Photo Composition Tips

There’re already millions of articles on the Internet about photo composition (it’s true – I just did a search and there really are millions of results!), so I’m not gonna go over a bunch of tips you’ve likely read elsewhere (or can easily read now by doing your own search).

Instead, I’ve written down the tips that are typically top of my mind when I go out and shoot. They’re not unique, by any means, as most of what’s been done has already been talked about in some fashion. But I know when I was just learning photography I found it helpful to see what went through other photographer’s minds when they were out shooting. So I hope you’ll find this usefull, too.

People Pictures

1. Portraits: Moving the Subject’s Head from the Center of the Frame

When we’re taking photos of people, we tend to want to center their heads and/or bodies in the frame. But sometimes this can have an unbalanced feel.

Bride Portrait centered


So one way to fix this is by following the rule of thirds where you position the head in the upper third of the image.

Bride portrait

Ah, much better (and even she looks happier about the recomposed photo ;).

2. Portraits: Centering Your Subjects within the Frame

I know, I just got done saying not to center your subjects. And I swear I’m not trying to confuse you here. But while it’s a general guideline not to center your subject, you know how it goes with rules, right? Sometimes they’re made to be broken. And sometimes, it just looks better (but of course this is always up for interpretation, anyway).

Basenji Dog

3. People in Front of Landmarks (or other interesting objects)

If the main objective is not to just take a nice portrait of someone (or your dog), but to also take a photo of someone plus an interesting thing beside your subject, then it’s a good idea to actually include that other thing in the photo, too.

You may think this is obvious point, but I assure you it’s not. And you’ve no doubt experienced before, too.

Have you ever traveled a long ways to see something really cool (i.e. Eiffel Tower, Great Pyramids, etc.) and asked a willing passerby to take a photo of you? And have you ever gotten the photo back and discovered that all you got was, well, a photo of you (and you could’ve been anywhere)?

Back in the days of film, you often didn’t realize your photo was cropped terribly and you didn’t know until you got home. We know the person was well-intentioned, but it still kinda sucked that your photo wasn’t quite what you’d hoped it would be.

Now with digital this doesn’t happen as often, but you can also learn to anticipate ahead of time what people might be asking for. And while the people in the photo are important, the landmark or other object can be just as important.

So please oh please, the next time you take a photo of your family or some random stranger and their family in front of a landmark, be sure to include not just the people, but also the landmark, too.

4. People & Backgrounds

One very simple thing you can do to improve your people pictures is to pay attention to the background.

Two important things to watch out for:

  • objects “growing” out of people’s heads
  • brightly-colored objects

If you spot one of these distractions, simply reposition your subject or yourself and you’ll have a much better photo.


1. Fill the Frame

Sometimes empty space (like a big sky, for example) can be a good thing, but usually you’ll want to fill the entire frame by either zooming in or repositioning yourself with respect to your subject.

This Maine lighthouse was the main subject, but I also wanted to include the striated rocks that formed a little cove beneath it. So I composed my image to fill the lower half of the frame with the rocky cove while keeping the lighthouse to the left third of the image.

Portland Head Lighthouse, Maine


2. Keep the Horizon Straight

Unless you’re deliberately shooting crookedly for some reason, it’s usually a good idea to either shoot your images so the horizon is level, or straighten your image when post-processing so that it is.

3. Shoot During the Magic Hours (Or Not)

Common advice is to shoot during the magic hours, or the times close to sunrise and sunset. And yes, you can capture amazing photos during these times because the light is much richer and softer.

But sometimes, when the clock goes off at that ungodly hour of the early morning, you just don’t want to get out of bed to go shoot. So I’m here to say that it’s okay not to. And in fact, some of my best-selling images were shot in the middle of the day (so rejoice all of you who, like me, are also not early risers!).

Take photos during the day. Cinque Terre, Italy

Other Tips

1. Shoot Into the Sun

You’re usually not supposed to shoot towards the sun, and lens flare used to be considered bad back in the day. But whatever. If you feel like doing it, do it.

Dogs! Black & Chocolate Labs

This image I shot of these two labs may not be considered a masterpiece, and it’s not technically correct. But those weren’t my goals, anyway, and I like the way the image turned out. So all is good.

2. Change Your Angle

Even though it’s certainly easier to shoot photos at our own eye level, for some subjects, this often doesn’t give us the best shots.

Puppy & Toy

To take the photo of this adorable little furball, I literally had to lie down on the ground. Yes, it was dirty, but isn’t that face worth it? :)

Make It Your Own

So with all that said, photography is an art. So in my mind, you can kinda do whatever you like as far as composition is concerned. As long as you’re happy with your results, that’s all that matters.

The only reason you’d really need to do something more traditional is if you’re actually hoping to make a living from selling your photos. In this case, it will behoove you to learn and keep in mind what is generally considered a good-looking photo so people will actually pay you for your work.

But use what you learn as a guideline and not a rule and then let your art take you where it may.

Happy Photographing!