This lesson is part of the How To Photograph Life – FREE Course. To see the full list of lessons, and learn more about the course, click here for the index.
Here’s a photography joke for you:
Why did the chicken cross the road?
To get a better composition. Ba-dum-dum.
(I *just* made that joke up. Good, right?)
Seriously though, that chicken knew what it was doing. Composition is important. Important enough to cross a road for. It’s how you arrange the elements in your image, and it can make the difference between a bland snapshot, and an artistic capture.
In essence, a great image isn’t necessarily about the scene itself, but how you frame the scene.
Composition can help you to draw your viewer’s attention to your subject. And, as we’ve already talked about, this is pretty key when documenting life. It’s also challenging, what with all the clutter that comes with it.
So today we’re going to chat about two things composition can do to help guide your viewer to your subject: simplify, and direct attention.
In a photograph there is the subject, and there’s everything else. In a truly great photo, every single element of the frame is working to draw attention to the subject, or tell more about the story.
In a bad photo? Well, there are what we call “distractions”. These are things that pull your eye away from the subject, effectively weakening the intention of the photo.
So one way to create a stronger photograph and draw more attention to your subject is to minimize the distractions in your frame. Here are some ways to do that.
Step one to removing distractions is being able to spot them! A quick trick for doing that is the Squint Test. When looking at a scene through your camera, or at a photo, squint your eyes until everything gets a bit blurry. Then pay attention to what stands out the most. By squinting you are allowing yourself to pay less attention to the small details, and more attention to what draws your eye. This will often help you recognize distractions that you may not have noticed when you were only thinking about, oh, everything else a photographer needs to think about!
Now an important concept is this: distractions at the edge of the frame are more distracting! Pay particular attention to the edges when composing your shot, and be sure to readjust your framing if there’s something distracting there.
Squint and See
Squint your eyes as you look at this scene, and you’ll notice that that blue rectangle in the top right looks pretty prominent on an otherwise plain wall. It’s a cool detail, but it can also distract the viewer’s attention. Might want to frame it out next time!
Check Your Edges
Rob included bold elements – a stripe of blue and a stripe of red – on the edges of his frame. Do they distract from or add to the final image? It’s your call, but make sure you’re actively deciding what makes it into your frame – and check your edges!
Fill the Frame
This is a one-two punch of attention grabbing action. Basically you get closer to your subject in order to fill more of the frame with them. Get close enough so they can smell your breath.
Ok, maybe you don’t need to get that close.
But filling up the frame with your subject does two things: it makes them bigger, and it makes everything else smaller.
When we look at a photo our brains do some deciphering. They say: “Things that are big are important, things that are small are not”. (Note: this is only the rule in photos, not in life….ok moving on.)
When you make your subject bigger, you give it more importance in the photo. You also end up making anything that could be distracting a small portion of the frame, giving it less chance to draw attention away from where you want it to go. Simple simplifying!
Portraits at the Busy Beach
This busy beach scene could easily steal the show, so Rob got close! He filled almost the entire frame with his subjects, leaving just enough of the background scene to provide a little context and atmosphere.
Add Negative Space
Negative space is not bad space, like those creepy black holes. Have you seen those things swallow up stars? Bad.
No, negative space is any empty, non-distracting space around the elements in your photos. See that key word? Non-distracting. It helps to bring attention to the non-negative space (like your subject) and gives your viewer’s eyes a nice place to rest in the photo.
It basically simplifies your photos by including less in them. So zen.
Negative space is absolutely fantastic, and absolutely everywhere. Part of the key to using it is knowing how to find it. Sometimes it’s right there in your face, like an enormous clear sky, or a totally blank wall. But other times you need to get creative to add some negative space to frame. And how do you do that?
Yep, you gotta move!
Crouch, move around, get up high and look down, get down low and look up. I feel like you could make a pretty rad dance out of how you need to move to find negative space.
Use a Shallow Depth of Field
We’ve already talked about how a shallow depth of field can give you more background separation to help your subject stand out. This is the same idea. A shallow depth of field, where only your subject is in focus, makes the background all blurry. And when it’s blurry, it’s less distracting. Mission accomplished.
By crouching down low, I was able to use the clear blue sky as negative space, to simplify this frame from Rob’s first Father’s Day. It ensures that all the attention is on the subjects.
To avoid the background taking too much attention away from this adorable face, a super shallow depth of field (f/1.4) was used to help blur it out.
When I’m shooting I like to think of myself as a flight attendant sometimes, and not just because of the sweet uniforms. At the beginning of the flight they have to direct the attention of the entire plane to the important stuff: seat belts, exits, air masks. They don’t do it by folding their hands in their laps and whispering. They stand up, they use their big voice, they get those arms out, and they POINT.
