Professional Photographers Don’t Just Take Pictures. They Compose Them.

Photo:  David Preston

Think about it. Professional musicians don’t simply make music. They compose it. They are actively thinking about what it means to shape a song, what it means to frame a song in a way that draws listeners into the music. They are constructing the music, in that they are providing the song with structure through a combination of choruses and refrains. If you know how to play an instrument, you can make music. But it takes talent and dedication to your craft to compose it.

It’s the same thing with photography. Composition is the element of photography that distinguishes between snapping a picture and creating a picture. Composition is the way in which photographers bring elements of a photo together to tell a visually appealing and captivating story. Composition can sometimes mean the difference between a few feet. It can mean the difference between adding a single plant, subtracting a single person, tilting the camera a mere fraction of an inch. But it can transform the photograph from something flat to something breathtaking. While learning how to compose a photograph takes times, there are simple components to composition that everyone with a camera can learn.

Photo:  Ales Krivec

By keeping these five super simple techniques in mind, you will learn to stop taking photos and to start composing them.

1. Create depth through layers:

The first way photographers learn to compose and shape a photograph is by creating depth through layers. This is where photographers create a foreground, a middleground and a background in their image. Layering is very distinct in landscape photography, in which various lines from running rivers, mountain ranges and shrubs run parallel to one another at different eye levels in the photograph. Even a new photographer will capture these layers—even if by accident—when photographing nature at a distance.

2. Use leading lines to lead the eye towards your focal point:

Use leading lines or vanishing points in a photograph to draw viewers’ eyes to the focal point or subject matter in your picture. Think of a leading line as the picket fence that runs away from your viewer and shrinks into the distance. Once you train your eye, you will notice that there are endless combinations of these leading lines everywhere you look. You will see them in train tracks, along a dock with wooden planks, skyscrapers, tree lines, warehouse windows, ceiling beams, subway tunnels, stairwells and more.

3.  Utilize The Rule of Thirds:

The Rule of Thirds is one of the most popular “rules” in photography, appearing most often in discussions on composition. The rule of thirds is the general notion that composition is more compelling in photographs that the casual viewer would consider to be off-center. The Rule of Thirds breaks a photograph into a grid of nine equal blocks and suggests that photographs are more dynamic and thought provoking when the subject matter appears not in the center of the photograph, but at one of the intersections of the nine-block grid.

4. Use patterns and symmetry to frame your subject:

 By using patterns and symmetry throughout your photograph, your subject matter will seem to “break” that pattern and will inevitably pop out of the scene. Maybe you use the symmetry in windowpanes, a brick or tiled wall or unique color pattern in a museum exhibition. But wherever you capture these patterns, simply using your subject to disrupt that pattern will enable you to compose a more interesting photograph.

5. Develop an eye for the framing that exists naturally:

Natural framing in photography is pivotal when learning composition. Framing your subject in a bold doorway, beneath an arched bridge, looking through a window or surrounded by a unique tree canopy, will allow you to draw viewers into the heart of the photograph.  The more practice you have, the more you will see this framing that exist in even subtle elements of nature, elements such as natural light, shadows, fog and weather patterns. When you position yourself just right, natural borders around your subject matter will turn your subject into the crux of the composition.