How to Take A Good Photo: Basics of Composition

Taking a quick photo has become a more constant part of our everyday lives thanks to the smartphone. We used to be limited by the type of film we had on hand, the number of photos available on the roll and whether or not we just so happened to be lugging our cameras around at the opportune moment. Nowadays, we are constantly carrying a camera in our pocket and are only limited by the number of gigs of storage that our phones come equipped with.

While it’s great to have such easy and constant access to photos, like most things, more doesn’t always mean better in the photo world. Here, we will cover what you need to know to properly compose your photo.


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Where are you using your photo?

Where you plan to use your photo is the basis for determining its orientation and overall composition. Are you planning to use the photo on your website? In print materials? On social media? Each of these spaces have their own sets of parameters and best practices.

If you plan on using your photo in print materials or on your website, it’s important to keep in mind what other design elements will be surrounding your photo. For instance, if you have a heavily designed site or print piece, it’s likely you will want to keep your photo relatively clean and simple, so as not to distract from the design. Conversely, if you have simple text on a plain background, your photo could be highlighted as the standout of the overall design by employing a lot of texture, color, and interesting placements.

Your website likely has a preferred orientation for images as well (ours, for example, displays featured photos vertically), if you are shooting specifically for this space, you will minimize the amount of cropping or adjusting that needs to be done. A lot of site layouts nowadays feature full-width photos (like our Salon Snapshot). While they look really lovely and bold, it’s difficult to shoot for this space without a specific type of lens. If you don’t have a wide-angle lens, you will need to crop your large format, hi-res photo down by about half in order to make it span the width of your site which—you guessed it—greatly affects your composition.

But what about social media, where the photo really stand on it’s own legs? Does is matter how you shoot there?

Of course it does, it always matters how you shoot a photo 🙂

Facebook, for example, displays horizontally oriented photos beautifully in your news feed, vertical photos do not show up as well. On Instagram, you can either shoot portrait style (vertical) or landscape-style (horizontal) as long as you keep in mind that it will display as a square. The reason these orientations are so named is because they work best when used for those purposes. So, a horizontal photo typically works best for shooting landscapes, while a vertically orientated photo usually produces a stronger portrait. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you are limited to these rules, they are merely guidelines. Bottom line: think about the space where your photo will live—this is the cornerstone for building a strong composition.

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Check your space.

Before we even begin to talk about lines, colors, textures, layouts or the rule of thirds, let’s discuss backgrounds. You could have the most beautiful lighting, perfect layout and fantastic coordination of colors in your photo and it will be completely ruined by a rogue sock on the floor or reflection of you and your camera in the mirror or some other unintended prop that you didn’t catch at the time. Sure you could always remove it later during editing, but that takes a lot more time than just removing the object from the actual photo before you take it.

You will also want to ask yourself if your background is too busy, or if it clashes with your subject at all. Remember, while your subject is the most important part of your photo the supporting pieces—like background, color, texture and layout—ensure that the focus stays on your subject and it’s shown in its strongest light. Bottom line: before you snap, do a quick scene check for distracting objects in the background.

 

How are you using your photo?

We’ve talked placement, we’ve handled the details, now let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Before we can worry about how to make our photos interesting, we first need to consider their function. Before you roll your eyes and think to yourself “enough with this boring cautionary rules stuff! Let’s just get to the fun part already!” let me explain why placement, attention to detail and function are so important: re-shoots.

I have folders and folders of photos that turned out lovely but are completely unusable. The lighting was great, the props highlighted the subject matter perfectly…but they were shot horizontal and my layout was vertical. Or you could see my reflection, a product label or some other unwanted thing in the background. Or, the typical culprit for me (since I tend to gravitate towards “filling the frame”) there is no workable, negative space to overlay text. Reshoots are costly, both in time and money. In most cases, you will need to rework your entire vision, which uses a lot of planning time and you may need to invest in more props as a result.

The way to avoid all that? Think about how your photo will be used. Are you planning to place a design or text on it? Using it as an email or social media header?Just want to show off your work? All of these scenarios call for their own tweaks in composition.

