learn photo composition


Have you seen movies where a person looks through a keyhole? On the viewer’s side, the side where the person looking through the keyhole, the scene is dark and perhaps ominous? Through the keyhole might be a mysterious scene or even something magical?

As viewers of the movie, we are taken into a scene and we feel as if we’re part of the action. Not only is the actor in the movie looking through the keyhole, but we are as well. We see what the actor sees at the very same time. We feel the suspense, angst, shock, horror, joy, enchantment – whatever emotion the moviemaker wants us to feel, we feel it, too.

This is an effective method in moviemaking and cinematography as we become part of the action. This is also an effective method in photography.

As photographers it is important to draw the viewers of your photographs into your image. Your photograph is the keyhole, so to speak, that allows viewers to experience or view what you have seen and captured with your camera. If your viewers can be drawn into your photo, then they will feel the emotion or feeling that you’re trying to convey. And, if you can draw viewers in and make them feel a certain way, then you my friend, are not a picture taker but instead a photographer.

How do you draw people into your photographs? You begin by mastering photo composition. You master photo composition by practicing all key elements until they become second nature to you. Becoming a great photographer really is that simple tho’ it is a lot of work.

One suggestion regarding photo composition is to challenge yourself. One way to challenge yourself is to change the camera you use. For example, if you typically shoot with a digital camera of any sort or a mobile phone, let’s say, then switch to a film camera for a day or even a week.

You can pick up inexpensive film cameras at ebay. And yes, you can still purchase film and have it professionally developed.

I have a variety of film cameras but for this blog post I chose the Fisheye camera from Lomography. I also chose black and white film. Better still, I chose London as my backdrop.

The cool thing about Lomo’s Fisheye camera is the captured image is actually a circle with a pronounced black border. Basically, the result is like looking through a keyhole – at least that’s how I see it.

I’ve included a variety of images I captured over a week’s time. The shots are entirely random tho’ you’ll recognise some of the scenes. Have a look at the photos. Are they the best images of London you’ve ever seen? No. They are not the best images I’ve seen either. The better question is – have you seen London portrayed this way before? Unless you’ve practiced this same photo exercise, your answer is undoubtedly a no.

Photographing a familiar scene in a new way with a new perspective and with a camera you’re not entirely familiar with will allow you the freedom to explore and test your creativity.

It is easy to be comfortable. It’s easy to always surround yourself with the familiar. The easy way is not the best way to improve your photography skills.

You will grow by challenging yourself. You’ll reach new levels of achievement by stepping away from your comfort zone.

It’s safe to say you’ll surprise even yourself by creating a masterful composition that draws your viewer into your vision. And in the end, involving the viewers of your photographs is exactly what you want.

The following is an exerpt from “Alice Through the Looking Glass”.
Notice how Alice first envisions what life might be if she and kitty could go through the looking-glass house. In an instant, Alice does go through the looking glass and she takes us with her when she does. This is exactly what you want to do with the viewers of your photographs.

“But this is taking us away from Alice’s speech to the kitten. ‘Let’s pretend that you’re the Red Queen, Kitty! Do you know, I think if you sat up and folded your arms, you’d look exactly like her. Now do try, there’s a dear!’ And Alice got the Red Queen off the table, and set it up before the kitten as a model for it to imitate: however, the thing didn’t succeed, principally, Alice said, because the kitten wouldn’t fold its arms properly. So, to punish it, she held it up to the Looking-glass, that it might see how sulky it was—‘and if you’re not good directly,’ she added, ‘I’ll put you through into Looking-glass House. How would you like that?’

‘Now, if you’ll only attend, Kitty, and not talk so much, I’ll tell you all my ideas about Looking-glass House. First, there’s the room you can see through the glass—that’s just the same as our drawing room, only the things go the other way. I can see all of it when I get upon a chair—all but the bit behind the fireplace. Oh! I do so wish I could see that bit! I want so much to know whether they’ve a fire in the winter: you never can tell, you know, unless our fire smokes, and then smoke comes up in that room too—but that may be only pretence, just to make it look as if they had a fire. Well then, the books are something like our books, only the words go the wrong way; I know that, because I’ve held up one of our books to the glass, and then they hold up one in the other room.

