Forget everything, be creative and follow your own style. Do not be a slave to these rules, they are just a guideline, not law. Like all art, you can’t simplify beauty into a square set of rules. I do believe it is worth exploring and understanding these composition rules but also entirely appreciate that some of the most striking photos break them all. But, for the rest of us, here’s something to get started on.
Some of these rules might contradict each other, so use when or if, they apply.
Photography should be fun and creative, never take the “play” out of it. Great shots are taken when you are curious, observant, playful and aware of interesting details, light or atmospheres that could make a good shot.
Have fun, live life!
Photo: A happy man in winter wonderland.
“You don’t take a photo, you make a photo” they say.
It other words, if you think about your composition, your angles, the light and what you want to achieve with your photo, you can take good shots with a cheap camera or even a smartphone. Don’t just point-and-shoot, think before you press the shutter.
When you know more about your composition, then you can blow your money on a good and expensive SLR-camera to enhance your photos even more.
Photo: Kappadokia in Turkey. This place is called Love Valley, due to the shape of the rocks Photo taken with a compact camera and later published in a newspaper.
Subjects placed in the center can often “paralyze” the photo.
Try to place the central subjects in your photo off the center, a third of the distance into the picture. It makes the photo more lively, and gives the viewer an option to explore other things in the photo.
Photo: A lonely tree in the isolated Fan Mountains in Tajikistan.
Lines often work very well in photos, leading the viewer into the photo and creating a sense of depth in the shot.
Roads and rivers are obvious candidates, but look around, there are lines everywhere.
It doesn’t necesarrily have to be straights lines.
Photo: Mount Cook in New Zealand, the highest peak in Austral-Oceania with 3754m
A moving object need to have space in front of it to portray a sense of movement to the viewer: A horse, a race-car or a cyclist.
The viewer of the photo should be able to “feel” that the object is moving and if you doesn’t give the object a space to move into, it kills that sensation.
It also goes for people or animals who are pointing, shouting and barking into the air
Photo: Giant zip-lines in the jungle of Laos, a fun and thrilling experience, hanging in the air for a 500m span at 100m above a huge jungle.
This rule is super-simple and hardly worth mentioning, if it wasn’t for the fact that a lot of people fail to respect it. It is super simply:
Make sure that the entire subject is in the photo, don’t cut it.
Don’t take a photo of the Eiffel Tower where the upper 3rd of the tower isn’t in the photo. Don’t shot a photo of your proud son with his new bicycle and then leave half of the bicycle outside your frame.
If the subject is essential, then make sure that you don’t cut it.
Photo: Impressive rock formations in Turkey.
Only include the things in your photo that is interesting. Either zoom on the subject or crop your photo afterwards in some photosoftware.
If the photo to the right had a bunch of other distractions (McDonalds signs or a trashcan) it would have been far less interesting.
“Fill the Frame” they say, and fill it with good, intense, colorful stuff.
Photo: Vietnamese bridal girls waiting for the bride to arrive at a wedding party in Hanoi
A photo is a 2-dimensional representation of a 3-dimensional world. It other words, a photo is flat and our beautiful world isn’t.
So how do you create that 3rd dimension, the depth, in your shots?
Try to include some sort of foreground in the photo, where possible. It gives the shot more depth.
Photo: Beautiful Nahuel Huapi National Park in Argentina
Patterns of repetition often creates a strong image, especially if you combine it with the “Fill The Frame”-tip.
Photo: Vineyards near Adelaide, Australia
Try shooting your subject from a different angle. Get on a chair to photo your kids jumping or shoot from the ground and up.
Or stick your camera into the face of some creepy insect instead of just shooting from the top and from far away.
Different angles = different shots, that often can be more interesting
Photo: a beautiful and entirely harmless spider in Patagonia, Argentina.
When photographing at a party or at a public square/market, try to hide a bit. Sit down in the corner, start zooming and catch the atmosphere “unspoilt” without the persons posing. An intimate fast kiss between lovers, a group of ladies bursting out laughing or a local man bargaining for a lower price at a rural market.
But remember common decency, ok?!
If Local people for whatever reason (religious, spiritual etc.) do not want to have their photos taken, then don’t. Only use this tip to get “undisturbed” shots, where people look natural and not artificially posing.
Photo: A tribal market in Northern Vietnam. The whole region is teeming with tribal people.
A bit technical, and often requires a slightly more advanced camera to fully control these setting. Anyways:
Sometimes you want only some of the photo to be sharp and the rest to be blurry, in order to direct the attention entirely at your subject. This is often true for portraits or animals.
It is called DOF in photo-lingo (depth-of-field), though I think that depth-of-focus would be a more correct term.
