Composition - How To Think Like A Pro

By Geoff Harris

5 Pro Tips on Composition

Improving your composition is one of the biggest challenges in photography, and sadly there isn't a convenient button on your camera you can press to fix poor framing (although you can often turn on grids to help you adhere to the rule of thirds, etc). Composition and framing decisions take place before you press the shutter button, and although there is a certain amount you can fix in software through cropping, it's best to get it as right in camera as you can.

So here's a quick checklist of things to think about for some popular genres – the kind of framing decisions that a pro would make...


Composition: How to Compose a Photograph

If you are presented with an incredible panoramic vista, it's easy to get overwhelmed. Which bits should I include and leave out? What if my lens isn't wide/long enough? A good tip, from top landscape photographer Charlie Waite, is to refine it down, to get rid of anything in the frame that's a bit redundant. So as well as obvious distractions, such as houses or other people, try to avoid elements that distract viewers from a pleasing graphic shape created by fields, for example, or the natural folds of the landscape.

Try to capture flowing lines and geometric patterns. It's also good to get something to anchor the image in the foreground, rather than big empty expanses, and think very carefully about lighting. Try to avoid having the foreground lit, but the main subject (eg a tree or an interesting rock or waterfall) placed in shadow. You have to use the natural light like a lighting director uses lights in a theatre, which sometimes mean waiting or even returning to the scene several times before conditions are just right.

While compositional devices like rule of thirds and leading lines are useful, don't stick to them every time or your images will look formulaic.


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Whether you spend time with a subject or just go in, shoot them cold and leave, there are some important compositional considerations to think about. First, what about the background? Is it sympathetic and suited to the type of portrait, or distracting and irrelevant?

If you are doing a moody black and white portrait, the background should be similar, rather than busy and cluttered. What is the subject doing with their head and hands? Is the head natural and relaxed, or do they look like they are about to be executed? Don't be afraid to get the subject to try several head angles. Think about giving them something to hold, or using their hands to frame their face, or holding an object that tells you something about them.

People often don't know what to do with their hands in portraits. Or get them to lean against a doorway or frame if appropriate. Finally, don't come in so close that the subject is squeezed in the frame, and looks like they are banging against the edges. Give them some breathing space.

Wildlife and nature

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Again, the key here is to try for clean, uncluttered backgrounds that focus the viewer's attention back on the main subject. There are several ways to do this. Obviously, move yourself to the best possible position, but even if the background is less than perfect, you can minimise distractions by shooting at a very wide aperture, which helps to blur the background out. Remember, how you focus and your exposure settings also influence composition. Then, think about about whether you should photograph your subject solo or in groups.

A single flower can look OK, but having a few more blurred out in the background can add context and a sense of scale and depth.

Street photography

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This is a very challenging genre when it comes to composition, as it's often about being discrete and spontaneous, and many elements can intrude into the frame which are beyond your control. Street photographer Gavin Mills has a good tip – see a subject and find a way to frame them, or find the frame and wait for the subject.

A good example of this would be an attractive doorway or evocative looking poster, that would look great if somebody was to walk in front of it. Or somebody crossing in front of a decorative arch at a temple or mosque, for example – particularly if they are wearing interesting clothes. As Gavin notes, the other approach is to find an interesting subject and then consider the most sympathetic way of framing them.

So if you found a particularly photogenic Buddhist monk, you would want to shoot them against an evocative and appropriate background, rather than, say, a bunch of rubbish bins or a row of parked cars.

Action photography

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Again, how you focus and expose the shot plays a key role in this genre, so think about shooting at a wide aperture to blur out background distractions. That said, you might want to keep some detail in the faces of the fans, rather than just having a lot of blobs. As action and sport photography is very spontaneous, you sometimes need to crop in software, but again, give the subject plenty of breathing space.

If you are shooting soccer or rugby, try and keep the ball in the frame too – otherwise it looks like a spot the ball competition! With sports like tennis or cricket or baseball, capturing the decisive moment of contact between the player and the ball can yield great results.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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