4) Composition

As I sit here preparing to write this section, I'm a bit daunted by the task.  The "rules" of composition have been discussed in various form for thousands of years and there are literally thousands of websites that thoroughly deal with this task.  My goal then is, rather than presenting some fundamentally new take on the subject, to compile a basic set of guidelines to help you get started in this quest.  A few small changes to how you view photography can make an enormous difference.  I'll also include a number of links in this section to places with good tutorials that can help you more than I can. 

In general before snapping the shutter, take a look at the scene and think, "what am I trying to convey with this image?"  Is it to capture an instant?  Is it an emotion?  The answers will guide you in how to proceed.  One common mistake is to just point the camera in the general direction of something of interest and snap the shutter.  This often results in photos of a scene which no focal point and the viewer has little attachment to the image.  When shooting, try to find a feature of the scene that you want to have your eye focus on.  Once you have that, try to find a way for the rest of the scene to support this feature.  Below are some ideas for how to accomplish this task.

Rule of thirds

Imagine dividing your image up into three horizontal and three vertical sections.  The rule of thirds suggests that the interesting part of your image should lie on one of the lines that divides the sections or their intersection.  There are a variety of theories as to why this works, but they're theories.  In practice, the rule is a great way to get started in improving your composition.  Most people I've seen on the web agree that it's a good entry point for composition, and that once you learn it, you'll also need to learn when to break it.

Here are some examples of how you can apply it.

In this image, Daisy and Adam are on the left line.  The focal point of the image is the tattoo and Adam's face.  They are roughly where the left third line and the bottom one cross.  This focal point of the image is further reinforced by Daisy and Johnny both focusing their attention there.  People naturally look where others are looking, even if the other people are in the photo.
Karl is roughly on the right third line with his face being at the intersection of two lines.  Another idea to keep in mind with shooting are strong lines in the image.  There is the diagonal of the bottom of the building.  It oftentimes works well when a long line line this either goes to or from one of the corners of the image.
This was a fairly interesting room to shoot.  The round thing up in the ceiling was actually the Mughal emperor's throne and people waiting in court would always have to look up at him or approach on one of the bridges.  This photo captures a bit of that by putting the throne platform right on one of the intersection points.  The lines of the platforms reinforce this by guiding the eye toward the point.  They also nicely lead in from the corners of the image.
When shooting landscapes a lot can be told by choosing where you want the horizon.  If you choose the lower third line, then most of the emphasis is upwards to the sky.  If you choose the upper third line for the horizon, there is necessarily more ground which leads to to some feature in the image.  In this case, it is the rock formation.  The lines on the ground and the clouds also point toward the rock formation which helps guide the eye.

Get close, then get closer

Details make interesting photographs.  Frame a scene as you would normally.  Then, choose a detail in what you're looking at, and focus the shot on that in particular.  Take another step or two closer, or zoom in on that feature.  Try a photo or two.  It will probably turn out a bit different than your initial inclination and I think you'll like it.

The flowers on the right are only a few millimeters in size, but they turned out to be much more interesting than the entire flower.  This is often the case for a scene.  We've all seen the Eiffel tower before, but perhaps not the hot dog vendor beneath it. 

Lights, cameras, action

Perceived motion can add life to a photo.  The challenge is conveying that to a viewer.  A lot can be said by where you put a person or moving object in the frame.  

Here the motion is directed off frame.  It implies either that there is something very interesting over there, or that something is chasing Karen.
Here the motion is into the frame.  The road leads in from the bottom left and heads over a distant horizon.  Having the car moving into the frame, and the long road in front of it implies the beginning of a journey rather than the end.
While the motion is seen by the viewer here, it is not visible to diver in the image, and helps tell the story.  If you're using a compact camera to photograph fast moving things, you need to anticipate where they will be in a half second and take the photo early.  It takes a little practice, but it's doable.  Another strategy is to use a burst mode and take 3-4 rapid images for the duration of the motion you want to capture.


I probably enjoy myself most when shooting people.  I've only done a couple of "proper" photo shoots where the goal was to end up with a portrait.  Normally, I like to capture portraits of my friends and family in everyday life.  Not everyone has pictures of themselves that they really like, and whenever I manage to come up with one, they are quite happy.

For a new photographer, the most important rule of shooting portraits is to end up with photographs that the subjects like.  Otherwise, you don't get to take more.  I learned this early on with my wife.  At first, she never wanted to be in a photo.  This was no reflection of my photography skills (I'd just started), but rather a reflection of all the photographers she encountered up until that point.  We've all been there.  Someone takes a picture of you that you don't particularly like.  This photo ends up on the refrigerator or Facebook or wherever.  Well, guess what happens when you want to take the next photo?

