Composition is essentially an art form. It is the way you frame or arrange an image and it is critical to the outcome – whether that image is just good or great! A set of rules for good composition exists, yet it is still at best subjective, and great photographic images break these rules all the time. The best advice is to know the rules, so then you are aware when you are breaking a rule and can decide if that will, in fact, make your image better. Aside from the “rules” there are a couple of general photography guidelines that will also help you. Let’s start with those…
First, know how to properly hold your camera by using the grip with one hand and support under the camera with the other hand. You can have perfect composition and still have blur if you don’t hold your camera correctly. Even better, use a tripod. Many people believe that using a tripod will “mess up” their freedom and limit their creativity. I find the opposite to be true. Using a tripod forces you to slow down and think about positioning (which is critical to several of the composition rules). Where should the tripod go? Closer? Should I lower the height? Should I raise it? Should I rotate the entire set up to shoot from a different side? Should I rotate the camera from landscape to portrait? The worst thing you can do is always shoot in the same mode from the same distances using the same orientation! If your camera has a zoom lens or interchangeable lens system then slowing down also forces you to think about those options. In my experience, I am more apt to play with camera settings when I am on a tripod as well.
“A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” -- Ansel Adams
Second, learn to see what the camera actually sees. Look through the viewfinder (preferable to LCD screen in my opinion). Don’t just look for the subject. Look at everything else. Look for distractions you don’t want to see in the photo like wires, cars, poles, or really bright light sources that could create flares or exposure issues. Good composition emphasizes the subject. If other aspects of the photo compete for attention, then that is not good. Also, remember, that when you look out at the world, your eyes are much more powerful and capable of more impressive color ranges and light ranges than even the most expensive camera sensors. You will not always be able to capture what you see in your camera – and that is okay! Know when to capture the memory instead.
Third, understand the basics of lighting and your camera modes (including the “exposure triangle”). Automatic shooting modes will have a difficult time capturing your “vision” so you will need to know how to use Manual mode, or other modes based on shutter speed and aperture. Read a few articles or tutorials about the best times of day for lighting your specific subject and try to practice during those times (for example, many portrait photographers use the hours just before sunset, known as the golden hour). As a general rule, avoid harsh sunlight which can create large shadows and washed out colors.
Okay, so with those three basics plus your passion for photography, you are ready to learn composition. The elements of composition will not all be present at all time in every shooting scenario, even in controlled studio environments. Use what you have available for each image.
Pay Attention to Form, Patterns, and Textures
What you are photographing has 3 dimensions, yet we are putting it into a 2 dimensional product. Move around your subject so that the form shows clearly. Side light (early morning or later afternoon and evening) provides shadows that help show form. Look for patterns – the row of slats in a picket fence for example. Then look for breaks in the pattern. Patterns appear in many man-made objects and places, but they exist in nature as well. Examine textures of what you are photographing. The material that something is made of will have a texture, whether that be rough or smooth. Nature has textures too, like the bark of a tree. Using forms, patterns, and textures will give your images depth, which is a good thing!
Look for Balance (Symmetry vs. Asymmetry)
A good photographic composition has balance.The image does not feel “weighted” to one side. Portrait photographers balance their photos when they arrange groups of people. Symmetry creates balance because the photograph will have basically the same or very similar scenes on both halves of the image. Asymmetric photos will still have a balance, but the scenes will be of different subjects.The balance is created by the size of objects, their distance, and their color.Darker objects in the front of an image are “heavier” than lighter colored objects in the background. Examine your image, before you snap it, through the viewfinder and check for good balance.
Visually Check for Lines, Curves, and Frames
This is where the most famous photography rule comes into play – The Rule of Thirds. The rule of thirds means to imagine lines dividing the image into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. Then placing important aspects of your subject on those lines and their intersections. However, the Rule of Thirds lines are not the only lines to think about. In landscape photography the horizon is also an important line!
Lines are not always straight. Sometimes they are curved. Think about those beautiful scenic photos with the curving roads through the mountains. The most famous curved line that occurs in nature is the Fibonacci sequence. Some post production editing programs offer overlays of different types of lines and patterns so you can find one that works for your images.
Lines of any type, whether straight or curved lead our eyes. These types of lines are also known as “leading lines.” They force our eyes to move around the image. The curved (or straight) path through the forest leads our eyes through the forest.
