Photo Basics: How to Compose a Photograph

Image composition is the process of making the subject of a photo clearer, and the overall image less complicated. These tips for beginner photographers explain the essential techniques needed for framing a great photo.

What Is Composition?

Composition isn't just how you choose to frame a shot. It's the process of arranging the things in your shot so that the viewer can more easily "read" your image. The idea of reading an image may sound strange (despite a picture being worth a thousand words), but just as some sentences are easier to understand than others, so are some images.

You won't find a single recipe or formula for good composition--and for every "rule" or guideline that you see, you'll encounter a great image that breaks that rule. Before you can start breaking the rules, however, it's a good idea to be proficient with them. Rather than give you a list of composition tricks (such as the rule of thirds and repetition) we'd like to encourage you to think about composition as the process of making your subject clearer, and your image less complicated. No matter what composition rules you follow, clarity of subject should always be your main goal.

Cure the Clutter

Consider this image of cruise ships entering a small Alaskan town. Sure, you can immediately recognize that there are big boats in this picture, plus a mountain range and some water, but it doesn't really make sense as you're not really sure what you're supposed to look at. Is this a picture of boats? Of mountains? Is it supposed to be a picture of boats in front of mountains? Mostly it's just a confusing jumble of elements.

Choose a Subject

Now look at this take on the same scene. It's far easier to understand. With the tram in the foreground of the shot, we have a very clear subject. We still get the big boats, the mountains, and the general scene, but since the tram is planted firmly where it is, our shot has a definite subject and background.

Stick to One Main Subject

This is the key composition concept to remember: Your image must have a subject--and more important, the subject must be obvious to the viewer. For example, with this image you might say "This picture has a subject: It's my friend Hans." But the picture also has a beach, some other people, and the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the greatest engineering feats of all time. Any of those elements are worthy of being the subject. As a photographer, you have to choose whether your subject will be the person or the bridge. You can't have both as a subject.

Find the Focus of the Photo

This recomposed shot is framed so that Hans is clearly the subject. We still have the bridge and a general sense of the place--but more important, we now have a very clear subject and background.

Another reason the background is not distracting is that it has been thrown out of focus. A shallow depth of field is a great tool for separating your subject from its surroundings.

Subject and background may seem like obvious concepts that you think you already understand. Bear in mind, however, that this is the most common problem for novice photographers, so be certain that the subject of your image is clear and well represented.

Be Aware of Balance

As you organize the components of your shot with the idea of presenting a clear subject and background, keep an eye on the balance of your image. Different things in a photo have different compositional weight, and just as with weights in the real world, you need to balance them. The top photo shows an image that has good balance: The bird in the lower-right corner balances the two birds in the upper left. But when we delete the bird in the right corner in the lower photo, the image falls out of balance.

Use Tone to Balance a Shot

You don't have to balance your image just using things; light and dark can also work to create balance, as evident in this photo. The dark shadows of the sidewalk under the scaffolding on the left are balanced out by the bright street scene on the right.

Let the Shadows Go Dark

Note that it's frequently okay to let shadows fall into complete blackness. Just because detail is present doesn't mean the viewer has to see it. Remember, the goal is to reduce clutter and to simplify, so if allowing things to fall into shadow helps simplify your image, work with that. The cat in this image is much more visible--and much more obvious as a subject--because the shadow areas above it went to complete black.

Get Closer

Most of the time the trickiest part of capturing a good photo isn't getting what you want in the frame but keeping what you don't want out of the frame. In photography, less is almost always more--so it's critical to keep an eye on everything in the scene. Before you shoot, look around the edge of the frame and ask yourself if you actually need everything that's there. Often you'll find that you'll be better served by getting in closer and cropping out more detail, as we did with the image on the right.

Crop an Image With a Photo Editor

Composition doesn't happen only while you're shooting. Using the crop tool in your photo editor, you can reframe your shot later, effectively recomposing it. Through cropping, you can eliminate clutter or rebalance your image. Sometimes you'll shoot with the idea of cropping later, because you simply can't get the shape you want in-frame (for example, if you want to shoot a really wide landscape).

Whenever possible, though, you should always try to compose correctly in-camera--if you have to crop later, you'll be throwing away pixels, and therefore reducing your maximum print size.

If you're cropping a photo in an image editor, follow a few basic cropping rules and tips.

Don't Overthink It

Finally, don't overthink your compositions. Sometimes the best choice is merely to put your subject in the middle of the frame. As long as you have a clear subject and background, without lots of extraneous details, a simple composition like the one in this image will work fine.

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