How do you get around this then?  For me it's simple.  People that appear in my photos get the last word regarding which photos I keep.  If they don't like them, they get deleted.  By doing this, you can build trust between your different photo subjects, which in turn leads to less resistance to photography and eventually more natural and better photos.   

Other tips and suggestions for photographing people:
  • The key to photographing people tends to be the eyes.  Eyes can express so much about a person's personality and we are naturally drawn to them when looking at a photo.  In general, even if the rest of the image is out of focus, the eyes should be sharp.
  • If lit from above, the eyes tend to be dark, so you may need to bounce light off of something like a white wall or cloth to lighten up the eyes.
  • A lot can be made of where the photographer is in relation to the person.  Since we are used to kids looking up at us, when the photographer is above the subject it can make them appear smaller and cuter.  Likewise when people are looking down at us, they seem much bigger.
  • If you are at the same horizontal level as a person, a slight tilt of their head forward can make them appear either mischievous or sinister. 
  • Lighting from the side is generally preferred.  Unless you are going for a particular look, try to avoid back lighting.
  • Soft lights such as bouncing off a wall near an open window or in the shade are generally preferred to hard lighting. 
  • Try to build a rapport with the subjects.  It's much easier to get natural photos from people if they are enjoying themselves and not nervous.
  • Longer focal lengths, say above 70mm, tend to flatten facial features.  So if someone has a big nose and doesn't like it, use a long lens.  Portrait photographers like to use lenses with a focal length around 105mm and large apertures (F2 or F2.8) for good background separation.
  • Shorter focal lengths, say below 30, accentuate the depth of features.  So if someone has a big nose and they find it funny, use a short lens to make it bigger.  A general rule is not to go below 30 for portraits because they cause distortions that people often don't like.
  • Don't feel obliged to take full body photos of people unless the entire scene is really important.  I generally like to take very close pictures of people that sometimes don't even include their entire head.  In this case, try to keep the eyes on the upper third line.  In media this is known as headroom.



Landscapes are not my strong point.  The key to them is to find something for the eye to focus on.  A rock, a tree, a lake, a small house.  Just something, anything really.  If you find that, you can make the photo work.  The times when this doesn't work is when there is a scene with no real focal point.

Hardcore landscape photographers will scope out a location before going there to shoot it.   Often the best time for landscapes is sunup or sundown because then you have the softest light.  I generally like winter for this because it's easier to get both without losing sleep!

Since you're going to want much of the image as sharp as possible, you'll usually want to have a very small aperture (high f-stop).  This means less light though, so it's helpful to bring along a tripod.


I find city photography fun and interesting.  The point is often to capture something that people look at every day, but from a different perspective. 

One tip I have for cities is similar to landscapes.  Early and late in the day are your two best times.  One of my favorite times to be in a city is in the very early morning and watching it wake up.  It's also an excellent time to catch deserted streets and fog.

Evenings are great for the interesting lighting conditions as well as people going out.  It takes a little practice shooting in low-light situations, but it's worth it.

Shooting at Night

Here is a situation where having a good camera, a good lens, and knowing how to use them both makes an enormous difference.  It's something that I'm personally exploring more right now.

I find that the best way to shoot in the dark is to put the camera into full manual mode.  Then, I quietly secret myself off to the side for a minute or two and take a few practice photos.  This is what allows me to set the ISO, shutter, and aperture to get well developed images.  What makes this hard is that there are very harsh contrasts in the image and any of the automatic functions are confused by the low light. 

When choosing a shutter speed you need to look at two different things.  How much can the camera move and how much will the scene move?  Regarding the camera, this depends on if you have a tripod or not.  If not, you need to stick to the 1/f rule.  If you have image stabilization (IS) for your lens this will buy you an extra stop or two for the shutter. 

Regarding the scene, it depends on who's in it and what you're trying to capture.  If you want crisp images of people, you'll probably have to stick to shutter speeds faster than 1/30th of a second.  If you want the motion to blur you can choose longer exposures.  You'll end up with a certain ghosting caused by people or objects moving through the duration of the frame, which is a pretty interesting effect.

Travel photography

Travel photography can be both fun and frustrating.  The photo at right was taken at the Asakusa temple festival that happens once a year in Tokyo.  It was getting close to dusk and we were on our way to our hotel with our packs on our back.  Without knowing that the festival was running, we ran smack into the middle of it.  Needless to say, I was chomping at the bit to get back out there with my camera.  We quickly got checked in and I was back out in the festival with about 30 minutes until dark, and got a number of quite nice photos.

The key to travel photography is to be ready for situations like this when they occur.  Even with good planning, you'll never know when you may run into something interesting, so you should be ready.  Have the camera accessible, the batteries charged, and some spare space on the memory card.  You also never know what kind of situations you'll be shooting in, which can make lens selection difficult. 