‘How would you like to live in Looking-glass House, Kitty? I wonder if they’d give you milk in there? Perhaps Looking-glass milk isn’t good to drink—But oh, Kitty! now we come to the passage. You can just see a little peep of the passage in Looking-glass House, if you leave the door of our drawing-room wide open: and it’s very like our passage as far as you can see, only you know it may be quite different on beyond. Oh, Kitty! how nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking-glass House! I’m sure it’s got, oh! such beautiful things in it! Let’s pretend there’s a way of getting through into it, somehow, Kitty. Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it’s turning into a sort of mist now, I declare! It’ll be easy enough to get through—’ She was up on the chimney-piece while she said this, though she hardly knew how she had got there. And certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist.

In another moment Alice was through the glass, and had jumped lightly down into the Looking-glass room. The very first thing she did was to look whether there was a fire in the fireplace, and she was quite pleased to find that there was a real one, blazing away as brightly as the one she had left behind. ‘So I shall be as warm here as I was in the old room,’ thought Alice: ‘warmer, in fact, because there’ll be no one here to scold me away from the fire. Oh, what fun it’ll be, when they see me through the glass in here, and can’t get at me!’

Then she began looking about, and noticed that what could be seen from the old room was quite common and uninteresting, but that all the rest was as different as possible. For instance, the pictures on the wall next the fire seemed to be all alive, and the very clock on the chimney-piece (you know you can only see the back of it in the Looking-glass) had got the face of a little old man, and grinned at her.”

Before we wrap up the photo composition mini-course, I want to share with you one more important part of being a photographer. 

As you fine-tune your photography composition skills, start thinking about your style.  Yes, that’s right style. When other people look at your photographs, you want them to view them and immediately say – “Hey, this is unmistakably your work.  I love your style.” 

Work especially hard at creating photographs that only you can take – photos that are unique to you.

This is especially important if you intend to sell your photos commercially.  Creating your own style will make your hard work more marketable.  People will WANT to buy our photos.  Additionally, if your style is absolutely wonderful, magazines and the like will want to work with you over and over again.  Do keep this in mind.  A style is just as important as composition.  In fact, the two go hand in hand.

Thank you for joining me in this course.  I enjoyed working with you and seeing your progress through the course.  

Stop back at any time.  I’d like to see how you get on.  If you have any questions, please ask, even after your completion of the course.  The journey doesn’t end here.

Words of Wisdom About Photo Composition

If you have participated in each of the lessons in this course, you now know the rules of composition.  You also know it is ok to break the rules if you can do this effectively.  Additionally, with each lesson, we have had a good practice which allowed you to put the rules into practice.

You may still be asking yourself what is the secret to creating amazing photos with brilliant composition?  The answer is no secret at all.  The answer is practice.   Practice, practice, practice and more practice. 

I can’t stress this enough.  

Practice will give you experience.  The more photos you take practising everything we have discussed during this course the better photographer you will become.  All of the so-called rules will come to you without thinking.  I promise.  It may seem like you’re not doing anything special, but actually, you are quickly taking stock of things like leading lines, filling your frame, or avoiding the middle though your not consciously thinking about it.  All the elements talked about are very important to your photography composition and while it may seem overwhelming at first, grasping these tools means that you control exactly how your audience views your photos.

Take your camera everywhere you go and set aside time each day or each week to take photographs.  I often hear this from people – there is nothing interesting to photograph where I live.  There is your challenge.  Make the uninteresting interesting through your photography.  If you can do this, you know you’ve mastered composition, conveying a message and photography.

Elements of Photo Composition :: A Re-Cap

Download the Free PDF I created for you that reviews the essential elements of photo composition.

Rule One 

Simplify the scene.

When you look at a scene with your naked eye, your brain quickly picks out subjects of interest. But the camera doesn’t discriminate – it captures everything in front of it, which can lead to a cluttered, messy picture with no clear focal point.

Remember, don’t let your camera rule you.  You rule the camera!

