Composition: The Basics

I’m going to be starting a small “How-To” blog here because more and more people are asking for help and advice on getting into photography; be it for personal shots of kids and parties, to maybe starting the long, arduous journey into professional photography. These will just be the basics to get you going, but they will be a helpful reminder to shooters at any level. 

Lets get started!


First things first… In order to start taking great photos, you need to learn great composition. Composition is basically just the framing of your subject in your shot (it goes way beyond that, but we won't get into that yet!). 

1) The first tip I will give that will be the most helpful, and be with you the longest, is the RULE OF THIRDS.

So, what does that mean?

Basically, the rule of thirds takes your frame and divides it into 9 equally sized rectangles within the frame. Here is an example of what I mean:


As you can see, I've divided the image into the 9 rectangles mentioned above by "drawing" 2 lines vertically and 2 horizontally on the 1/3 and 2/3 lines respectively. Notice how my subject's eye is crossed by a vertical line and a horizontal line? That's no accident! You will want to try to start seeing this way. Before you take the shot, try and line your subject up to where it will intersect one of the black circles I've added in the above image. 

Taking your shots like this will remove the "snapshot" look to the photos you're probably not so happy with. You have to start doing this in your camera and not cropping in post processing! Learn the fundamentals, the very basics, and you WILL get the great shots you want!

2) That leads me to my second tip: CROPPING.

Now, I know what you might be thinking... "Hey, didn't you just say not to crop in post processing?"

YES! Cropping in post degrades the quality of the photo and you, often times, can avoid it! The cropping Im talking about here is cropping in the camera. Use the zoom on your lens, or if you're using a prime, zoom with your feet. Get ONLY what you WANT in the frame. Try to get rid of distracting elements to the photo. Here's an example of what I'm trying to say:


Isn't she cute? What I did here was zoom in with a longer, telephoto lens (in this case my 70-200 f/2.8). What this does is "compresses the background" and takes out the unwanted elements in the frame.

 The photo below shows that unwanted but super cute element. If I hadn't shot with the longer telephoto lens and went with, say, a 50mm or something wider, we would've seen legs and a tutu in the top left corner of the shot! 

Small things like this can ruin a shot. And again, you don't want to crop this in post, because it will degrade the quality of the photo.


Here is one more example of cropping at the same birthday party:


Imagine if I had the whole plate in there... and the napkins, and the plastic forks, and the dirty plate with cake next to it. You get the idea. Cropping in camera is essential. Keep working at it. It will become second nature!

3) Now lets look at one of my personal favorites: LAYERING.

Sometimes called depth, layering is basically just that... Taking your subject and framing them between out of focus elements in the photo. Here is an example:


When you take your subject and you layer them with an out of focus element in the foreground and you couple that with a nicely blown out background, you can get a nice, almost 3D look and feel to the image. This is more of a creative composition style rather than a fundamental, but it is useful even at the very beginning of your journey! Here is another example of layering:


Layering will also help draw your eye in on your subject. It is easiest to achieve layering by using a fast aperture lens. We're talking f/1.2 all the way to about f/4. Anything beyond that, you will still get the foreground blown out, but the background will not be as buttery smooth as you would like.

4) Angles. Angles play an important role in composition. Not only does your angle to your subject change the viewer's perspective, you also can change the look of your subject. Using unique angles is quite subjective. Theres not really a right or wrong when it comes to using them, but there is a looks good and "OMG I don't have 3 chins!" :)

Sometimes, when you're working with a subject that is low to the ground you may want to get down there with them. Changing your perspective can open up unlimited new photo opportunities! I stand 6' 4" tall, so I am almost always getting lower and closer to my subjects angle. Here's an example of what I'm talking about:


I am taller than everyone in that photo. Think about what that would look like had I shot DOWN on the subject. You get a very different shot! Now, that's not to say getting a downward angle is always wrong. Sometimes it adds to that photo-journalistic feel to the shot. Example:


You can see here I am taking an angle from above the subject, downward. Shooting this way is nice for portraits as well because it can remove the double chins you may get from shooting at an upward angle. This will also help to sharpen the jawline on male figures. 

So, using angles is entirely up to you as far as how you want to use them. Try and think of how you're making your subject look. Flattering? Just experiment and you will develop your own personal style!

Composition is a fundamental element in photography. Every single photo must be composed. Why not do it well? There is no right or wrong, however, only guidelines. Sometimes you break all the rules, and it just works! Gaining an understanding and mastery of composition will not only make your photos noticeably better, you will have more fun shooting! The challenge to nail the shot is one of the things I look forward to in every shoot I do. 

Practice, practice, practice. That is the only way you will ever get better. There is no quick path to better photos. You need to shoot to get better! And I promise, if you follow these fundamentals, you will!

And one more thing... Don't get down on yourself if you aren't seeing improvement as quickly as you'd like. As Henri Cartier-Bresson put it so eloquently, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”

How many have YOU taken?