When lines converge or surround a subject, they also create what is known as frames. Frames can be man-made, like windows or doorways, or natural like a stone arch or tree trunks. Use the lines and curves in your image to emphasize the subject. If the lines and curves are all over the place, try a different position. Make sure tree trunks are not “growing” out of people’s heads!
Find Opportunities to Use Contrast, Color, and Shapes
Visual contrast can really increase the excitement in your images. Visual contrast can be based in light versus dark (using color or black and white). Look for areas in the image that are light versus those areas that are in shadow. Try experimenting with silhouettes, or a portrait of a person standing at a window. Consider the same for color, or tonal contrast. Are there areas of light color that are in contrast with areas of darker colors? Contrast can also be used with shapes. Clouds, the sun, and the moon, are often photographed as shapes in contrast to their surroundings. Rock formations are also popular shapes that have contrast with their surroundings. Size can also provide visual contrast in an image. Small objects next to larger objects really show scale and can inspire awe!
Check Your Viewpoint
One of the most overlooked ways to improve composition is to simply change your viewpoint. Get down lower! Go up higher! Rotate around for a different angle! Actually getting down on the ground to shoot a small subject or to shoot up at larger objects can provide fascinating new perspectives. This is sometimes called “worm’s eye view.” Getting above and shooting down can do the same! So go higher. This is sometimes called “bird’s eye view.” Drone photography is a very popular new form of changing your viewpoint.
Consider the Space (Negative vs. Filled and Foreground vs. Background)
Look through that viewfinder again. Locate your main subject and then check the background. What is behind it? Is it distracting? Are there telephone wires? Bright colors that compete for attention? Then do the same for the foreground. What is immediately in front of your subject? Does it attract our eyes away from the subject?
Think of the background, foreground, and your subject (mid-ground) in a way similar to the rule of thirds. Only this time instead of using the concept as lines for focusing attention, think of the areas as the three dimensional spaces that they are.
The foreground is the distance from the camera to the subject and the background is the distance from the subject to the vanishing point or horizon. These are not necessarily equal thirds. We want to use these spaces to show the viewer the dimensionality of our image. Photographic prints basically compress the image into 2D so we need our subject to appear 3D. Therefore, the foreground and background should not be completely empty. Something needs to be there, even if the background is indistinguishable because it is blurred out (see Depth of Field next). Whatever we use in the background and foreground should not be distracting, as already discussed above.
Use Appropriate Depth of Field
Depth of Field is a tricky concept because you will have to understand your lens focal lengths and aperture settings. You may need to do some additional reading on these concepts. (See my blog post about Focal Lengths). You will hear photographers talk about shallow or narrow depth of field and deep or greater depth of field. Depth of field is, in a nutshell, how much of your image is in focus.In a landscape scene you would need everything, from front to back, all in focus. This means you want deep or greater depth of field.You will need higher aperture settings to accomplish this. For a portrait, or picture of a single flower, you would want your subject in focus, but everything else to be blurred or softly focused which is shallow depth of field.Lower aperture settings are used to accomplish this.
Depth of field is an important compositional tool because you determine what the viewer will look at by deciding what areas will be in focus.The brain naturally tends to ignore areas that are out of focus and instead attends to the areas that are in focus.Decide which level of depth you need before you shoot and then experiment with different aperture settings.Try using aperture priority mode on your camera and photograph the same person or subject at f/5.6 (or lower if you lens allows), f/11, and f/22 (or its highest setting) and see how the focus range changes.
One final tip… Study the Masters
Most of the compositional elements in photography were developed in the art world of painters. These experts have given us hundreds of years of examples of compositional techniques that make people want to stare a paintings for hours and wait in long lines to see them. They use the same techniques of leading lines, repetition of patterns, symmetry and balance, curves, and contrasts to make their works feel three dimensional and compelling.
Fortunately, composition techniques can be learned! Great composition takes observation, patience, and practice, but most importantly, can be accomplished no matter what level of photographer you are or which equipment you use. That’s the fantastic part of photography, anyone can get a prize winning photo!
Want more Composition Basics? Consider our Text Message Class -- $5 for one month of lessons and hands-on activities.
What is focal length?
The focal length of a lens is measured in millimeters. A common misunderstanding is the belief that this lens measurement is the length of the lens from end to end or its overall dimensions. The focal length measurement actually begins at the optical center. A camera lens is made of many pieces of glass and combinations of elements, so as light enters the lens, it converges into “focus” at a point somewhere inside the lens among these elements. This point is the optical center. From the optical center this focused image is then sent to the camera sensor. Therefore to get the focal length, we take the measurement from the focal center to the camera sensor while the camera is focused at infinity (generally means that you are focused on something in the far away distance). Now when you are shopping for a lens and are comparing two different 50mm lenses, you will understand why one of them might be physically longer than the other.