What you need to do is choose your subject, then select a focal length or camera viewpoint that makes it the centre of attention in the frame. You can’t always keep other objects out of the picture, so try to keep them in the background or make them part of the story.

Silhouettes, textures and patterns are all devices that work quite well in simple compositions.

The simpler the shot the bigger the impact

Move in close to cut out other parts of the scene
Silhouettes and shapes make strong subjects
The balloons radial lines draw you into the frame

Rule Two

Fill The Frame

When you’re shooting a large-scale scene it can be hard to know how big your subject should be in the frame, and how much you should zoom in. 

In fact, leaving too much empty space in a scene is the most widespread compositional mistake. It makes your subject smaller than it needs to be and can also leave viewers confused about what they’re supposed to be looking at.

To avoid these problems you should zoom in to fill the frame, or get closer to the subject in question. The first approach flattens the perspective of the shot and makes it easier to control or exclude what’s shown in the background, but physically moving closer can give you a more interesting take on things.

Rule Three

Horizontal vs Vertical

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut and take every picture with the camera held horizontally.  In fact, I was taught to shoot this way and only this way.  It took time for me think of turning my camera vertically.

Try turning it to get a vertical shot instead, adjusting your position or the zoom setting as you experiment with the new style.

Rule Four

Avoid The Middle

When you are a newbie, or just starting out, it’s tempting to put whatever you’re shooting right in the centre of the frame. However, this produces rather static, boring pictures. One of the ways to counteract this is to use the Rule of Thirds, where you split the image up into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, and try to place your subject on one of these imaginary lines or intersections. 

Let me say, however, this is an overrated approach.

Instead, move your subject away from the centre and get a feel for how it can be balanced with everything else in the scene, including any areas of contrasting colour or light. 

There are no hard and fast rules about achieving this kind of visual balance, but you’ll quickly learn to rely on your instincts – trust that you’ll know when something just looks right.

Rule Five

Leading Lines

A poorly composed photograph will leave your viewers unsure about where to look, and their attention might drift aimlessly around the scene without finding a clear focal point. 

However, you can use lines to control the way people’s eyes move around the picture.

Converging lines give a strong sense of perspective and three-dimensional depth, drawing you into an image. Curved lines can lead you on a journey around the frame, leading you towards the main subject.

Lines exist everywhere, in the form of walls, fences, roads, buildings and telephone wires. They can also be implied, perhaps by the direction in which an off-centre subject is looking.

Rule Six

Dutch Tilt

Horizontal lines lend a static, calm feel to a picture, while vertical ones often suggest permanence and stability. To introduce a feeling of drama, movement or uncertainty, try the dutch tilt technique.

You can need nothing more than a shift in position or focal length to get them –wider angles of view tend to introduce diagonal lines because of the increased perspective; with wide-angle lenses, you’re more likely to tilt the camera up or down to get more of a scene in.

You can also introduce diagonal lines artificially, using the ‘Dutch Tilt’ technique. You simply tilt the camera as you take the shot. This can be very effective, though it doesn’t suit every shot and is best used sparingly

The Dutch Tilt can be used for dramatic effect and helps portray unease, disorientation, frantic or desperate action, intoxication, madness, etc….  

Rule Seven

Space to Move

Even though photographs themselves are static, they can still convey a strong sense of movement. When we look at pictures, we see what’s happening and tend to look ahead – this creates a feeling of imbalance or unease if your subject has nowhere to move except out of the frame.

You don’t just get this effect with moving subjects, either. For example, when you look at a portrait you tend to follow someone’s gaze, and they need an area to look into

For both types of shot, then, there should always be a little more space ahead of the subject than behind it.

Rule Eight


Don’t just concentrate on your subject – look at what’s happening in the background, too. This ties in with simplifying the scene and filling the frame. You can’t usually exclude the background completely, of course, but you can control it.

You’ll often find that changing your position is enough to replace a cluttered background with one that complements your subject nicely. Or you can use a wide lens aperture and a longer focal length to throw the background out of focus.

It all depends on whether the background is part of the story you’re trying to tell with the photo. In the shot above, the background is something that needs to be suppressed.