One thing that can help from missing key photo opportunities is to know your camera through and through.  It doesn't matter if your camera is a compact camera or a 5,000 USD SLR.  You need to take the time to learn the features.  When I get a new camera, I'll usually do a quick review of the manual to make sure I'm not missing anything major.  Then after using it for a month or two, I'll pull the manual out and do a very detailed reading of it to make sure I really know how the thing works. 

You can also help prepare yourself for travel (and in general) photography by doing training exercises.  A few weeks back, I went out with Astrid to a dog frisbee competition.  It was a rainy day and it gave me great practice shooting fast moving subjects in a somewhat strange environment.  If you do these from time to time, you'll gradually see your photography improve, and it will be ready when it counts.

Other tips for travel photography:
  • Don't take pictures of people that don't want to have their picture taken.  This should be obvious, but if there is any doubt, ask.
  • Be careful taking pictures of official and government buildings in foreign countries.  This can get you into trouble.
  • Don't feel bad if you miss a shot.  It happens.  Figure out why and don't do it next time.
  • You might see something you want to photograph and think, I'll just get that when I walk by tomorrow.  You won't, so take it now.

Breaking the rules

So, one rule is that you shouldn't take portraits of people with a wide angle lens.  Guess what?  I did (OK, Rachel did, but it was with my camera) and I quite like it.  This emphasizes the point that on occasion you need to break the rules.  They are more like guidelines anyway.

When you're just starting, stick to the rules.  Learn the rule of thirds and make it habit.  Learn about lighting for portraiture or how to get your aperture just right.  After a while, this will all become automatic and you can go beyond what the rules say and end up with more original and interesting images. 

At first though, stick to the rules.  There's a reason they exist.

Practical tips

Pay attention to lines.  You can make dramatic photos by purposefully making lines or people off the horizontal, but much of the time you want your horizons to be horizontal and your buildings to be vertical.  With programs like Picasa, iPhoto, or Lightroom, you can very quickly rotate your image the 5 degrees or so needed to bring your horizons into level.  It's a small thing, but makes a big difference.

Pay attention to telephone poles.  Nothing spoils a nice picture of someone worse than a telephone pole or a tree sticking out of the top of their head.

A little dust on your lens is not a big problem.  A little dust on your sensor is.  Be careful when changing your lenses.

Bring a spare battery with you always.  Same goes for memory cards.

Documentation vs. photography

I'd like to delineate between documentation and photography.  I think the major distinction of these two uses of a digital camera lies primarily in the audience.  Documentation are those family pictures you take at the holidays or to prove that you visited the Golden Gate Bridge, and will probably only be interesting to you or your close family.  Photography is a bit more.  It's an attempt to make something, even just a little, artistic that appeals to people that aren't necessarily in the image. 

This guide is helpful to photographers in both classes, but I feel obliged to warn you that sometimes trying to force a situation in the first category into the latter is difficult and quite possibly doomed to failure.  There's a reason that wedding photographers shoot an entire day's worth of photos to get the one or two that people really love.  So, if a situation doesn't quite work out for you, just rethink it for next time and try again.

After the fact

Now that you've taken a hundred photos, what do you do?  Many people file them all away on their computer and maybe process a few to show friends.  Here is one of the best tips I can give you.  Delete as many photos as you can.  Seriously.  Take ones that aren't quite right.  Out of focus ones.  Anything that isn't in the top 10% and remove them.  If you don't, you run the risk of having all your good photos being buried by the rest.  Generally, I perform the following deletion steps:
  1. First pass through the images after taking them.  Anything out of focus or blurry gets removed without a second though.
  2. Second pass through, I'm a bit more selective.  I go through and crop anything that looks like it might be of use to me.  If it's not cropped.  It's dropped.
  3. Third pass through, I rank the images with stars.  5 - stars excellent (hasn't happened yet), 3 - quite good, 1 - good enough to keep.  I then let the photos sit for a couple of weeks.
  4. Fourth and final pass, I reevaluate my rankings.  After this pass, anything below 1 - star is deleted.
I can't stress deleting enough.  Especially when you shoot RAW.  It's the only way to keep things manageable.  As time goes on, you're photography will improve and your percentage to keep will increase.  This is where life gets tricky because you'll be forced to choose between a number of similarly good images.  It will be tough, but some still need to go.

Additional Tutorials

Take home from this section

  • The rule of thirds.
  • Get close, then get closer.
  • People moving on or off frame can dramatically change the story of a photo.
  • Eyes are the key to portraits.
  • Dawn and dusk are the best times to shoot most things.
  • At night use full manual settings.
  • Travel photography is hard.
  • Be prepared.
  • There are no hard and fast rules, so break them as needed.
  • Delete, delete, delete.
Next: Miscellany