, right? It is no fun to have to explain a picture or point out things in an image that people don't see otherwise. By getting a handle on composition for your photos, you will be guaranteed better pictures!

1. What Is Your Photo About?

One basic challenge that many photographers have is that they have not decided what their photograph is about. This is a question we all need to ask ourselves when we are taking pictures: What is our photograph about?

Lupine by Turnagain Arm near Anchorage, AK by Rob Sheppard

This goes to the core of what photography itself is all about – what is actually in the photograph. Not what is your subject. Not what you thought was in the photo. Not what you pointed your camera about, but what is actually in the photo and what that means to a viewer. You cannot assume that because you pointed your camera at a subject that you have a photograph that is about something a viewer will understand.

A good way to start thinking about this is to use your LCD. Look at the photo. What is it about? Not did you get the shot, but what is the photo really about? If you say it is about a certain subject, then what is all that stuff doing in the foreground that has nothing to do with the subject. If it is about the sky, then why is all of that dark, underexposed ground in the bottom of the photo? If it is about a person and a special location, then how is the viewer supposed to know what is important if they are both fighting equally for our attention?

Mariposa lilies in Santa Monica Mountains by Rob Sheppard

2. Get Out of the Middle

One thing that will immediately make your compositions look better is if you get your subject out of the middle. The natural tendency of beginning photographers is to put the subject in the middle of the photo.

Why should you get your subject out of the middle? Research on how people look at visuals shows some very interesting things. When a subject is in the middle, people look at the subject and little else in the photo. Then they get tired of the image and quit looking at it.

When a subject is out of the middle, people look at the subject, then start looking at the rest of the image. They get more out of the photo and they spend more time looking at it. In very simple terms, people enjoy the experience of looking at an image that has a subject out of the center. Centered photos are seen as boring (there are exceptions to this, but overall, this is a pretty good rule).

3. Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is simply a way of helping a photographer or artist get the subject out of the center. Divide your image area into thirds horizontally and vertically. This gives you four intersecting points besides the lines. On a very simple level, put your horizon at the top or bottom third lines. That immediately changes your photo from the very problematic horizon in the center.

You can then put a strong subject or strong visual part of a subject at one of the four intersecting points. Finally, you can put strong vertical lines at the vertical thirds.

Yucca in Joshua Tree National Park by Rob Sheppard

Think about a landscape. If you point the camera up to put the horizon at the bottom third line, you will be emphasizing the sky, and so your photo will be about the sky and its relationship to the landscape. If you point the camera down to put the horizon at the top third line, then the photo becomes more about the landscape itself, with the sky simply there in a supporting role.

A caution about the rule of thirds – this probably should have been called a guide and not a rule. Never think of it as an absolute. If you were a painter, you could make the world fit your canvas in precise thirds. But as photographers, we have to deal with a world that does not always fit the rule of thirds. A good example of this would be a landscape with a dull sky. The sky might be important because it outlines the top of the landscape and gives a feeling of depth. However, giving a full third of the photo to a dull sky would be cheating your landscape and potentially creating a distraction with a bright sky that dominates the photo.

If you want to explore composition further, check out my class, Composition Bootcamp, at Also, there is still room for our photo tour to Costa Rica in early December. Go to Holbrook Travel ( for more information.


Rob Sheppard is a photographer, writer and photography teacher in southern California. He is the former editor of Outdoor Photographer and PC Photo magazines. Visit his blog Nature and Photography for more photography tips.

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