Rule Nine

Be Creative With Colours

Bright primary colours really attract the eye, especially when they’re contrasted with a complementary hue. But there are other ways of creating colour contrasts – by including a bright splash of colour against a monochromatic background, for example. 

You don’t need strong colour contrasts to create striking pictures, though.

Scenes consisting almost entirely of a single hue can be very effective. And those with a limited palette of harmonious shades, such as softly lit landscapes, often make great pictures.

The key is to be really selective about how you isolate and frame your subjects to exclude unwanted colours.

Rule Ten

Breaking The Rules

Photo composition is basically a visual language – you can use it to make your pictures pass on a particular message

Just as we sometimes use the written word to create a deliberately jarring effect, we can do the same with photos by breaking with standard composition rules.

When you understand the rules of composition and then break them on purpose things start to get interesting

It’s often best to break one rule at a time, as John Powell does in the image above.

Just remember: for every rule we suggest, somewhere out there is a great picture that proves you can disregard it and still produce a fantastic image.

During this course, we have covered various elements that will strengthen your photo composition.

These elements include:   filling your frame, avoiding the middle and putting your subject off-centre, leading lines, horizontal versus vertical, sense of movement, the dutch tilt – slightly tilting your camera, the use of depth of field and backgrounds, and colour.

Staying within the “RULES” use six elements of composition to create one amazing photograph.

You can combine any of the six, it does not matter which, but you must use six.

You can choose any scene or subject.

Take your time to visualise the composition of your photo before you ever pick up your camera.

Then take your photo.
After you have your ideal photograph with strong photo composition, share it with me on Twitter.  My Twitter home is @MarkPaulda

What did we just do?

Throughout the various blog posts, we have discussed various elements of photo composition that will help you create stunning images.

We began with an explanation of the definition of photo composition, then we looked at a lot of examples of images with strong photo composition, and we put the elements of photo composition into practice via various exercises.  You completed the exercises, right?

By the way, the images we’ve looked at throughout the process were other people’s photographs.  I always love viewing other people’s photographs for great ideas and inspiration.  Looking at other photographer’s work is a super way to learn.

Remember, the elements of photo composition we discussed include: simplifying your scene, textures, shadows, silhouettes, patterns, filling your frame, avoiding the middle, sense of movement and how dutch tilt can add drama to your photo.  We also discussed how to use backgrounds and colour to your advantage.

So, now it’s time to test your knowledge.  We will look at a series of photographs.  Look at each photograph, then identify the elements of photo composition the photographers used to create their images.

At the beginning of the quiz – the first few photos, you may need to take time to study each photo in order to determine which elements of photo composition were used.  By the end of the quiz, you’ll be able to identify the elements straight away.

Good Luck With The Quiz and let me know how you fared.  Leave a comment below or send me a message on Twitter.  My Twitter home is @MarkPaulda

Download the free PDF for an additional Photo Composition Challenge.

This may be the best lesson to learn with regard to photography.  Breaking the rules of photo composition.  

Photo composition is basically visual language – you can use it to pass along a particular message.  You can use strong photo composition to convince people of an emotion or idea.

Just as we sometimes use the written word to create a deliberately jarring effect, we can do the same with photos by breaking standard composition rules.

Most of us recognise, understand and appreciate the “rules” of photography, BUT each one of us is different and we all view the world in our own unique way.  Sometimes you might want to deliberately centre your subject, ignore leading lines, or intentionally forget to leave space to move and you might not want to fill your frame.  That’s ok.  All that means is you’re a rebel like me.

Welcome to the world of breaking the rules of photo composition.  When you understand the rules of composition and break them on purpose, things start to get interesting.  Your creativity can flourish.  It is often best to start off by breaking one rule at a time, however.

Just remember for every rule there is a great picture that proves you can disregard it and still produce a fantastic image. 

Despite all the rules, if you take a photo that looks great but doesn’t meet the criteria set out by the photography gods, it’s ok.  You still have a fabulous photograph.

That said, in the next post let’s put your knowledge of the rules to the test.

Let’s Practice Color

Colour plays a vitally important role in the world in which we live.  Colour can sway thinking, change actions, and cause reactions.  It can irritate or soothe your eyes, raise your blood pressure or suppress your appetite. When used in the right ways, colour can even save on energy consumption.

