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Photography Composition 101

Updated on June 29, 2011

What do the number “three” (3), tic-tac-toe, and bright spots have to do with composing a photograph? If you don’t know, then like me, you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise! Before I learned the basic elements of composition, I always tried to get my primary subject centered in the frame. Later, working with post-production software (I don’t use Photoshop.) I would make adjustments when cropping the image especially if the subject was a bird. It would be cropped so the bird was off center enough that it would have some room to fly in the frame. Most of the time, I left the subject centered--a real no-no. Man, was I in for some news!

By the time I had enrolled in the weekend seminar from the Rocky Mountain School of Photography, I had taken over ten thousand photos with my digital SLR and really gotten familiar with the equipment. I’ve adapted the philosophy of Scott Kelby and feel strongly that the photographer should do as much as possible to get the image as “right” as possible inside the camera. No amout of editing and manipulation later will fix a lousy image -- and it’s easy to see if an image has been “Photoshopped to death”. The sessions on composition and lighting have had the most significant and lasting impact on the quality of my work ever since.

Arranging the subjects and objects in a photograph and establishing their respective places in the scene is known as "composition". Much composing is done, and can only be done, through the viewfinder prior to releasing the shutter. Being in touch with your equipment and subject can often be described as a "zen" moment. Some alterations and improvements can be done with digital editing after the image is out of the camera and into the computer. Some image editing software actually superimposes a composing grid on the image to help. Some cameras have the grid visible in the viewfinder.

"Composition 101" by FCEtier

Image copyright 2008 by RFWLLC
Image copyright 2008 by RFWLLC

I had been familiar with the “rule of thirds” for a long time and for some reason always applied it horizontally. At the seminar, they pointed out that if you apply the same rule vertically; the two groups of lines form a “tic-tac-toe” grid with a square centered in the frame.The four corners of this square are the “power points,” the four areas of the photo where the eye naturally tends to look in a scene.
The upper left hand power point is the most significant. Regardless of culture and reading path (up, down, left to right, or right to left) the human brain goes to that spot first. (There is actually scientific evidence to support this comment although I do not have the reference to link.) The eye is naturally attracted to the brightest, most clearly focused feature of a scene.Triangles are the most powerful of geometric shapes in a composition because they help to keep the viewer’s eye in the frame and they help focus attention on a particular point in the frame.Three is the preferred frequency for number of items in a scene, i.e., three flowers arranged in a triangle. Notice in this first illustration the grid lines as well as the two triangles. Also, note the gradual change in brightness of the triangle's three sides, ending with a smaller solid white triangle in the upper left power point. Or rather, try NOT to notice them. See how powerful these elements are to the composition?

Image copyright RFWLLC 2009
Image copyright RFWLLC 2009

Composing a portrait

These rules work for any subject matter whether it’s a landscape or a portrait.

For a portrait, we try to get the eyes on the upper third line, hopefully near the two upper power points. In this image, Chelsea's eyes are right on the upper line and almost perfectly align with the power points.

Another old photography rule is illustrated here by having the subject fill the entire frame. There are no distractions in this image.


The original image here was a longer shot with more of the model in the scene.  I cropped it in post-production and aligned the compositional grid so that the upper left power point was right between the eyes.  Doing so also eliminated some unnecessary clutter in the background.

Triangles, triangles, triangles!

Image copyright 2009 RFWLLC Notice how powerfully triangles #1 and #2 keep your attention focused on the model's face.
Image copyright 2009 RFWLLC Notice how powerfully triangles #1 and #2 keep your attention focused on the model's face.

An irresistible composing tool.

Even without the display of the composing grid and the triangles in the image to the right, it would be very difficult to take your eyes away from Chelsea's face. All the elements of a strong composition are here and working together. In this image, a clearly focused background does not distract as it is simple and not cluttered. This image could have been cropped to make more of a closeup, but the power points would have moved and in this version, the subject fills the frame and the triangles support the crop.

You can do it!

Remember these simple but powerful rules the next time you raise your camera to shoot, or the next time you edit images, and you can get better photos every time!

Watch for more articles on photography as I share my experiences and lessons learned over the years.

Happy shooting!


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    • Rastamermaid profile image

      Rastamermaid 7 years ago from Universe

      Awesome hub,with awesome tips and info!

