10 Elements of Good Composition

You can know exactly what gear to buy and which settings to shoot in, but if you don’t haven’t mastered composition your photographs will always disappoint. Composition tells viewers where to look and guides the viewer’s eye through the photograph.

photography composition rules

“There are a lot of ideas and concepts and rules when it comes to composition,” John Greengo explains during his CreativeLive class, Nature and Landscape Photography. Those rules provide a great framework for setting up your shot, but the real magic of photography is knowing exactly what scene to shoot.

So what is the ultimate rule of composition? Do what looks best.

The rules were designed to guide you to a place that pleases the human brain and eye. “The goal of composition is to reduce the complexity in the scene,” John explains. A good composition reduces clutter. In order to achieve the right balance of interest and absence in a photograph you need to step back and think about how we look at the world.

In any one scene there are 10 elements you can look for to understand why your eye was drawn to it and find out what is really important and what distracts. Once you do that, you’ll know what to shoot.

1. Movement

John attributes our interest in moving objects to our animal instincts. But he warns you against shooting something just because it wiggles. “When it comes to still photographs movement translates in a whole different way.” Be wary of scenes that catch your attention simply because they have some sway.

2. Size

“The bigger something is, the more important it is in the frame.” If you are really interested in the starfish in the tidepool, be sure to set up your composition accordingly. Objects that are bigger than their surroundings dominate the scene and tell viewers what is the main subject in the frame.

3. Unique

“What is the one thing that is different?” Humans are an observant bunch and when something stands out, they’ll notice. When you capture uniqueness in a photograph you capture interest and draw in your viewer’s attention. John encourages you to, “look for that one element, that one tree on the horizon.”

4. Brightness

“We often look, in a photograph, at whatever is brightest…these areas can be distracting or they can draw our attention to the right place.” So John encourages you to watch the light carefully and use brightness to highlight your intended subject.

photography composition shapes lines

5. Shapes

“We like shapes,” John explains. Shapes tell us a lot about the environment which helps viewers, “get a feel for what’s going on extremely quickly.” When used as cues, shapes reduce complexity by communicating the feeling of an environment.

6. Color

“Color attracts our attention.” Humans have a long-standing love affair with eye-catching and bold colors – it explains why we love sunsets and bright, vivid flowers. Use color wisely.

7. Sharpness

You create sharpness in a photo by being discriminating about what you focus on while shooting. “By having something in focus we are demanding attention be drawn to it.”

8. Contrast

Having contrast in a photograph is a good thing. If nature didn’t offer up a high-contrast shot, you can add it later. “Capturing a low-contrast scene and expanding that contrast in post is going to make that scene more vibrant and interesting.”

contrast in composition

9. Unusual

“We look at what is unusual, what stands apart from everything else,” which is why you’ll want to use focus to feature the delightful oddities you encounter.

10. People

“Our eyes are drawn to people in photographs,” so John encourages you to include them in your shots, even while shooting nature photography, when they lend interest to the scene. People spark our curiosity. Viewers find themselves wondering, “can we put ourselves in that person’s position?”

Once you’ve learned how to look for these elements in your scene, you’ll quickly be able to narrow in on what to shoot and how to shoot it.

To learn more about all things photography, be sure to check out John Greengo’s complete guide, Fundamentals of Photography 2015 on CreativeLive.

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One response to “10 Elements of Good Composition”

  1. Kailash Tadkase says:

    Dear Rachel,
    I have read many posts on good composition since I started photography over the last one year. But this is stands out as very different in the sense that it points to human instinct. This also reflects so well on your photography which must evolving from the heart and soul and touching every viewer of you picture. Super! Thank you very much for this ultimate post as the 10 elements are now itched on my mind. Thanks once again


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