  • For design/text overlays: Keep your composition clean, either light or dark (depending on the colors used in your design) and uncluttered. If you have a busy photo, it will be harder to read any text that is placed over it.
  • For social media headers: These are long, short, horizontal spaces with a profile picture “cut out” make sure that nothing necessary about your photo will be covered up by your profile picture.
  • For portfolio photosPick one thing to highlight, and simplify everything else in the photo. For example, if you are showing off your cutting skills, you want to keep colors muted and avoid the use of leading lines, if possible. For color work, the same rules apply: keep background colors complementary and muted, and avoid using too much texture or pattern in other areas of your photo. You want all eyes to be on your work!

Ok, now let’s dive into some of the more technical aspects of photo composition…

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The Rule of Thirds

It’s likely you’ve heard of this by now, as the rule of thirds is the most common rule in visual arts. Basically, you divide your image into three sections both vertically and horizontally, creating nine individual squares, like an Instagram grid. The focus of your photo should be placed in the touch points of these boundaries. The “crosshairs” if you will. Put very simply, you get a stronger composition by placing subjects off-center than you do just plopping them into the middle of your frame.

If you’re having a hard time visualizing this in the moment just try to frame your subject off to one side of your photo, that should about cover your bases 😉

Leading Lines (Not Ladies)

This is another visual arts fact of life. Wherever a line goes, the eye will follow. This is why people believe that it is more slimming to wear vertical stripes as opposed to horizontal (which isn’t exactly true by the way, but that’s another tale for another day) because your eye follows along with the lines it perceives. Whether or not you realize it, leading lines are everywhere. In brick walls, wood table tops, striped shirts and even sidewalks and fence posts, all of these seemingly innocuous backgrounds create strong leading lines that will direct your viewer’s eye in a photo.

*TIP: The human eye will want to follow lines from the bottom of an image, upwards. Once it hits a horizontal line, the eye will stop to travel from side to side.

Negative Space

Not only is negative space useful for creating graphics and overlaying text onto a photo, it can also create a really interesting composition. Leaving a little—or a lot, actually—of empty space around a subject forces your viewer to concentrate on that subject and that subject only. Whatever is around that subject is left up to the imagination, which makes for a great experience. Depending on the feel that you are going for in your photo, you can go with an either dark (mysterious and moody) or light background (airy, open, fresh) to highlight the tone of your subject matter.

*TIP: If you do plan on overlaying text, be sure to keep that in mind when selecting your background color. Dark lettering will show best on a light background and vice-versa.

Balance, Color & Texture

Each of these topics can (and likely will) stand on their own for a more in-depth look, but for our purposes, we will look at how they work together to form the basis of your photo composition. Put simply, if you have a lot of color or texture (or color and texture) in a photo, you will want to frame the image so that it creates balance. Now, I realize that this sounds totally contradictory to the rule of thirds, but if you have a lot going on in a photo, it can be overwhelming to the eye to also try to see it from a new and interesting perspective. Let your crazy-all-over-the-place subject be the focus, not the perspective that you are viewing it from.

*COLOR TIP: Take a moment to assess the colors in your photo. Do any clash? Are there a lot of different patterns or color families present in one single image? If so, just make sure that these placements look intentional and have a sense of balance and scale. You can use your perspective (balanced or off-center) appropriately in each scenario.

*TEXTURE TIP: Natural textures and patterns can be a bit more chaotic in a photo because, well..they’re natural and without getting all entropic about it, part of nature is chaos. Man-made patterns and texture can be very strong in color and lines, so they can easily become overwhelming to the eye. A good thing to keep in mind when pairing things like stripes or plaids together in a photo is to keep the colors similar or complimentary and the scale opposite.

Composition is one of the first things that you want to consider when taking a good photo, but certainly not the only one. In future lessons, we will cover things like lighting, focus and even some tips on how to use your smartphone to take better photos.

Key Points

  • Think about where you will be using your photo and shoot with that specific location in mind.
  • Whatever the purpose of your photo is will largely dictate its composition.
  • A little pre-planning and mindfulness go a long way to preventing a re-shoot.

Quick Takeaways

Try setting up a little photo shoot of your very own, focusing on only composition. Pick one object and try shooting it using each of the elements that we went over:

  • The rule of thirds
  • Leading lines
  • Balance
  • Color
  • Pattern/Texture
  • Negative space (or “breathing room”)