Composition Tricks for Taking Photographs Like the Pros

Great pictures start with you, not your photography equipment. Here's what you need to know to set up your shots.

Learn From the Pros

Digital photography isn't just about technology. Long before there were pixels, ISO settings, and layer masks in Adobe Photoshop, a set of artistic guidelines developed that help professional photographers create great compositions that engage the eye and elicit an emotional response. These guidelines for photo composition are easy to learn and can dramatically enhance your own photography. I'll cover composition in this slide show; for more fundamentals, read "Digital Photography Basics: Using a Flash" and "Digital Photography Basics: All About Exposure."

Use the Rule of Thirds

You've probably already heard of the rule of thirds. It's utterly ubiquitous: Every movie and TV show makes almost constant use of it, and professional photographers follow it almost without exception. To understand it, draw four lines through a photo, dividing it into thirds vertically and horizontally. This turns it into something like a tic-tac-toe board, as you see here.

Position Your Subject Off Center

At its essence, the rule of thirds says that you'll get the most interesting photos when your subject isn't in the center of the frame, but rather is positioned off center--to the left, right, up, or down. You can position your subject at any of the four intersection points of the lines, or along one of the four lines, like the birds in this example. In fact, many cameras will display "third lines" in the viewfinder to make it easy to compose your shot.

Balance the Subject

If you follow the rule of thirds, you might find that putting the subject off center makes the opposing side of the photo feel empty or lopsided. A common fix for this is what artists sometimes call a "balancing element." That just means you can put a secondary subject--something of lesser importance--on the opposing third line to balance the look of the photo, as I did in this image.

Don't Center the Horizon

When shooting scenes that involve the horizon--such as the ocean or a cityscape at night--people have a natural tendency to position the horizon in the dead center of the frame. That visually cuts the photo in half, though, and doesn't look engaging. Take this photo, for example, in which I used the rule of thirds to put the horizon just below the middle. It also would have worked if I put the horizon just above the middle, about a third of the way from the edge.

Use Diagonals to Your Advantage

Here's another trick using lines: To add a sense of drama, incorporate a diagonal in the frame. Imagine a line from one corner of the scene to the other. If you can find some element in the situation that more or less follows this line, it can make your shot more dynamic, almost as if it's pulling the viewer through the scene. The diagonal can run the entire length of the frame, as it does in the photo on the left, or it could just be partial, as on the right.

Break the Monotony

No doubt you've seen photos in which most of the frame is filled with more or less the same thing: A field of grass, a pile of pennies, rocks, fish, stars in the night sky. Such photos would be truly monotonous if that's all they offered, but a good photographer will often incorporate one out-of-place element that attracts the eye. With that in mind, look for scenes that are mostly uniform and then break the pattern with an element that disturbs the natural flow of the scene.

Make It Symmetric

Capturing the natural symmetry in nature is always a good thing. There are a few ways to do this. You might shoot a scene in which both sides of your photo are essentially the same, for example. Or you might shoot a photo of something that is itself symmetrical, like this close-up of a flower.

Mess With the Symmetry

Even better: Shake things up with a little variation. Surprise the viewer, either by making one side of the photo nonsymmetrical, or, as in this example, defeat the symmetry of the flower by shooting only part of it in the frame.

Position Movement Into the Frame

One of my favorite photography subjects is motion. I like capturing the essence of speed in what is by its very definition a static art form. But how you introduce that motion into your scene is important. Whether you're shooting a speeding car, an airplane, a flock of birds, or a running dog, be sure that the motion leads into the frame, not out of it. Give the leading edge of your moving subject plenty of room; it should be positioned on a third line (see the rule of thirds) and pointed at the center of the frame. (Read "Digital Photography Tips: Capture Summer Action" for more advice.)

Fill the Frame

"Negative space" can sometimes enhance your photos, but in general, don't be shy about emphasizing the subject of the picture. If your viewer has to search the photo for an interesting subject, it won't look compelling. Instead, fill the frame as much as possible, or crop the image afterwards to emphasize the reason you took it to begin with.

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