Composition is one of the fastest ways to ruin a shot – and one of the fastest ways to fix it. The good news is that most people have an eye for composition, it’s just a matter of learning a few quick fixes to turn “There is something off about this” to “I can’t put my finger on it, but this is stunning.”
It’s not formulaic in any sense, so two plus two doesn’t necessarily equal four, but it is a sensory science. Learn to feel out the picture and complement its natural attributes. If the natural attributes are competing, do something about it.
Hunting around on the web, you can find a dozen “Rules for Composition.” But as far as I am concerned, the below are the ones that make or break and image. Once you’ve got these down, you level up even the simplest Instagram photo.
- The Rule of Thirds
Imagine that your image is divided into three areas, left to right and top to bottom. All “interesting” information should fall into one of the thirds, but never the center. Centering your subject is a quick way to doom an otherwise stunning shot.
If the focus is a person’s head, move it into the upper third. If the focus is a flower, throw it to the left or right. This rule is fairly simple, and can be observed in nearly all neatly composed images. Bear in mind that this rule can be broken, but it’s best to learn it first. However, be cautious of “breathing room,” as it prevents the subject from appearing to “fall off the edge.”
- Path of Motion for the Eye
This one takes a little more time to grasp, but it’s something that makes any picture go from ordinary to captivating. The eye searches for more information in pictures. In most cases, we see a picture without prior information about it so as the eye moves through the image (piecing together the story), it goes from one point of interest to another. Ideally, as the photographer, you want to tell a story with the path of motion the viewer’s eye takes as it travels across the photo.
If you can, imagine “lines” in the image (rivers tend to be curves, buildings tend to be straight lines) all pointing to the focus. Ideally, the moment someone sees the image, their eye is already following the path of motion to the subject, the thing that you really want them to see. Squinting is a quick hack to losing the detail and focusing on the larger shapes in the image.
- Avoid Awkward Staging
There are plenty of images on the internet of shots that were intended to look one way, but at first glance appear completely different. The most common mistake is poles coming out of heads– and it only gets worse from there. I’m always surprised how many amateur photographers miss this, but it’s a trait that comes from refining the Path of Motion skill. Once you, as the photographer begin to see the image for the lines in it, you also begin to notice odd occurrences that might otherwise be overlooked.
Is the subject too far? Move closer, don’t zoom. A firm understanding of camera mechanics supports composition to the nth degree. Choosing the right lens and staging saves the troubles of things like enlarged noses that are often produced by a wide-angle.
Once you begin to employ the above, it’s pretty hard to stop—and that’s the best part. With practice, self-evaluation, and time, they all become second nature. Framing a shot correctly is the fastest way to level up any photo, from birthday parties to sunsets over the Rhine.