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8 Tricks to Composing Better Photos

Photos are only as good as the person taking them. Whether you’re using a fancy pro SLR or a simple smartphone. Here are 8 tricks to composing good photo that you can use for making giant landscapes to mount on your wall or images to post on social media.

Understand Where the Eye Goes
The human eye is far more sophisticated than the camera, and it sees in slightly different ways. We see moving images with binocular vision, so it’s no surprise when still two-dimensional still images fail to inspire us. And when we look at images, our reactions occur nearly instantaneously, hard-wired in our primitive midbrain through millions of year of evolution.

The eye will look at a photograph in a particular order:

  • The area of greatest contrast, then the highlights, then the midtones, and then the shadows
  • Warm colors before cool colors
  • Sharp objects before blurry objects
  • Isolated elements before clumped elements
  • Things that appear to be moving, before things that appear still
  • Things that appear closer before things that appear far away
  • Humans before non-human elements

So if you have an area of high contrast that ‘s not the main subject, it will be a distraction. Watch out for that guy in the background wearing a red jacket, and make sure the areas of sharpest focus is the critical part of your image.

Don’t Use the Center…Unless You Really Want To
You’ve probably heard of the “rule of thirds”: dividing the frame like a tic-tac-toe board and putting major elements on the corners. This framing gives elements i room to move side to side and up and own, either in or out of the frame. When we place an item in the center, there’s only one way it can move: directly toward or away from the viewer. For that reason, center placement works well with close-up portraits with direct eye contact, but not for landscapes, action shots, or any image where there are interactions between elements within the photo.

When in doubt, keep it simple. Your eye can make sense of the cluttered background, colors, and movement—but remember, your eye is a far superior tool. Decide what’s important to the story you’re telling, and eliminate everything else you can.

Get Closer
War photographer Robert Capa said “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” (Remember that Capa died capturing images of the Vietnam War.) This is still true, even in the age of giant lenses.. Get as close as you can to the main subject. It will yield a better result than zooming in.

Digital SLR camera on a tripod shooting a sunset in a snowy landscape


Learn Your Lines
In photos, lines have meaning. Horizontal lines convey stability, rest, and being grounded. Vertical lines signify strength, power, and dominance. Diagonal lines are about motion from A to B, and converging diagonals draw the eye powerfully to where they converge. Curves also move, but far more fluidly and sensually, flow through the frame rather than directly from point to point.

Create Motion
If you want to make seem have a sensation of moving in a still image, you’ll want to use diagonals or curves. But you’ll want to do more than that. Give the subject room to move: empty space in the frame where it’s heading. The tighter you box it, the less of a sense of motion it will have. In some cases you won’t want to do this: see Tip# 8.

Add Depth
You’ll want to make the two-dimensional image resemble the three- dimensional world you saw. There are a couple of ways to create depth. One is with a strong foreground-background relationship, usually by getting close to a large element, and zooming out to wide-angle. Another is by managing depth of field if your camera allows. You can also use color. Warm colors like red, orange, and yellow will come forward, while cool colors like blues and greens will recede to the background. A fourth is to have the foreground more strongly lit than the background.

Break the Rules When It Suits You
The “Rules of Composition” aren’t really rules at all: nobody’s been arrested for breaking them. But they are hard wired deep in our consciousness: when we follow the “rules,” our brain instinctively relaxes. That works if you’re trying to convey peace, comfort, or beauty. It doesn’t work if you want to convey stress, tension, drama, or fear. When I’m photographing outdoor sports, where intensity and fear are key emotions, I often break the rules by tilting horizons, boxing subjects tight against the frame edges, and using darkness and high contrast to convey that tension.

Most of all, get out and shoot—and then asked an unbiased person what they think. Then go out and shoot again.

by Neil Schulman

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