This number or how it is calculated isn’t something you need to memorize or remember and knowing it isn’t going to make you a better photographer. What is important is to understand what focal length affects – which is your angle of view (how wide of a view or how much of your scene will be captured in an image) and magnification (how large subjects will appear). A shorter focal length, like 18mm, will capture a larger width or wider angle of view and subjects in the frame will appear smaller than they do viewing them with our eyes. Longer focal lengths, like 100mm, or even longer, like 400mm, have much more narrow angles of view. You will capture a much smaller width, but your subject will appear larger.
Angle of view is determined solely by the optics of the lens. It does not change if you place that lens on a different camera. On the other hand, field of view (which is often used interchangeably with angle of view even though they are not the same thing), is determined by the lens and the sensor of the camera. What type of camera you have – crop sensor or full-frame – will affect how much of a scene (field of view) ends up in your final image. A crop sensor camera will capture less of the subject or a smaller field of view.
So how does a crop factor work?
Let’s say I wanted to take a landscape photo with a full-frame Canon camera and a 50mm lens. It would look something like this:
If I took that same 50mm lens and put it on a crop sensor Canon camera, the resulting image would look more like this:
The sensor size is “cropped.” Since the senor is smaller, it is like trimming off a large border all around the image. Another way to think of it would be similar to using the cropping tool in a photo editing program where the image is cut, not shrunk. The crop factor is different for cameras from each manufacturer. A Canon EF-S camera has a crop factor of 1.6, while the Nikon DX models are a factor of 1.5.
Going back to my example, both images were taken with a 50mm lens. To figure out how much “loss” of field of view we would get on the Canon crop sensor, we would multiply the 50mm x 1.6 to get 80mm. Therefore, the amount of image we get on the crop sensor camera with the 50mm is equivalent to 80mm if it had been on the full-frame we started with instead.
Here is the same landscape again. This image was taken with the full-frame camera using a zoom lens set to 80mm. Notice how the field of view is basically the same as the 50mm on the crop sensor camera pictured above (and repeated here so you can see them side by side):
We can also work this equation in reverse. Let’s say I want to get the wider field of view of the full-frame camera, as we did with the 50mm, but by using my crop sensor camera instead. I would take 50mm and divide by 1.6 which would result in approximately 31mm. Therefore, if I put a 30mm on my crop sensor camera, it should “see” almost the same thing as the full-frame with the 50mm. You can witness this effect in the images below:
Should you learn how to do all these calculations?
No, there are apps and online charts that have these calculations already completed for you! Like this one: https://mmcalc.com/ which is also available as both iOS and Android apps.
So what is the take-away then for a beginning photographer?
First, know that if you have a crop sensor camera that you will not be able to get the same field of view as a full-frame unless you go down to smaller focal lengths (in effect, zooming out). Second, understand that the focal length, as it gets larger, has the inverse effect on your field of view which gets smaller and smaller and brings the subject closer (in effect, zooming in). Third, know the basic classifications of lens focal lengths and their main uses so that you will have a basic idea of what lenses to use for different shooting situations (and make adjustments as necessary if you are shooting with a crop sensor camera).
Lenses basically fall into five types of focal lengths; super wide-angle, wide-angle, standard, telephoto (zoom), and super telephoto. In each of the descriptions below I am speaking in terms of using a full-frame camera.
Ultra wide-angle lenses have a 24mm or less focal length which allows them to capture a very wide scene. They can be useful for home interiors (real estate photography). Below 24mm, and especially super-wide fish eye lenses, images can become distorted and present an exaggerated perspective that can be artistic and fun to play around with.
Photo by sippakorn yamkasikorn on Unsplash
Wide angle lenses have a focal length range from 24mm up to 35mm. These lenses are also good for confined spaces, such as home interiors, or capturing the whole table of guests at a family holiday or celebration. In addition, these lenses are good for large group photos, cityscapes, landscapes, and architectural photography. These lenses have large depth of field so both far away and near objects can have tack sharp focus and there will be visible distance between your subject and the background when taking portraits.
