SHOOT BETTER: Composition
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June 13, 2017
By Chris Roth


Have you ever looked at an image and not understood why you liked it? There was something about it that moved you but you just couldn’t put your finger on it. (And you really wished you could figure it out so your photos could look that good!)

More than likely, it was the photo’s composition. Good composition makes for a good image. Without it, the viewer can be left uninspired or even confused.

What is composition anyway? And what makes it good? In photography, it refers to how you fill your frame, the way you organize and balance the details of the image. It’s how you tell your story.

What makes it good is harder to define. As in any art, there is no right or wrong, only the artist’s vision. There are, however, techniques and guidelines that can help you more effectively and even more profoundly tell your story.

Rule of Thirds & Negative Space

While Rule of Thirds and Negative Space are two different composition tools, I almost always use them together when setting up a shot.

If you’ve ever taken an art class, you are probably familiar with Rule of Thirds. Imagine a tic-tac-toe board over your image. Anywhere the lines intersect is where the strongest focal points will be. The eye is naturally drawn to these areas.

Negative space is the area around the subject. It isn't necessarily empty space. (Think of your subject as the positive space.) When used with Rule of Thirds, the negative space pushes your eye to the subject. It can be quite effective, even dramatic. At the very least, it balances your photo.


Shooting from atop a mountain sounds like a cool idea but it can be challenging. Distance and haze can create a flat image without a lot of detail and no real focal point.

From the top of Pike's Peak

A better idea is to travel down the mountain so you can get more detail in your photo. By adding the rocky foreground into the left and bottom thirds of the image, my photo has a clear and interesting subject.

Pike's Peak, Colorado

Once while hiking, I found the forest floor to be very lush and colorful. I decided to get down on the ground and capture a mushroom in its wonderful environment. In the first image, the mushroom is directly centered in the composition. It's static and not much else seems to be of any significance. It's just ok. The photo below has the mushroom positioned in the lower right third of the image.

Now the forest in the background becomes part of the story. It's no longer just about the mushroom but about its place in the forest.

Don't be afraid to get down on your belly! It's a great perspective!
Ouachita National Forest, Oklahoma

The expression "Can't see the forest for the trees" accurately describes the dilemma when taking photos in the woods. With so many trees, what is your focal point? The branches and leaves make the image busy and chaotic. The viewer is not sure what to look at.


A better composition is to focus on one of the tree trunks and apply the rule of thirds. Your eye is drawn to the color and texture of the trunk and the background of colorful leaves completes the story. Now there can be peace in the forest.

Hot Springs, Arkansas

Rule of thirds doesn't just apply to one section of an image. The composition in this photo brings your eye to the flowers in the bottom left third and then to the mountains in the top right third. Not only is it well balanced but it tells a more complete story.

Oak Creek, Colorado

In this beach scene, the plants are in the bottom left third, boy in the bottom right and sky in the top third. By spending just an extra couple of seconds thinking about this setup I got a much better photo than if I had centered him without the plants.

Eleuthera, Bahamas

Get creative when taking beach photos. There's lots of interesting things going on around you. Waves splashing on rocks is one of my favorites. (And because waves never stop coming you will have plenty of opportunity to get it right!)

The wave splashing in the bottom right third gives the image movement.

Pakoštane, Croatia

The best thing about a rule is breaking it. There are times that a centered composition is much more effective. In the photo below, centering this 400 year old oak tree makes the image powerful.

Angel Oak
Johns Island, South Carolina

Come back next time for more helpful composition tips for your travel photography!


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