Composition Techniques: 7 Must-Know Tips

Having bought your first DSLR and finally graduating to something more professional than the tiny point & shoot you owned, you might be thinking that great images will just come automatically. Or at least, be easier to create. Well, you’re both right and wrong at the same time.

While your images may look a little better, you still have to know a lot about composition techniques and master the art of exposure before you can start making the transition to great images.

Having said that, your new DSLR is the perfect tool for mastering both. In a way, your point & shoot was good too. It was a nice camera to master the essentials of composition, even if it fell short when it came to mastering exposure.

Visual Aesthetics vs Scientific Explanations

Why do professionals insist that you master the technique of fine composition? Is there a rule to making nice aesthetic photographs? Is there something about placing certain elements at certain points in the frame which can uplift the quality of the composition? Or is it just plain scientific fact? Or neither?

There is a bit of science and visual aesthetic involved in everything that you see in photography. Why a specific composition appears more beautiful than others could be explained by a scientific argument.

1. Symmetry

A scientific reason why some photographs are more visually appealing than others is symmetry. Symmetry is when one part of your composition is a mirror image of, or at least very similar to, the other. If you notice carefully symmetry translates into beauty. It is imbibed in our brain.

There are two ways you can play around with symmetry in your images – horizontally and vertically. The photograph below of the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata is a good example of how symmetry can be obtained by using the reflection of a monument on water.

One evening at Victoria Memorial, Kolkata by Abhijit Kar Gupta
One evening at Victoria Memorial, Kolkata by Abhijit Kar Gupta

Architecture is one of the best ways in which you can capture symmetry in your photographs.

Windows, walls, vaulted ceilings with archways and pillars, even streetlights are just a few examples of how you can capture symmetry in everyday life.

2. Breaking the Symmetry

Symmetry is beautiful, no doubt, but after a while, symmetry can become mundane (such is the complexity of the human mind!).

Thus symmetry is recommended to be broken at a time just so that you can introduce a bit of tension in the image.

The eyes of the viewer will keep moving about in the image and then come back to the point where symmetry is apparently broken. It will create a point of visual interest adding a bit of spice to the image.

3. Imbibe the Golden Ratio in Your Compositions

The golden ratio is very relevant and present in a lot of things around us. Right from painting to architecture and of course in photography, the golden ratio somehow seems to be repetitive in a lot of things.

Even in nature, the golden ratio that comes directly from the golden spiral is an ever-present reminder that God loves symmetry and that’s why he has imbibed it in his creations.

But what is the golden ratio and how does one achieve that in his photography?

The golden ratio can be explained like this:

Imagine there are two areas in a horizontally oriented image. The Golden Rule says that the two shortest lines of each area combined equal the longest line of the entire image.

The golden ratio is a number 1.618033 at it is a continuous expression.

“Similar Golden Rectangles” by Ahecht

The real problem is in using the golden ratio also known as the Phi ratio in your photography as it is easier said than done.

4. The Rule of Thirds

The Blue Gate by Archana K B
The Blue Gate by Archana

Because of the relative difficulty of implementing the golden ratio in photography a simpler rule is widely used.

The rule of thirds is widely considered as an easy effective method for better composition. The rule of thirds basically takes the cue from off-center compositions. If you know how to turn on the grid-assistance lines in your camera you would already know how to use this.

The grids assistance lines would divide the frame into nine equal-sized squares. From another perspective, there would be two sets of parallel lines running vertically and horizontally across the frame intersecting at four points and dividing it into nine square boxes.

As a photographer, you should strive to place the most important aspect of the composition right around one of the four points of intersection.

To compare, take an image of any subject placing it right in the middle of the frame. Take another image of the same subject, but this placing it along one of the intersecting points. You will notice that the second image is more visually compelling.

5. Creative Uses of Linear Perspective in Photography

Today's repeating pattern by Kevin Dooley
Today’s repeating pattern by Kevin Dooley

One of the aspects that a two-dimensional photograph does is try to convey a perception of depth and size as well as a scale that is inherently a three-dimensional attribute. In real life when we look at two persons standing at a distance from each other the person further away appears smaller than the one that is close to us / the camera. This happens due to linear perspective.

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One way to add a bit of drama to your images is to use linear perspective in your images. Look for tram tracks, railway lines or even tall residential buildings that can give a hint of linear perspective in your images.

6. Introduce a Hint of Tension in Your Images

This is fairly easy and yet very effective. Tension can be introduced when you break symmetry as has been explained above. Tension can be introduced in other ways as well.

One of the easy methods is to showcase a subject that is not in balance. For example, a ship floating over a calm ocean is a very relaxing image to watch. If the same ship were to be rocked about in rough waters the image would have elements of tension in it that would draw the viewer’s attention.

French Fishing Vessel 'Alf' in the Irish Sea by UK Ministry of Defence
French Fishing Vessel ‘Alf’ in the Irish Sea by UK Ministry of Defence

You will notice, in an image like this, the horizon line is very often not straight. Additionally, the main subject of the image is rarely in a state of equilibrium, which further adds to the sense of tension in the image.

7. Shoot from the Height of the Subject That You Are Photographing

Photographers, especially those who are beginners are guilty of shooting from their eye level most of the time. This is fine when you are shooting landscape or when photographing a person about the same height as yourself. But this technique does not give great results when you are shooting kids, or pets or flowers or anything else that is smaller in stature.

When you shoot from a height you make subjects look smaller than they actually are, which is never a good thing to do.

Instead, stoop down and shoot from their height. When shooting from their height you make them look life-sized, allow yourself the luxury to fill the frame as well as capture a perspective that is unique to your subject. All of that adds to the visual aesthetics of the image.

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