Photography tips – Composition

Buckle yourself in…this is going to be a long one! 🙂

I have been focusing pretty strongly on photography since last September.  That was the point where I was actually trying to learn about this craft (aka obsession) of photography.  After taking many, many thousands of pictures, here are a few things that I have learned about composing before you click the shutter.

Once you have (kinda..sorta) mastered how to take properly exposed pictures, the next thing to focus on is composing your shots.  You can crop shots in your photo editing program of choice, of course, but trying to get it right in your camera should be a priority.  If you don’t get the shot right in the first place, sometimes you are pretty limited to how you can crop it.

A basic guiding principle in a more artistic approach to photography is the rule of thirds.  Basically, don’t put your subject dead center in your shot, but place them where a viewer will focus on a specific characteristic.

Lines – horizontal vs. diagonal vs. curves

If you have lines in your photograph watch where they are in placement to your subject.  If it is a horizon, have it be in the bottom or top third of your photo and not cutting it in half.  If it is a horizontal line, make sure it is either straight or at an exaggerated angle.  If it’s a little off, the photo just looks crooked.

Lines can also add to a photo to draw you towards a subject.  You don’t want a line to be cutting through a person’s head, but if it is a line that draws the eye toward them it works.  Also watch lines like tree branches which can appear to add extra limbs to your subject.

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Curves really add visual interest as your eyes follows those lines.  If you have some interesting architecture that has curved lines, or a curvy road, these can make some great shots.

Chopped off limbs

Lordy, lordy.  This is a big one that I still struggle with.  The basic principles of limb chopping, is that if you are going to cut off an arm or leg to do it above the elbows or knees.  I saw a shot by a “professional” photographer that took off a little ones hands and feet.  It really was horrible…the poor child looked like a quadripeligic.  Sometimes it is hard to get everything in there, so if you do cut off their limbs, then just crop the picture closer.  Sometimes I deal with missing feet, though, if I wasn’t far enough away to get them in successfully.  This is one area where composing in-camera is important to make sure you have all the body parts.

Example:  This was an in-camera crop.  The poor girl lost her hands!  This is why you need to be mindful while you are taking the picture because you can’t fix this in Photoshop.


Cutting off heads

If this is artistically done, you won’t look like your poor old aunt Mabel who just couldn’t hold the camera still and always messed up taking pictures.  I will really only chop head shots if it is a close in shot and then I will make sure the eyes are at one of the “rule of third” intersects.  Then your eye will be drawn to what you want the viewer to see and not missing parts of the head.


Focus on the details

Look at more than just full body shots.  Sometimes the little things are the sweetest.  Look at their hands grasping a favorite toy, sucking their thumb and use depth of field to focus on their feet.  Be creative and look at the little things.

Add some tilt

Work on taking pictures at an angle instead of straight on to add visual interest.  Try different tilts to see what works, but don’t go overboard.  You don’t want your subject to appear to be falling.  Also, make sure that when you tilt the camera, you are including their appendages (or stop at a joint) and it doesn’t appear that something is falling on them.  This is a technique that is best used sparingly.  I have seen some photographers that tilt nearly every shot.  That is going beyond artistic and has moved into “overboard” territory.

Watch the lighting

It is very important to watch the lighting.  Inside and outside, the way the light hits your subject can make or ruin a photo.  Too much direct sunlight, and you get hot spots and harsh shadows.  Not enough light, and it will be underexposed and noisy.   I love it when I can get direct light on the subject’s face from the side and then it washes over to darkness behind them.  Essentially, bathing them in the light.  To get this, they are usually inside in front of a window or in the garage, shed, etc. with an open door in front of them.


Time to shoot

Okay, those are the basics of composition, and just a few things to think about.  I want to stress that you should watch the lighting and the limbs.  Those are two areas that are pretty important.  Above all, though, think creatively.  Don’t just throw your subject in the center and shoot off a bunch of frames.  Try to make it more than just a head shot and challenge yourself.


I post photography and Photoshop tips (nearly) every Saturday, so check back for more or browse my archives under Photography Tips.  I’m open to content suggestions, so if there is an area you are interested in, just leave a comment.

7 Replies to “Photography tips – Composition”

  1. I have such a hard time with the tilt thing. It never looks right to me when I try it, no matter how cool it looks when others do it. *sigh*

    I have a difficult time with the limb chopping, too. Although, I’m usually trying hard not too, and end up cutting off tips of fingers or just feet. Still looks funny, though…

  2. Ok, I’m printing out this one to read and keep.

    Because you’re so nice to share your knowledge and always say the nicest things to me and I think you’re just a swell person, you have an award at my place. Post it or not, but I wanted you to have it. 🙂

  3. Well, I hope this was helpful ladies!

    Alissa, I understand about cutting off parts. Usually I’m focused on getting their eyes in focus and the limbs are secondary…which is why I tend to have a problem with cutting them off!

  4. Eeeek. I actually feel guilty reading this! You know like, oops, I do that….and that…..oh AND that!!!!!!! I will try and keep you advice in mind next time but mostly I am just wondering whether the battery has sufficient charge. Story of my life really 😀
    thanks for the tips

  5. I’m soooo behind in my blog reading, but thanks for this! Your photo tips posts are always great and this was a good one. Last September was actually when I started getting really into photography, too! I’ve done it somewhat backwards, and focussed on composition before exposure, since the manual settings on my PAS don’t work so well. I find that I naturally use a lot of angles and tilts. but I really need to work on not chopping off limbs and especially light!

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