Guest post by Justin McKee
What does composition mean to a photographer? Well, for starters, a lot.
A well-composed photograph is pleasing to the eye; it draws attention from passersby.
You’ve probably heard of it before: Rule of thirds. The golden rule. If you haven’t heard of it before, now you have.
This principle has been seen in art and images throughout all of history. There’s just something about our minds that love the golden rule. We don’t like seeing a subject in the dead center of a photograph. It’s boring to our eyes.
So how do we shoot our photographs with “good” composition?
Well, there are rules and there are ways to break them. As Barbossa in “The Pirates of the Caribbean” said, “the code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”
In our case, the “code” is the photographic rules of composition. I won’t be able to cover everything in this post; there are books upon books written about composition, but I will touch on the important stuff.
There are times you’ll want to break compositional law and other times where you’ll want to strictly follow it. The best part about the golden rule though, is that sometimes when you shoot it will just happen. Because we humans love a good composition, we tend to automatically manufacture that when not intentionally meaning to do so; especially in
So, how does composition apply to photography? Let’s pick on portrait photography for this post.
Composition can change drastically when deciding to shoot your portrait photo either in a portrait position (a vertical photograph), or a landscape position (a horizontal photograph).
When you shoot a group of people, you’ll probably want to shoot a landscape portrait because it will be easier to include all of the people in the image. A portrait-orientated photograph will have a lot of excess space at the top and bottom of the photograph if you want to include everyone in the group in the image.
If you’re shooting a single person, shooting in a portrait orientation is ideal when shooting a photograph of the person’s entire body (or most of it), but you can get away with a landscape orientation if you’re shooting from the waist up. Keep in mind, with enough practice all of this stuff can come very naturally during a shoot.
Once you decide what kind of orientation is best applicable, it’s time to decide what to do from there.
An example of bad composition would be having your subject dead-center in the photograph. Symmetry looks good sometimes, but doing it all the time — especially in portrait photography — can result in a photograph that looks boring.
To add insult to injury, including too much free space above the subjects head (or too little) can look terrible and unprofessional (like the group shot with a portrait orientation). Another thing to pay attention to is eye level. If your subject is a child, it’s important to get on their level for a portrait. The image will be more personal that way.
Once you have your subject appropriately placed in your photograph, there’s one glaring issue that needs to be sorted out before clicking your shutter release button.
Paying attention to the background in a photograph is pivotal.
A big compositional sin would be to take a photograph of someone with something like a power pole in the background merging with their head. It’s really easy to miss that kind of thing in the moment and it’s a forehead slapper once you look at your photo later on.
It’s not just power poles that can be an eyesore. People looking at you from behind your subject or any other unwanted people/objects in your photograph can ruin the composition of that image.
Justin McKee is a small-town photographer with big ideas living in Michigan. In addition to portraits, wedding photography and video, he also enjoys wildlife photography. He always seeks to learn more about his craft.