compose great photographs

Ever wondered how professional photographers make images that grab your attention and pop out of the page? Its not about expensive camera gear or beautiful subjects the key is composition!

Want to learn the 5 key composing skills that every professional photographer uses to take images that really stand out?

It's all about these key areas:

1. Simplify: Shoot, isolate the subject, simplify, shoot again

2. Throw out the rule of thirds!

3. Squint. Yes, squint, you'll soon be seeing the bright areas that you had missed. Bright areas are  where your viewers eye will come to rest.

4. Lead in your viewer

5.Layer up!

I'm going to try and distil what I've been subliminally doing for the past ten years of taking photos for magazines, The National Trust and shooting unposed, natural wedding as events unfold.  This is not textbook stuff, a lot of it is so not what you would expect or do intuitively, and you will struggle to find much of this information elsewhere on the many  posts and You Tube videos written by people who have little experience of having to make strong images every day. There are before and after pictures to help you truly see the effect of applying each skill, simple activities to help you build each skill and a lots of simple tips for everyday shooting of people and of landscapes that really work.  

If you can learn to compose fluently your images will start to speak to your viewer, they will become three dimensional  and pop off the page rather than looking  flat, dull and boring. Composition matters so much more than other elements of photography, it should be the central skill to all that you do.    If you practice the techniques involved in making great compositions you will quite simply supercharge your photography! Forget about buying a better camera or more gear, the ideas outlined below will help you so much more if you devote a little time to learning each technique and then have the self-discipline to pick up your camera and try that technique within 24 hours of reading this post. I'm going to outline 5 rules for composition. 

So get on board,  here we go......

1. Simplify

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication - Leonardo da Vinci

Learning to simplify is a habit. Like all habits you need to practice this soon after you are exposed to it. So here is my challenge: Walk round your place and find  an object you find beautiful and that appeals to you in some way , an object that's moveable and that you feel the urge to try and capture - flowers, fruit, seashells, a coke bottle. Snap the photo on a wide lens as soon as you find your object, this is your impulse photo  and for sure it will be authentic and have a sense of place, occasionally it will be a strong shot straight off. More usually, there is absolutely loads you can do to simplify and radically improve your photo!

We did this exercise on recent course I delivered behind the scenes in a stately home - The National Trust's Dyrham Park. Have a look at the photo, what can we do to simplify and improve it? Think about light and about background. 

The photo below is what we ended up with. How long did it take? A day in a studio? No, 10 minutes, though they were quite frenetic, lots of changing place, vase, position and each time we were thinking and making decisions to further simplify our composition.

"Simple can be harder than complex:You have to work hard to get your thinking clear to make it simple. But it's worth it!" Steve Jobs

I look at the photo of the vases in the window and have to search deep to answer these two questions. It is almost always these two same questions  when I am shooting on location.

The first question: Is the light good? The next question: Is the background good?

The flowers are lit from behind: this does give them a vibrant glow but looking at the closer, tighter photo the dark red flower is well exposed but the bright yellow flower is white, washed out, overexposed and their is no detail in the petals.  Windowlight close to the window is often like this harsh and contrasty: your eye can register detail in shadows and highlights but the camera sensor does not have the range to see detail in the shadows AND the highlights. The light might seem good to your eye but to the camera sensor it is definitely not good!  We are too near the light source and so the light has too much contrast.

How about the background in the tighter shot? It could be better without the window frame - but we can't reposition the vase and exclude the frame. The background is not good either! Time for a rethink.

So what can we do?

Well, weirdly few people get this but well done if you did... the simple answer is to move the vase. So that was the plan... head next door to a meeting room. This time we positioned the vase further away from the window and took a few test shots. 

The effect off positioning the vase further from the window light source is simple...... The shadows are not so dark and the highlights are not so bright and the camera can see detail in every last bit of the petal .  Check out the shot below. We definitely have better light, right? But how about the background?   

