Good composition is an art. Some people aren’t consciously aware of all the components that go into good composition but they still know what they like. The very essence of composition is to arrange subject matter in a way that is both is pleasing and communicates the message the photographer is trying to put across to the viewer.

That communication can be very subtle or more dramatic and pronounced.

Good composition can strongly affect the viewer's feelings about an image, even when he is not consciously aware of the techniques being used by the photographer.

I help you understand some of the rules for composing images — and under- stand when you can bend or break them. Composition is all about communicating messages in a pleasing way — or, conversely, in a disturbing way, if that’s your intent. 

Before you can frame your image in the composition you desire, you need to know what your messages and intent are. You don’t need to spend hours contemplating your photo before you shoot. Simply keep the following questions in mind while you bring your dSLR to your eye and compose your picture: 


  • What do I want to say here? Am I simply trying to portray my subject in a thoughtful or playful mood, or is my intent to show the anguish and hard life of a typical migrant mother? Am I looking to create a peaceful shot of a forest scene, or do I want to show the ravages humankind has wrought on the environment? Or is my goal to make my client’s widget look tempting so that someone will buy it? Some good photos make statements; others convey images of quality or affordability. A few more attempt to evoke humour. If you know in advance what kind of message you want to convey and who your audience is, you’re way ahead in the compositional game.

  • Where’s the center of interest? Your main subject is generally your center of interest, and it probably shouldn’t reside in the center of the photograph, except when you’re shooting close-ups, portraits, and other subjects that are naturally centered. But, if not centered, your subject should be in a place that attracts the eye and encourages examination of the rest of the image.

  • What’s my main subject? Wow! What a great lot of classic automobiles all lined up at the drive-in. Wouldn’t that make a great picture? An array of these cars might make a memorable shot — but it might not make a good composition. Instead of trying to cram six autos into one shot, choose one and let the others create an interesting background. Your photo should always have one main subject, even if that main subject is a group of people posing for a portrait.

  • Do I want a vertical or horizontal composition? Digital SLR shooters are much less likely to fall into the trap that the point-and-shoot set is subject to — composing all photos horizontally — simply because that’s the way the camera was designed to be held. A dSLR easily pivots between vertical and horizontal orientations (some even have built-in or add-on vertical grips that have auxiliary shutter releases and command dials). So, you can choose vertical compositions for tall buildings and NBA players, and you can use horizontal layouts for ranch homes and NFL quarterbacks who’ve just been flattened by a linebacker. Of course, you can always crop your image from one orientation to the other within your image editor, but that editing wastes pixels. 

  • Do I want to print this image in black and white? In that case, textures and contrasts can become a more important part of the composition. Although in terms of framing it does not change much but you may give more importance to textures, shapes and form  and previsualize how different colours may appear as different tones.

  • How should I arrange the subjects in my photo? Placement of the subjects within the frame is a key part of good composition. You might be able to move some objects or change your shooting angle to alter the com- position. The arrangement of your subjects determines how the viewer’s eye roams around in the frame. There should be a smooth path to follow, starting with your main subject and progressing to the other interesting elements in the photo. 

    Where should I stand? The distance from you to your subject and your angle can have a dramatic impact on your composition. A high angle provides a much different view than a low angle, and shooting at eye level is likely to be boring. Getting close emphasizes a subject in the foreground while potentially minimizing the importance of the background. Backing away can make the foreground appear to be more expansive. You have to change your shooting angle by physically moving, but you can achieve a specific distance by zooming, switching to a prime lens of a particular focal length, or simply taking some steps forward or back. And in a pinch, you can crop your photo in an image editor. 

    What’s in the background? Backgrounds can make or break a photo. Sometimes, you want a plain background to draw emphasis on the center of interest. Other times, the background is part of the composition and adds interest. For example, the throngs of fans not in the stands on the visitor’s side of the court in Figure 10-1 tells a story about lack

    of attendance at this road game. In other cases, a busy background could be a little distracting or, worse, form a merger with subjects in the foreground.