With a small DOF, there is only a little bit of the “depth” of the photo that is sharp/in focus (good for animals or detailed shots). A large DOF, the entire photo is in focus (good for landscapes).
There is basically 3 ways to reduce your DOF:
1) Use a large aperture (the f-number on your camera: the lower the f-number the smaller the DOF)
2) Step back and zoom on the subject (the more you zoom, the smaller the DOF)
3) Get closer to you subject (the closer to your subject, the smaller the DOF)
Search for Depth-of-Field on the internet, to get much more and better explanations
Let me be honest: Most people use their flash when they shouldn’t and doesn’t use their flash when they should.
Many night-photos get dull and artificial with flash, avoid it if possible.
Day-light photos can sometimes be improved with a flash, if the subject is in shadow.
Your flash doesn’t reach longer than 5-7m, so don’t shoot a football-game at a 100m stadium with flash, it doesn’t have any effect.
Photo: A Thai fire-dancer. A flash would have killed this shot entirely.
1/2 hour after sunrise and 1 hour before sunset is often referred to as “The Golden Hour”
(or Alpenglow, if you like)
The light can often be more softer and more colorful if you shoot around this time.
Photo: Stunning Quebrada de Cafayatte in Argentina
When photographing kids, try to shoot at their eye-level. It gives nicer shots and you might be able to frame something interesting, like their school, in the background instead of just boring concrete.
See the world from their level and catch it on your shots
Photo: Vietnamese rural school boys, surprised to see a white man.
Here is some tips to get portraits right:
– Look for a calm background, with preferably only one color. Avoid having weird things protruding from their head, like a lamppost etc.
– Shoot fast, people loose patience and it reveals in the shot
– It they are facing the sun, don’t make them wait too long. They’ll have weird faces, as they are trying to block the sun with their eyes. Try to turn people away from the sun and use a flash instead.
– Get their face sharp, and the rest of the photo blurry (focus and DOF-related stuff)
Photo: An elderly gentleman in Tajikistan, near the Afghani border
Shooting at night? Or shooting with a strong zoom?
Use a tripod to keep the camera still, as these two sitautions are very sensible to camera-movement.
Want a nice photo of the tourist-sight with yourself in it? Yes, you could ask another tourist, who will happily help, but chances are that he doesn’t know anything about composition and your photo will be dull (Eiffel tower in the middle of the shot, you blocking it, half of the top of the tower cutted of etc etc). Carry a tripod and you can set up the shot exactly as you want it.
Get yourself in the frame, but a little more original than a selfie.
Photo: Auckland, New Zealand at night
… and then shoot, shoot, shoot
When you see something interesting but unpredictable (think kids or wildlife), quickly set your camera on Automatic an shoot. Then try to improve the shot, from different angles, moving closer etc. You never know when the butterfly gets bored and flies off.
And generally, even with static subjects, shoot many different shots. Try different angles, different light settings, different compositions. Then go through the photos afterwards and delete the ones you don’t want.
Photo: A butterfly in the jungles of Thailand, ready to leave me at any second.
Don’t be afraid to ask people if you may take a photograph of them.
In foreign cultures, it might be helpful to communicate with them a little or buy something from they street stall. Then show them your camera and ask if you can take a photo of them. Often, they find it funny and will happily pose for you, it is a great form of interaction.
Never turn ourself into that stupid tourist who sticks his camera into the face of poor 3rd world people and photograph them, WITHOUT ASKING.
Photo: Happily elderly Romanian villagers, slowly waiting for a relaxing Sunday to pass.
So you’ve been photographing a carnival or been travelling around Mongolia for some weeks. You return and realize that you’ve taken 5731 shots. Time for the “slaughter-session”, nobody wants to look at thousands of your shots, not even yourself.
You’ll end up spending too much time looking at similar and mediocre photos and you/your viewers will loose patience after 20 minutes, so it’s better to only keep the good ones.
Life is too short for bad photos, be critical and delete the similar, bad and boring ones.
Photo: Diwali-celebrations in India, where locals are launching small floating candles into the holy river
Want a photo of yourself in front of something special? That’s fine, but don’t just stand there with a lame smile and pose; instead try to appear natural or interact with the sight
A photo of you and your family at a Paris street cafe looks so much more nice and natural if all of you are just talking and acting normal, instead of a artificial group-photo where everybody is smiling on command.
Photo: A giant Cardon Cactus in the desert of Argentina
“All good things comes to those who wait” they say
If you have the time and really want a good photo, then wait for that special moment, when the bear catches a salmon or the huge 3 ton elephant happily throws itself on the floor because it loves a shower..
Photo: En elephant in Thailand, so very happy to get a nice shower.