7 Musts of Great Composition in Photography

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What makes a great picture? There is always room for creative interpretation, but if you want to create a memorable photograph, these are seven things you must do.

photography composition musts

“One of these things doesn’t belong here” captured by Lynford Morton

1. Find a clear subject

Speaking of musts, every discussion about photography and composition must begin here. Before you ever hoist your camera or touch your shutter, you should say to yourself, “This is a picture of a ____.” When you fill in the blank, be as specific as possible. The more specific you are, the better the picture you can take. This is one of the truisms of photography. To have a great picture, you must have a clear, unmistakable subject.

The reverse is also true. If you ever find that you aren’t crazy about one of your pictures, ask yourself, “What’s the subject?” If a long, awkward pause follows, you’ve just solved the puzzle for your lackluster photo.

2. Fill the frame

It’s not enough to have a clear subject; you must make it prominent in the frame. The easiest way to do that is to dominate most of the real estate of your image with your subject. That often means getting close. It might mean standing back and zooming in. Each decision has its own creative implication. The reverse rule also works here. If you look at your image, and your subject isn’t obvious, you are probably too far away. Zoom with your feet, and fill the frame.

3. Harness the light

The old adage is that photography is painting with light, and if that’s the case, you have to harness the light to create great pictures. A painter doesn’t carelessly swipe paint across a canvas. As a photographer, you should never be careless with light either. This means you should always be aware of your main light source. You should know if it is coming direct to your subject, diffused through a filter, bouncing off another object, or completely controlled. Each decision has enormous consequences. For great pictures, this decision is never left to chance. You must actively decide how you will manipulate the light.

harness light in composition

“Mary, full of haze” captured by Lynford Morton

4. Evoke interest

Here is the question you must answer with your photo: So what? So many messages and images clamor for our attention. Why should I stop to look at yours? Great images have an arresting quality about them. They create a mood or evoke an emotion. They make me stop. They make me look. They make me feel. You must evoke my interest if you want me to care.

5. Create a sense of balance

We are attracted to harmony and balance—in life and in art. Great composition balances the objects in the frame so there is even weight. If you have all of the items on one side of your frame, your photo will feel lopsided. Dark objects must be balanced against light ones. Large items play against smaller items. Empty space can be balanced against busier areas of your frame. For pleasing composition, you must balance the objects in your frame.

balance in photo compositions

“Cows” captured by Lynford Morton

6. Tell me a story

A great picture usually tells a story at a glance. The photo’s elements, characters, and setting all communicate in an instant exactly what is going on in a way that we can connect and relate. Great storytelling always has strong characters, an obvious challenge, drama, controversy, and a satisfying conclusion. It might be hard to get all these elements into one photo, but with enough creative elements, you can have a dramatic effect. At a glance, you will know exactly what is going on. A great picture must tell me a story.

7. Break the rules

Effective composition follows very well established rules, but if you really want to be great, you must know when to break them. The Rule of Thirds has been widely accepted by photographers and painters for more than 200 years, but there are times when you can put the subject in the center. Break the rule because it creates a desired effect or emotion, not because of an oversight. Learn the rules, then break them. After all, they aren’t commandments.

breaking composition rules

“Breakfast” captured by Lynford Morton

Can you get all seven musts in every photo? Probably not, but if you do, the picture is likely to be unmistakably great. At the end of the day, that is what we must strive for.

About the Author:
Lynford Morton is founder and lead instructor of PhotoTour DC (http://www.photocoachpro.com/composition-creativity/). Where he teaches photography principles on walking workshops around Washington, DC. He shares blog posts and insights at PhotoCoach Pro.

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10 Comments

  1. Fantastic article. I can especially relate to the first point! Most of the photos I take that don’t work are because the subject is diffused and unclear. Thinking about what you’re actually shooting helps you automatically be aware of light, balance, drama, filling the frame etc.

  2. The best tip is to “break the rule”! Thank you for the article.

  3. Peter Guerrini says:

    Great summary. Also, I like something very sharp, usually a primary subject. If nothing is sharp, I think it’s an unfocussed photo. As other “rules”, it’s a rule to be sometimes broken.

  4. Carl D says:

    Hey Lynford

    According to your #7, there are no “musts” of great (or not so great) composition.

    Cheers

    Carl

  5. SK says:

    Just great articles. I love reading them, they are very informative as such this one…As simple as this may sound these are very important composition in photography. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Thanks for the comments!

    Photography Art Cafe, Saying we should start with a clear subject almost seems like a Blinding Flash of the Obvious, but so many of us overlook that in our haste to get the shot. It bears repeating, I think.

    Hey Carl, #7 is you must know WHEN to break the rules, not that they’re aren’t any. :-)

    Thanks for the feedback!
    Lynford

  7. 9inchnail says:

    Wow, what a surprise. Like any list of photography rules, I have ever read, the last rule is “break the rules”. Now that’s original.

  8. Heriberto says:

    Great pictures, and thanks for the 7 rules they helped me alot.

  9. ZaremaXabi says:

    :)

  10. Alex says:

    Some great tips, still trying to figure out the right balance and using light to my advantage…. will get it some day (hopefully)

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