      Thanks for sharing

    • okmom23 profile image

      Donna Oliver 7 years ago from Midwest, U.S.A.

      Great tutorial! Easy to read, useful tips and well written article.

    • Becky Puetz profile image

      Becky 7 years ago from Oklahoma

      Thank you for the tips and advice. I've picked up a few pointers. Awesome, easy to understand tutorial. Well written Hub and great photos. Thanks again.

    • arthurchappell profile image

      arthurchappell 7 years ago from Manchester, England

      Good practical photography advice - cheers.

    • justom profile image

      justom 7 years ago from 41042

      I'd just say once you learn the rules and how to apply them start breaking them. You might be surprised! Good luck, Peace!! Tom

    • FCEtier profile image

      Chip 7 years ago from Cold Mountain

      Thanks again for all the comments!

    • MrKnowledge profile image

      MrKnowledge 7 years ago from Tacoma!

      Wow! I'm going to bookmark this one, it's something that I definitely want to check out. I'm using an Olympus SLR, I'm not exactly sure of the model, without it in front of me, I just know that it's a great camera for beginners who are learning, because it adapts well for easy usage and professional usage, also. I do use Photoshop, because I purchased the CS5 Master Collection, for graphic design uses. Great Hub!

    • dags the drover profile image

      dags the drover 7 years ago from still lost in Western Australia

      Hi FC, thanks for the tutorial..... I have found that I have been paying more attention to composition since going digital, I think becasue I'm using the screen rather than view finder. From now on I'll use the grid on my camera and make the triangles work... thanks a lot

      Cheers Dags the Drover

    • FCEtier profile image

      Chip 7 years ago from Cold Mountain

      RSMSN, use a zoom and turn off the flash. Go for a candid shot from across the room. Good luck!

    • RNMSN profile image

      Barbara Bethard 7 years ago from Tucson, Az

      wonderful information on the use of my digital if I can just get hubby and baby girl (27yr old now) to LOOK at me instead of throwing up their hands lol

    • FCEtier profile image

      Chip 7 years ago from Cold Mountain

      Thanks everyone! I really appreciate the comments.

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 7 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Nice hub and good information. I learn much from this hub. I like taking picture. I'll try to follow your tips. Thank you very much. I vote this Up.


    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 7 years ago from United States

      This hub is very helpful for someone like me who has struggled to take decent pictures but often I have been disappointed in my results. I am looking forward to reading more about photography. Thanks for the great information.

    • lelanew55 profile image

      lelanew55 7 years ago

      Very interesting and useful hints on taking pictures. Thank you for sharing.

    • akirchner profile image

      Audrey Kirchner 7 years ago from Washington

      Thank you for these wonderful tips! I tend to look through the view finder and look for certain angles or boundaries but I never thought about these things. Next time I will!

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 7 years ago from Southern Illinois

      Thank,s for the info, i can use this.


    • Joshua Kell profile image

      Levi Joshua Kell 7 years ago from Arizona

      Great hub. I like to expiriment with photography; I am not that good at this point - so thank you for the tips. Take care.

    • G L Strout profile image

      G L Strout 7 years ago from Ohio, USA

      Wonderful article with beautiful photo diagrams. Thankyou for sharing.

    • singlmomat52 profile image

      singlmomat52 7 years ago

      Great Hub!!!

      I love to take pictures, My camera is just a simple digital. It does not ZOOM in as I would like. One day I will get me a great camera so I can take great pics. Thank you for the tips.

    • K9keystrokes profile image

      India Arnold 7 years ago from Northern, California

      You offer such perfect advice. I am happy to find your hub and read the wisdom provided by a master!

    • Tony Flanigan profile image

      Tony Flanigan 7 years ago from East London, South Africa

      You should have posted this years ago!

      my first lesson in composition was over a phone. Chat, take picture with mobile phone, send to tutor, and call again. This is so much easier.

      Thanks! :)

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 7 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Great and easy to understand primer on where we should focus our subjects. Will try this out the next pictures that I take. Thanks!

    • profile image

      SilverGenes 7 years ago

      Thank you for the excellent tutorial on the application of the rule of thirds. I'm looking forward to more! :)

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I was a fairly enthused photographer if not a good one years ago.Due to cataracts and some side effects of surgery I got away from visual activity. So I am sort of trying to relearn now. These articles are useful. Thanks.