You are dead right, the background is lousy, from both directions in the photos and every other shooting angle in the room. So it's back to the drawing board and the search for the elusive combination of good background and good light continues. So two rooms later, we land back in the room where we started off and find this little spot in the image below, far from the window so it gives us the lower contrast light to flatter our subject , the flowers. Firstly we try positioning the flowers on the table and using the wood panelled backdrop, but there is too much light on the background showing the bright distracting lines in the panels. So instead we head for the dark background of the fireplace. If there was no fireplace I would have resorted to a  black velvet cloth background which soaks up light brilliantly and I often use it if a natural background is proving tricky to find. Beware using a background thats not black or white -it will show the creases - so be ready to iron it on site, if you do want a midtone background!

Ok , with good light, and a simplified background I am now starting to get that tingle when I can somehow sense that we are nearing a nice shot! A good feeling - but it's key to not get overconfident and keep asking the question right to the end "How can we simplify my composition to make it better?". I know that you are thinking that that fireplace looks mighty dark and dingy and the flowers don't actually look great. Well, trust me , take a photo and look at it! The quality of the light is low contrast and it feels more even without lots of bright overexposed highlight and dark bottomless shadows. The flowers look MUCH better than in the harsh window light.

So now we can go about the business of isolating our subject, the yellow bloom, and removing all other pats of the image ruthlessly.  In this case we opted for  removing Dahlias from 4 to 3 to one solitary bloom. We've definitely made a strong image in just under 10 minutes!

Once you have ruthlessly simplified in this way and truly identified your subject  you can always build things up little by e.g. adding some green foliage. The key is to know your subject - if you haven't spotted your subject then no amount of addition will help! 

Another key to getting the photo to work is an open mindset and trying loads of ideas fast with no fear of failure.  That confidence that something good will appear if you remain receptive and open minded to ideas really matters. We could quite happily have spent 10 minutes rearranging the furniture in the second meeting room to try and force a background clear. Much better and easier to move the vase round every room in the house with that sense of optimism that something somewhere will work !

"The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak" Hans Hoffmann

Look out for the next chapter on composition - 2. throw out the rule of thirds!

2. throw out the rule of thirds!

Positioning your subject within the frame is something which is taught as being a simple rule of thirds. For those who have not come across this rule thus far .. it goes something like this.......With your camera shooting a horizontally aka landscape format, divide your frame horizontally into three ... think the three slices in a block of neapolitan ice cream... then do the same, but this time dividing into 3 vertical downwards slices. You should be able to envisage a grid of 9 squares? Now if you place your subject, in this case the  persons face, at any of the four points where the lines cross you should have a pleasing composition.

Im going to let you make your own mind up here by doing a simple exercise to see where YOU prefer to position your subject..

You will need a model for this activity so it is time to recruit a fellow photographer or borrow a member of your family. Promise them it will take no more than 3 minutes!. 

.. So here is the exercise:

Find a clean background indoors or outdoors

Ask your model to stand infront of it

You are going to shoot a series of wide angle portraits

so fix your zoom to about 35mm with gaffer tape or attach a wide fixed 35mm lens

stand back so your models head (the subject) is dead centre in your frame  and fix your feet there - you are allowed to crouch or lean but keep those feet still!

now shoot a series of 9-12 images, with the subjects face in as many possible positions within the frame as possible, shoot freely, go mad and  don't worry if the pictures are good or bad just go for lots of variety. 


Is there one composition which stands out as best? Which image do you like and why? Is there one way to position the subject within the frame which is always bad? 

Is placing the subject slightly off centre better than right in the centre of the frame?

I think people look a little better when they are not dead in the centre. Most landscape photographers would certainly discourage placing the horizon in the dead centre of the frame.

Other than avoiding totally central symmetric compositions I struggle to choose one image that is worse than all the rest.

Most people who do this exercise in my workshops struggle to find one particular subject placement they prefer. They can all work. The rule of thirds works but so does the rule of quarters and fifths!

