Photo Composition: How to Tell a More Compelling Story

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. That means that your photographs should be a great way for you to communicate. The question is, do your photographs communicate the right thousand words to tell your story?

best composition story

Photo by E_Bass; ISO 400, f/4.5, 1/45-second exposure.

Have you ever had the experience of photographing in a wonderful location, feeling eager to rush home and look at your pictures, only to be disappointed in the results? It’s quite a challenge to convert a three-dimensional, full sensory experience into a two-dimensional photograph.

I would like to share a few tips on composition that I think can boost your success rate in capturing your experience while photographing. Instead of just raising your camera for a quick snapshot, take the time to make a careful composition that will guide your viewer to understand what you think is important in the scene, and even how you feel about it.

Tip #1: Choose colors and tones that reinforce your story

Light is the fundamental building block of any image. Light produces two kinds of contrast: color contrast and tonal contrast. Color is the hue that you see, like red, or green, or purple. Tone is another word for brightness, or how light or dark something is. Our brains are good at forming associations, and we associate colors and tones with particular feelings. These same associations appear in our spoken language. You’ve heard the expressions, “He was in a dark mood,” and “She was feeling blue.”

Blue connotes melancholy or tranquility. It’s also a color associated with stability and reliability. (What color are the logos of IBM, Microsoft, and Ford?) Red is the color of passion. Photographing an orange beach umbrella gives a stronger impression of a hot day than a purple one. Using dark tones creates a sense of gloom and foreboding. Light-toned images make us feel light-hearted and uplifted. Consider carefully whether the tones and colors in your image strengthen the story you want to tell or contradict it.

composition by professionals

Photo by Susanne Nilsson; ISO 200, f/11.0, 1/1000-second exposure.

Tip #2: Use lines to guide your viewer’s eye

Color and tone also reveal lines in your image. Lines are the boundaries created where two contrasting colors or tones meet. A thin shape, like a road, the stem of a plant, or a tree branch, may also be perceived as a line in your photograph. The brain’s visual cortex is programmed at a fundamental level to follow lines.

This is a powerful tool for you as a photographer. You can guide your viewer’s eye toward what you consider important in the image by using something in the environment to point to it. Conversely, be careful not to inadvertently place lines so that they lead your viewer out of the image.

Tip #3: Orient the lines in your image so that they convey the right emotion

Just as with colors, our brains also make emotional associations with line orientation. Vertical lines in an image give an impression of power, strength and pride. Horizontal lines are stable and calm. Diagonal lines, on the other hand, are dynamic, and signify motion or change. Curved lines may convey a sense of melancholy or of hope, depending on the direction in which they curve.

composition tips

Photo by Mike Steinhoff; ISO 200, f/5.0, 1/125-second exposure.

Think carefully when composing your image so that you include colors, tones, and lines that reinforce the story you’re trying to tell. You’ll be much more likely to create a photograph that captures and communicates how you felt when you were observing the original scene.

About the Author:
Julie Waterhouse writes for Ultimate Photo Tips, which provides friendly education and encouragement for photo enthusiasts around the world, presented in a way that’s clear, organized, and easy to understand ( Whether you’re looking for the answer to a specific question, or just want to explore and learn.

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One response to “Photo Composition: How to Tell a More Compelling Story”

  1. Yahart says:

    I enjoyed the article.

    It would be also helpful if author would comment on the photos included to explain/demonstrate how the elements in these photographs relate to or follow the advice that is given rather than just posting an unexplained photo.


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