10 Compositional Techniques to Improve Your Photographs

Marianne Stenger
4th May 2020

Mastering your camera’s manual settings and understanding basic concepts like aperture and shutter speed is crucial for anyone looking to improve their photography skills. But the truth is that the most important aspects of photography actually have very little to do with the camera itself.

Composition is a good example of this, because understanding how to compose a photograph will help you produce stronger images whether you’re shooting with a DSLR or your camera phone.

In photography, composition refers to what you include in a photograph and how you choose to present it. By composing a photograph in a certain way, you can draw the viewer’s eye to your subject. Of course, the most widely known compositional technique and probably the first one you’ll learn about is the rule of thirds, which we’ve talked about before on the Bob Books blog.

But there are many other techniques you can use to create balanced and aesthetically pleasing photographs. So here are ten compositional techniques to improve your photographs and expand your creative possibilities.

1. Framing

Framing is a popular compositional technique that involves using elements of a scene to create a frame around your subject. This may serve to emphasise your subject, but can also provide context and help you tell a story through your image.

For example, if you shoot the view from your bedroom window, but don’t include the window frame or any part of the room, the viewer will have no way of knowing that you were inside looking out, and it would look like any other landscape or cityscape image. This is just a basic example, but the possibilities are endless. For instance, you might do the same thing using a doorway, a bookshelf, a mirror, or even the branches of a tree or shrub. 

2. Leading lines

You can use lines to draw attention to the main subject of interest in your photograph, and they’re also an excellent way to create a sense of depth and lead the viewer’s eyes through an image.

Leading lines can be horizontal, vertical, diagonal or curved. Some examples of leading lines you may see around your own home include things such as a window pane, a staircase, or even a long table. Before snapping a photo, spend a moment taking in the scene in front of you to spot any lines that may be present and think about how you can use them in your composition. It might be a pencil pointing towards a specific word on a page or a hallway leading to a partially open doorway.

3. Symmetry

Symmetry can be a powerful compositional tool, because humans are naturally drawn to symmetry and balance. A placid lake that’s reflecting the landscape above it is a perfect example of this, because the image is divided by the lake, but the two halves are nearly identical to one another.

There are many ways you can use symmetry to create more engaging or eye-catching images, however. For example, you might photograph a person alongside their reflection in a window or mirror, or slice an apple straight through the middle and photograph the two halves side by side.

4. Negative space

Negative space in a photograph refers to the areas of an image that are left open, such as the sky or other areas in an image such as a blank wall, long stretch of floor or other empty background. Leaving negative space can help your main subject stand out and also evoke certain emotions, whether you want your photo to transmit peace and quiet or a sense of mystery.

Of course, leaving lots of negative space won’t always be the best or only option available to you, but it’s important to be familiar with this composition technique so you’ll know how to employ it when the opportunity arises.

5. Fill the frame

Filling the frame is the opposite of using negative space, and requires you to get in as close as possible to your subject. This technique blocks out any potential distractions in an image and can be especially useful if you’re trying to photograph something in front of a busy or cluttered background, whether it’s a messy kitchen or a crowded living room.  

It’s also a great option when you’re shooting portraits, as it allows you to capture important details like facial features and make sure you’re the focus is on your subject’s eyes.

6. Use contrast

Contrast can also be used in composition, because including contrasting elements in a photograph allows you to make a stronger visual impact. The most common types of contrast you’ll encounter in photography are tonal contrast and colour contrast, but contrast can also be added to a photograph in the form of textures and shapes.

Conceptual contrast, on the other hand, is based on ideas and is more subjective. It involves including two or more things that you wouldn’t normally expect to see together in a single photograph, such as old vs new or artificial vs natural. 

7. Use repetition and pattern

Patterns and repetition can also be very eye-catching, and when photographed well, even mundane everyday scenes or objects can be transformed into works of art.

We’re surrounded by patterns and repetition in our daily life,  but these things often go unnoticed. When photographed from the right angle, however, something as simple as the identical chimneys on a row of houses or the rungs of a ladder can be very striking. At home, you might find patterns in the form of some exposed brickwork or a series of patterned kitchen tiles.

Breaking the pattern can also make for a very dramatic effect, because when a pattern isn’t perfect, our eyes are naturally drawn to the thing that’s missing or seems out of place.

8. Depth of field

Depth of field can also change the composition of your images and turn an average snapshot into something more artistic and eye-catching. Playing with depth of field allows you to clearly define the foreground and background, and dictate what the viewer will focus on.

For example, if you’re photographing a person in a chaotic or messy environment, a shallow depth of field allows you to blur out everything else in the image and make sure your subject is the only thing in focus. On the other hand, if you’re looking to emphasise the chaotic environment in your photo, you might opt for a wider depth of field. To learn more about depth of field and how you can use it effectively, check out our beginner’s guide to depth of field.

9. Use shadows

Shadows can be used in photography to employ many of the composition techniques we already discussed, for example to add depth, texture and contrast to an image. They can also help you draw attention to specific points in your photos or add a sense of drama or mystery.

If you want to start using shadows in your composition, make a habit of spending a few moments taking in a scene before you start shooting. Ask yourself where the light is coming from and how you can use this to your advantage. For instance, you might notice that the sunlight pouring through the shutters is creating interesting patterns on a person sitting nearby. Or maybe the harsh light coming from the window would be perfect for shooting silhouettes.

10. Mix it up

Once you feel you have a good understanding of these compositional techniques, you may find that you’re noticing many possibilities in a single scene. For instance, you might want to combine contrast, depth of field and symmetry in one photograph.  

As long as you’re consciously thinking about the composition and looking to create aesthetically pleasing images, there is really no such thing as the right or wrong way to compose a photograph. If you had five people photograph the same thing, you’d probably end up with five very different images, because each photographer will see different possibilities within the same scene. So don’t be afraid to mix it up and have fun combining compositional techniques to get more creative in your photography.

If you have a growing collection of photographs that you’d like to do something with, why not consider turning them into a stunning coffee table book for your home? With the Bob Books app, you can create a professional quality photo book in minutes.