If you want your viewers to see what you want them to in your photos, you can’t leave it up to chance. You can’t whisper. Friend, you gotta point!
One of the most literal ways to point in your photo is to use lines to, well, point! Yep, lines are all over the place in our photos, and they work to direct your eyes around the scene. When you harness those lines to do your bidding, you can get them pointing right at your subject, making your viewer notice them.
There are many types of lines, and beyond pointing, they also give a feeling to your photos. Here are the main categories:
- Horizontal lines: These go across the photo, and give a sense of solidity. They draw your eyes across the frame.
- Vertical lines: These go up and down, and also give a sense of stability. They draw your eyes up and down the frame.
- Diagonal lines: These go diagonally across the image, and give a feeling of depth and movement. They draw your eyes diagonally through the photo.
- Converging lines: This is where things get fun. Converging lines are diagonal lines that come together. They very strongly point to whatever is at the place of their convergence. These are powerful lines to include in your photos, especially when you have them pointing at your subject. Examples of useful converging lines include the lines of a sidewalk or railings on a staircase. A tip: shoot converging lines with a wide angle lens, which really emphasizes them!
- Wavy and curved lines: These lines give a sense of movement and gentleness. Your eyes follow along their wavy and curved paths.
- Parallel lines: When there are parallel lines in an image, they suggest that the space in between the lines is distinct from the space outside them. This helps to categorize your image, and draw attention to specific sections.
- Interrupted lines: With these bad boys, our eyes go to whatever is interrupting the line. Drawing attention, right?
Open up your eyes to all the lines around you, and then start using them with purpose to bring attention to your subject!
The bold horizontal stripes on this wall give the photo a definite feeling of solidity.
A Break on the Hill
The diagonal line running through this photo makes it feel more dynamic than it would if the men were sitting on a flat surface.
The strong converging lines of the boat roof practically shout “Hey, eyes! Follow us!”. We oblige, and our eyes find the subject – the boat captain – easily.
Frames in composition are powerful things. They add interest to your photo, and are exceptionally effective at drawing attention to whatever is inside them. They very simply say “Look here!”. But you don’t need to walk around carrying a picture frame to use them (though if you want to, please feel free!).
Frames can be obvious things like a door frame or a window frame. Arrange your composition so your subject is in one of these natural frames and presto! You’ve got my attention.
Frames can be more abstract as well, like the branches of a tree, hands, light, colours, shapes, and so on.
And remember: frames can exist in front of or behind your subject. They can be 3-dimensional objects (like the door frame) or 2-dimensional (like a patch of color on a wall). Frames are all around. Start using them, and you’ll be amazed at how much they add to your photos!
Run through the Garden
This weather-worn colonnade serves to frame the action. Note how the lines help direct our eyes too!
Composition is one of those aspects of photography that seems simple at first, and then you dig in and realize that it’s this absolutely enormous topic that you will always be studying. Often you’ll look at a photo and just immediately sense that it’s great. Then you start to really study the composition, and your mind is blown wide open when you start to see just how many little pieces of the composition all are working together to make it so good.
But I don’t want that to scare you, or intimidate you from learning composition. It’s a part of photography that will totally change the way you see everything around you. Composition turns the world into a wonderful scavenger hunt, as you seek out frames and lines and all sorts of great things.
So, when you’re documenting your life, don’t just take a shot and move on. Engage your brain and look for a great composition in the scene. Remember: it’s not the scene, but how you photograph it that matters. So take the time to walk around, look for lines, try to get something to frame your subject. You’ll find two things: 1) that it’s really very fun to work to find a great composition, and 2) that the quality of your photos will take a quantum leap forward.
In fact, I bet you’ll soon find yourself actually crossing the road to find a better composition. Say hi to the chicken for me.
If you’d like to learn more about composition, and how to use it to create photos that stand out and communicate your message, check out our example-packed, jargon-free tutorial, Incredibly Important Composition Skills.
It will teach you everything you need to know to become a composition master! You’ll even learn common mistakes (and how to avoid them) and a simple 8-step process to finding the best composition in the scene.
Click here to check it out and get it with an instant download – keep on learning, you’re doing great!
Coming Up Next…
Ok my friend, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about some of the technical stuff of photography: your camera, light and composition. These are the foundations to build on, and I’m really glad you’ve been learning them. Because what we’re going to talk about next is where we take it up a notch… Storytelling: How you take these jumbled moments, and craft a compelling story out of them. The ideas we’re going to talk about will have you looking at your work and your process in a new way. I can’t wait to see you at the next lesson!
Finding the Light
Learn how to tackle event the toughest of lighting situations with ease, and create photos that shine.
Discover how to make the leap from documenting jumbled moments to creating a compelling photographic story.