Photo by Khiem Tran on Pixabay
Standard lenses have a focal length range of between 35mm to 70mm. These lenses “see” the world in much the same range and way our own eyes see it. There is little distortion of the subject so they make flattering portrait lenses. The shallower depth of field allows the photographer to separate the subject from the background as well. These lens are excellent, not only for portraits, but for nature, “on the street” shots, and low light conditions (or when you do not want to use a flash or only want natural light). The 50mm lens is in the standard lens range, and is such a popular lens choice, that it has earned the nickname – The Nifty Fifty.
Photo by Alexei Chizhov on Pixabay
Telephoto lenses are focal lengths of 70mm up to 300mm. These lenses are very popular for wildlife/nature photographers because it allows shooting from a distance without encroaching on the subject (which might be skittish). These lenses bring the subject closer. A lens that is 70-135 is considered a short telephoto and one that is 135-300 is a medium telephoto. Telephoto lenses have a shallower depth of field so crisp focus on the subject is a must. In additional to wildlife, these lenses are also used for any activity or subject where distance is required or unavoidable, such as shooting from the sidelines during a sporting event.
Super telephoto lenses are much like telephoto lenses, except their focal lengths go beyond 300mm. They provide a telescope type magnification which brings the subject and the background closer. Objects behind your subject will look much closer than in a similarly framed shot using a smaller focal length lens.
These lenses are very heavy and can’t be used for handheld shooting. A sturdy tripod is needed to support these lenses. Some even include additional support brackets built into the lens. Any type of photography where you don’t want to fight through a crowd for a position or you are limited on how close you can get benefits from this type of lens: birding, wildlife, sports, astrophotography, moon photography (or any other small distant objects), air and boat shows, car races, and more.
Photo by smarko on Pixabay
Macro lenses are not a type of focal length. They are specialty lenses that come in various focal lengths. They are used for photography of small objects, flowers, products, and insects in amazing detail. Macro lenses create 1:1 or life size reproductions on the camera sensor. (If you have an interest in Macro photography, check out my Macro Photography class)
Your camera may have come with a “kit” lens. An 18-55mm is a common wide angle zoom lens. This lens give the photographer the whole range of lens focal lengths from 18mm – 55mm. An 18-135mm lens would give a photographer the range of focal lengths from wide angle all the way up through short telephoto.
Zoom lenses like these can be great lenses because you don’t have to change your lenses as often and they cover a wide variety of photographic situations. Prime lenses on the other hand have one fixed focal length, like a 50mm. Here is a series of images from a local garden showing the range you can achieve with a zoom lens. In this particular instance, the lens used was the Tamron 18-400mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC HLD for Canon APS-C cameras.
What is the advantage of a zoom vs. a prime lens?
The main advantage, as demonstrated in the photos above, is versatility. With one zoom lens in your bag you reduce the weight of your gear and you can shoot everything from wide scenery shots to close ups, people, or details without changing lenses. Additionally, when shooting sports or other fast action, you can re-frame your subject without having to move closer or farther away. Finally, less lens changes means you save time and protect the camera sensor from dust and moisture exposure!
One disadvantage of a zoom lens is that they often have narrower maximum apertures than prime lenses and/or variable apertures which means less and less light makes its way to your image sensor as you zoom in. A prime lens can open up wider and let in more light, as well as achieve a shallower depth of field. Another disadvantage of a zoom lens is their size and weight. Zooms are usually larger and heavier than a prime; however, if one zoom can replace three or four primes in your bag you will still come out ahead with the zoom. Lastly, zooms are usually not as pristine when it comes to image quality, but that should not stop you from purchasing a zoom if it fits your needs.
So, now that you know a bit about focal length and which lenses are best for different photographic scenarios, you can buy gear that will serve your needs best!
If you’d like some suggestions for some “can’t go wrong with one of these” lenses, check out my recommended lenses chart or the shortened list below. These are affiliate links, so if you make a purchase, we make a small commission at no cost to you (full disclosures). Also be sure to check out my blog post Understanding Lens Abbreviations for help deciphering all those letters and numbers on the lens barrel. It will help you buy lenses with confidence!
Copy and paste these descriptions into an online seller site. I would recommend KEH for used and B&H Video for new - see my Buy Camera Gear page for links to these sellers and IMPORTANT advice before buying any gear. Some sellers are not authorized resellers, so buyer beware!
Prime, Nifty 50:
Canon EF 50mm f/1.4
Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.8G^
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
Sigma 24-105mm f/4 DG OS HSM Art
Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM
Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di LD Macro
Mega Telephoto Zoom:
Nikon AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR^ (available from used sellers like KEH - see my Buy Camera Gear page)
^Check compatibility for Nikon lenses here.
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