As a powerful form of communication, colour is irreplaceable. Red means “stop” and green means “go.” Traffic lights send this universal message. Likewise, the colours used for a product, website, business card, or logo cause powerful reactions.  Colour Matters.

What is your favourite colour?

Choose your favourite or any colour then take three photos featuring one dominant hue.

Make your subject stand out by using a colour.

Also, to make this exercise a bit more challenging, interpret these three words in a photograph:

Agitation- state of anxiety or nervous excitement.

Desire- a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen.

Elation- great happiness and exhilaration.

Take your time and give careful thought to each of your photos, colours and words.  Before you take each photo visualise what you want your image to then capture your image.

When you’ve finished the Color Photo Composition Challenge, share your images with me at Twitter.  My Twitter home is @MarkPaulda

Colour is everywhere and if you are drawn to colourful scenes, then you are well ahead of me in this lesson. You can be very creative and add a huge splash of interest to your photos by utilising a variety of hues.

Deep, saturated colours have an impact. The key to using strong colours successfully is in keeping the composition simple. Including lots of different colours in a photo lessens their impact. For maximum effect, stick to a few blocks of bold colour.  

Colour photography isn’t just about strong colour. Colour photography can be very subtle, almost monochrome. You’re more likely to get pastel colours on a dull cloudy day. This type of light, which is so soft that there are almost no shadows, is ideal for subjects like portraiture, flowers, still life and waterfalls – anything where too much contrast could ruin the photo.

Bright primary colours tend to attract the eye especially when they are contrasted with a complementary hue as you will see in the examples below.

Use One Colour Against a Neutral Background.  Placing a strong colour against a neutral background emphasises the colour because there are no competing hues to detract attention from it.

How do you find a neutral background? Anything that’s grey or black will do, and it can also work if the background is in deep shadow.

Let one colour dominate, then the colour becomes the main subject of the photo. The effect is even stronger when the dominant colour is a primary colour (red, yellow or blue).

View each of the following colourful images and notice how your eye is drawn to the scenes. Visualise your next images and think how will you use colour in your next photo? 


Colour is everywhere and if you are drawn to colourful scenes you then are well ahead of me in this lesson.  You can be very creative and add a huge splash of interest to your photos by utilising colour.  

Bright primary colours tend to attract the eye especially when they are contrasted with a complementary hue as you can see in the following two examples.  

The flamingo dipping its head into the water is seriously beautiful.  What elements of composition do you see?   Yes, for one the colour is wow!  The effective use of controlling the background – the green colour reflecting in the water is great AND do you see the curved line starting at the bottom of the image – the flamingo reflecting in the water to the actual flamingo.  I can’t say enough good things about this photo.  The composition is outstanding.

And this bright yellow window box stands out nicely against the blue wall.  But do you notice it is almost directly in the middle of the frame?  The composition would be stronger if the window box was situated to the right of the centre, don’t you think?

The soft shades of the autumn leaves are simple but effective, especially with the background.  The slight touch of sunlight hitting the leaf in the foreground is also nice.  The photographer wins with this composition.

We have a purple colour explosion with this photograph and a sensational one at that.  Wouldn’t you love to stumble upon a scene like this?  I half expect Peter Rabbit to hop through at any minute.  The colour is effective and the bridge begins off-centre and moves the eye into the shrubs.  What awaits us there?  We don’t know, but we do know this image is an example of good composition.

Lastly, this image of the frames is sort of interesting.  It is completely static meaning it’s just frames leaned up against one another.  There is no action waiting to happen.  What we do have are patterns and our brains seem to like that.  What really makes this photo work are the various colours.   With each frame being a different colour, the eye moves around the image.  In this regard, the photographer succeeds because we as viewers are taking in everything in the photograph.  The result is a strong composition.

Take advantage of colour when you can.  And remember, when composing a photo try to incorporate more than one element of the composition.  The possibilities are endless.  Your creativity and imagination should run wild.  Good photo composition is not difficult.  It is simply using your own eye to make stunning photographs.