Composition is a tricky beast to tame when you first get into photography. But, it becomes second nature with a little practice. There are six fundamental elements of photography composition for beginners, we are going to explain how, why and when you should use each.
The six things you are going to learn about in this article are:
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Below you’ll find a quick guide for anyone who wants to jump to a specific section, but if you’re a beginner photographer looking to learn the basics of photography composition, I highly suggest you read the whole article.
You’re about to learn everything you need to know about photography composition for beginners
The first thing to mention when talking about the very basics of photography composition for beginners is that these “rules” are there to be broken. At the end of the day, photography is an art form, there aren’t any rules. It’s about capturing a scene in your own way. So, if you think an image is good and how it should be, then that’s how it should be.
However, you do need to learn the basics even if you totally disregard them once you become more comfortable as a photographer. Understanding the basics of composition will help you understand how images you see have been created and why somebody shot it in the way they did.
It will develop your understanding on this art form and allow you to come to your own conclusions.
The rule of thirds
The rule of thirds is usually the first thing beginners learn when it comes to photography composition. Like all of the rules in this article, it’s not something you have to do every time you take a photo. But it can help make certain photos more pleasing to the eye.
The rule of thirds basically says that the frame can be separated into different three sections, both horizontally and vertically, by superimposing a grid over the scene. Pretty much all cameras have this setting (don’t worry, the grid won’t be visible in the final photo it’s just a guide).
See the photo below for an example of what the rule of thirds grid looks like.
Elements within an image should then be placed at the points where the lines intersect (represented by the red dots in the photo above) or, if you’re dealing with a long element within an image like a horizon or tree, along the lines themselves.
A lot of the time, instead of placing these important elements in the middle of the frame, placing them off-centre just makes the image feel more balanced (ironically).
See the photos below for an example of the rule of thirds in action.
Perhaps the most fundamental aspect of photography composition for beginners, the rule of thirds is something you should start trying to incorporate into your photos today. It’s an excellent way of practising proper composition and will help you understand what makes some photos look better than others.
Leading lines are naturally occurring lines that lead the viewer into the photo and/or towards the main subject. They can be anything from train tracks (pictured below) to rivers and everything in between. What constitutes a leading line is totally up to you. So long as it does the job of leading the viewer’s eye deeper into the photo.
They are a compelling way of drawing the viewer’s eye towards the point in an image you want them to focus on. A leading line will usually start at the bottom of the frame (sometimes in the corners) and progress into the centre.
Leading lines are typical of landscape photography, but the technique can also be applied to other forms of photography. Once you become more confident, you’ll start seeing them everywhere and using them in creative ways, regardless of what you’re shooting.
Foreground interest is just that, something interesting in the foreground.
It might sound simple, but quite often people will shoot a scene the same way the are looking at it. Composing a great photo and looking at a beautiful scene are not the same thing.
As a beginner photographer you need to look at things from a different perspective, and trying to add an element of foreground interest is a fine way of doing that.
It can be as simple as a rock, or even a person. Adding something in the foreground, close to the camera, acts as an anchor, anchoring the viewer to the photo and providing their eye with a starting point from where it can explore the image further.
Foreground interest also helps give depth to a photo by exaggerating the distance between the photographer and the furthest point in an image.
The biggest issue you’ll encounter when incorporating elements of foreground interest in your photos is nailing focus. To counter this, you should be shooting at a fairly small aperture (something like f8 – f11) and even focus stacking. It’s all about Depth of Field (DOF) and how it affects focus.
Focal length is about more than just zooming in to get closer to your subject. It can also be used to compress the background. Lens compression is when elements in the background appear to get bigger and closer to the subject the further you zoom in.
For example, if you were to shoot the skater in the photo below with a 70mm lens, the ramps in the background would look bigger and closer to him than they would if you stood in exactly the same place and photographed him with a 35mm lens.
Try this the next time you’re out shooting with a zoom lens.
Focus on a subject that isn’t moving using the lens’s widest focal length and take a photo. Then, without moving, zoom in and take another. You’ll see that the background appears to be closer to the subject and that individual elements seem bigger.
Bokeh is another thing focal length has an influence on. Bokeh is the blurry background everyone loves. Having your pin-sharp subject isolated from the background by throwing it out of focus makes it pop and gives it that WOW factor. Using a longer focal length (as well as a few other techniques, one of which we’re going to talk about now) will help you achieve maximum bokeh.
Aperture has an effect on photos in many different ways. But to stay within the scope of this article we will only consider its effect on composition.
We just touched on how focal length has an effect on bokeh, well, aperture is an even bigger factor when it comes to creating that out of focus background photographers are constantly chasing.
If you want to isolate a subject from a distracting background then mastering aperture is vital. Subject isolation is a very important part of photography composition for beginners especially in portraiture.
Understanding depth of field in photography and how aperture affects it is extremely important.
In simple terms, the wider the aperture (which is represented by the lowest f-stop number), the more bokeh you’ll get. So, if you want to isolate your subject and make the background blurry, shoot at a low aperture like f1.4 or f2. Just be sure to nail focus because at such wide apertures the slightest mistake when focusing results in a blurry subject, which is not the intended goal.
Placing a person in an image
Using people in non-portrait images is an excellent way of capturing scale. Sometimes, especially shooting with wide-angle lenses, the scale of things can get a little lost. Mountainous scenes or tall, imposing buildings sometimes don’t come across that way in the final image.
As we are all pretty familiar with the average size of a human, it gives us something to judge scale by. It also adds an element of relatability because, in some way, it helps the viewer place him/herself in the image. It can make an image feel more real.
Photography composition for beginners FAQs
No, definitely not. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, photography is an art form and totally open to interpretation. At the end of the day, you do what you think looks best. That said, however, I believe everyone needs to understand the basics before they can start making up their own rules. You need to learn to walk before you can run.
Yes and no. There is a common saying in photography that new gear won’t make you a better photographer, which is totally true, to some extent. While shooting with a mobile phone is fine, it obviously has some limitations. You can’t manually set your aperture for example, which means you can’t get creative with depth of field. So, in that case, getting a mirrorless or DSLR camera would help you create better images. But, if you’re a beginner photographer and already have a good camera, then upgrading to a slightly better one won’t help one bit. You need to master the tools you already have first, pro photographers would have no problem producing stunning images from entry-level DSLRs in most cases.
If you’re looking to buy your first ‘real’ camera, then I recommend you go down the mirrorless route. It’s just the way the camera industry is going. DSLRs are still great, but I usually recommend mirrorless cameras to people who want to invest in a system for the first time. Check out the best mirrorless cameras for beginners article I wrote where I talk about specific models.
Right here! We have a whole tips and tricks section dedicated to taking better photos, turning travel photography into a career, post-processing techniques and travel hacks for photographers with itchy feet!
Final words about this photography composition tutorial
Learning photography as a beginner might seem like a daunting task at first. There are so many things you need to know. And, quite frankly, a lot of jargon that makes it seem more complicated than it really is.
But I can’t stress enough that it’s a subjective art form. You need to discover what works for you and what results you personally like. The best way to speed up the journey of discovery is to immerse yourself in this world. Read as much as you can and practice the basics.
By repeatedly practicing the basics you will understand how other photographers compose photos better and figure out your own style.
Good luck and I hope this tutorial has helped!
Since 2016 I’ve travelled full-time working as a travel photographer and writer remotely. I move around at my own pace (I hate fast-paced travel) and like to spend a few months getting to know each place I base myself in. Currently in the north of España 🇪🇸 and loving it.