Perhaps a safer rule would be simply  "Beware positioning subjects/horizons centrally!" or maybe it is better to abandon any search for rules. It is better to admit there are no rules that work  for subject placement and try not to constrain yourself. 

. "Rules are the ties which bind us" Neil Gaiman

3. Learn to see the bright areas in your composition

Why are the bright areas so essential to composition? take a look at the pictures below and see if you can answer the question.

Notice where your eye lingers and finally comes to rest in the image below?

Your eye stops on the little stone pedestal right in the middle of the garden scene, right?. The bright areas are the most important area in any photo. Having wandered over the scene your eye always comes to rest in the bright areas. This is why it makes sense to position your subject near or with a bright area. I am always on the look out for a bright area surrounded by darkness to place my subjects - the bright gravel provided the perfect backdrop to highlight William hunting for bugs with his dad in the first image. The area of bright gravel  draws the viewer into his world, concentrating us all on the contents of the jam jar.

Try covering the bright area at the top right of this flower bud study. Notice how it improves the photo? Why because there is a subtle but nevertheless bright area at the top right of the frame. Your eye is drawn away from the beautiful dew covered white bud( the subject) and the white area at the edge of the frame really detracts. The problem is that although its easy to spot bright white areas that distract I miss these slightly brighter distracting areas at the edge of my frame again and again! But I have little secret to help you spot them. Spot them before you get back home and are processing the images, that is!

The key is to squint. Thats right. Narrowing your eyes helps you to see the image in a similar contrast range to your camera sensor. Try it now. You will se that the bright areas stand out and you can spot them . Result! You can now compose without the fear of a horrible distracting bright area jumping out at you. 

So how can we make the most of this idea of putting bright areas close to our subject ?

I've positioned the bright area of sky right behind my subjects face. Now, sometimes it is possible to rescue the shadow detail in the face later on when processing, but on this occasion I felt this was not possible. So here we used an air triggered flash unit  held within 3 feet of Freya's face as in the next shot. 

Effectively we are using the flash to provide a spotlit bright area on our subjects face. We actually have control over where our viewers eye will end up having looked at the image -  a very useful technique indeed. Here is the final shot.

I always like to try and get images right in camera so I love using this dramatic flash technique. People who have dodged and burned black and white prints are basically doing exactly the same thing in a darkroom or when processing digital images e.g. in Lightroom. That principle of drawing the viewers eye by lightening specific areas with the dodging tool is exactly the same. Check out the unprocessed image of a wedding dress below. 

The lower image works better as it sends the viewers eye to key bits of  sparkling dress detail whereas the uniformly bright top image is bland, flat and offers no guidance - it doesn't invite the viewer and show them around half as well! 

So bright areas really are one of the most important areas in composition, whether it is bright areas we see by clever squinting techniques, or areas we create with pools of flash light or in Lightroom. Quite why they are so rarely talked about by photographers, I am really not sure!

If you want this technique to sink in you need to go out and take photos of just bright areas. Don't worry if the photos are good or bad. It matters not. Its all about training yourself to see the areas. Get out , squint and spot and photograph 10 bright areas. If you can go out with another photographer take turns as models placing each other  in the bright areas and see what powerful images you can start to make with this technique. Its hard at first but once you have the knack of seeing in this way it will be an invaluable tool for all your future compositions!

Lead in your viewer

Ok, so you have identified your subject. Remember the pointer that the lecturer used to use on powerpoint in college. For some reason you would always look at the tip of the pointer, no matter how boring the lesson.  The next part is to do the same in your photo. Below I've used multiple  high contrast lead in lines on the escalator rails, floor and  ceiling strip lights all to send the viewer straight along to the brightly lit subject - a ghostly figure heading towards us- I think he was a pilot - the scene is Manchester Airports new terminal building.  Lead in lines are easy to spot when you start to look for them. Fences, stair bannisters, bridges and roads all make great lead ins.

Lead in lines are easy to spot when you start to look for them. Fences, stair bannisters, bridges and roads all make great lead ins. Night scenes are full of bright streetlit roads with car headlights streaming along to lead you in. Why not make your next mini photo adventure a quest to find 10 lead in lines. Again, it matters not if there is no subject at the end of the lines.  The aim of the game is simply to spot the lead ins. You will be surprised at how may lead ins jump out at you when you are directing your attention towards looking specifically for them. 

Want to make lead in lines pop out of nowhere? Take look at the image below, how did we make effectively make our own lead in?   


Now , imagine if you could make lead in lines on demand rather than being constantly on the look out for ones around you? Well the great news is that you can!

The key is good choice of your viewpoint. If you want to make your own lead in lines you need to get low, very low and preferably place your camera on the floor.  A camera with a flip out back screen can help or you can do as I used to and shoot in live view and kneel down in the mud! Often the texture in the foreground works in your favour to provide a compelling lead in. Lines between paving stones can also make great lead ins.  This image just needs a tiny red car tearing along the road on the horizon and leaving a smoke trail, then we have a subject and a picture. 

There are other great ways to manufacture the leading lines. Try placing your camera on or very near  a building wall. Your lead in lines will be there if you spend a little time looking. then wait for a person to walk into the point where they converge. it is surprisingly easy in a busy area -you won't need to wait for long for your subject to arrive.

I have learned so much about taking better photos by looking at the work of great painters. Here is an image painted in 1686 by the Dutch master painter Hoegstraten . He welcomes his viewer into his world to tell them a story. How does he do this?

The image is a Trompe l'oeuil or trick of the eye. So beautifully is it painted that it actually convinces the viewer that it is a real 3 dimensional extension of the corridor in which  it is situated. The painter is a genius and we can learn so much by breaking down the techniques he used way back in the 16th century to create this masterpiece. Here is a closer look

NT; (c) Dyrham Park; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

A fabulous lead in corridor with lots of high contrast bold lines for the eye to follow. Not only this but Hoegstraten emphasise the lead in by dappling the corridor with bright patches to help the viewers eye meander along taking in the majesty of the painting and leading you right up to the subject. Knowing a little more about the story behind the painting helps when you reach the subject -- the guy in the black hat ? He is enforcing a marriage contract upon the woman in the corner to a gentleman behind the pillar (hard to make him out).  Barely visible at the window is the woman true love who can only look on! The painting exudes symbolism. The key on the right, perhaps having unlocked the birdcage above symbolising that the woman wants to fly away free from the chains of an unwanted marriage. W always call in for a look at the painting as part of my Composition workshop held each year at Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire. Enough of the art history... intriguing as the story is it is based on assunmptions rather than certainties ... lets get back to the lead in lines. Here is an image shot in the wondrous blue hour at dusk when the sky goes a deep blue, whatever the weather in the preceding day. A great time to take pictures..

Remember what we said about putting the horizon in the centre of a landscape - don't do it- it always looks bad! This scene has lots of potential, but how to realise it is the question? Well its time to go searching for some lead in lines, but this time none of there are straight.  

The lead-in lines are curvy and they are subtle but they are nevertheless there and  they guide the viewer in to the subject in a away that they are blissfully unaware of... much better than the bold, high contrast lines of the travelator at the airport. Wide bright lines wiggle from the bottom and left of the frame on a journey to top right. The leads guide you through warm and varied textures of the rock and really get your eye  exploring the image. The difference between the first and second image is solely better horizon positioning coupled with some lovely lead in lines. I was not conscious of the lead in lines when I shot this, but I am now so looking for the curvy subtle lines when I next shoot a landscape!

Once you have got the habit of spotting lead in lines. Why not go out and shoot a portrait of a friend . Choose along lens e.g 85mm. Place your friend at the point  where the lead ins converge take a photo then get them to move closer. Take a photo every few steps. Choose your best shot  where the viewer is guided beautifully to the face. Good luck!

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