An Eye For Composition

It is important to be able to visually see someone else's work, style and approach to photography, not to become a copycat of that specific style, but as an aid in developing your own style. Perhaps you've learned some great landscape technique from David Muench, a great close-up idea from John Shaw, or how to use vivid colors in your images for impact from Pete Turner. Each idea gets logged into the brain, absorbing and remembering those points or styles that interest you the most. Then when you find yourself in a particular shooting situation, you draw upon that knowledge and apply it to your own images.

Composition is one area of photography that begs for constant nourishment. Keep looking for new ideas and new subject matter with which to test your skills and creativity as a photographer.

In this article we'll use some visual examples of basic and creative compositional techniques that will stimulate your own creativity as well.

What Lenses Do

Remember first that your choice of lenses will play an important part in your composition and how the final image will look. Wide-angle lenses expand the apparent distance between objects, and a telephoto lens will compress the apparent distance between objects. Knowing this, you can choose your lens based on the compositional effect that you want.

Making Good Choices

One very important element in developing an eye for composition has to do with making good choices within your composition. First of all, be very big on finding a great foreground subject such as a big rock, an interesting tree or something similar to give the eye a point of entry into your composition. Your eyes will naturally see that subject, then, move across comfortably through the rest of the composition.

This foreground subject also helps to make the viewer feel as though they are right there seeing what you saw and experienced at that very moment. This adds a three-dimensional quality and great depth to your image, which of course is a technique used by many 4x5 shooters. Develop an awareness of what to include or exclude from your composition, with a mind for keeping your compositions simple.

Achieving Balance

There are a few basic approaches to this technique. You can have a very large dominant foreground with a complimenting background, such as a large rock framing or leading you to the smaller appearing lighthouse in the background. This tends to add drama or a unique quality to an often-photographed subject.

Or, you can balance the foreground and background subjects by keeping them similar in size. This technique is used when there is not an overpowering, dramatic subject, even though you find the overall scene pleasing. You can also build that drama or emotion in your photograph by looking for smaller foreground subjects that lead to that large dominant background such as when a stream gently leads your eye back to the much larger and more dominant mountains in the background.

The Compositional Rule Of Thumb

There are of course many ways to compose your subject, but if you have a good understanding of how to use line, shape, or texture to your advantage, your compositions are far more likely to have an impact than if you did not use them.


Use lines as a direct way of leading your eye from one point to another.

Using triangular lines will help you find your way back. One line leads your eye to the subject and the other brings your eye back to your starting point. Also look for a good foreground subject and a diagonal line to lead your eye from one point to another.

S-Curves Or Shapes

Use shapes as a more relaxed casual way to lead your eye through the composition. A road, a stream, or even the shape of the ground or grasses in front of you can do this very well.


Look for texture in your composition, because it can add depth and detail to the image. Texture is usually a direct by-product of side lighting. As the light from the sun comes across your image, it sheds light on one side and shadow on the other, thus creating texture and more interest than a flatly lit subject.

Depth Of Field

You may have exercised any one of these standards of good composition, but if you failed to achieve adequate depth of field, your images may leave you dissatisfied. Unfortunately many of today's lenses lack a depth of field scale and/or depth of field preview buttons. One easy way to assure maximum depth in your photograph is use a small lens aperture such as f/16 or f/22 and then focus a third of the way into the scene. Not the actual physical distance of the closest object in your picture to the farthest, but a third of the way into your frame as you look through the viewfinder.

Use your depth-of-field preview button (if you have one) to stop the lens down to its aperture to visually check and see if everything looks sharp. Take your time and allow your eye to adjust to the darkened image in the viewfinder. A 'dark cloth' or coat can be handy to shield the sun as you look into the viewfinder. Depth-of-field and critical focus is very important to the finished image.

Another way to get maximum depth of field is to focus at your lens' hyper-focal distance which is what you're simulating by focusing 1/3rd of the way into the scene.

Food For Thought

Finally, here are a few good review points to remember each time you compose an image:

  • Make sure your horizon line is level.
  • Look for distracting elements in your viewfinder that might take away from an otherwise excellent composition.
  • If you want sharp front-to-back detail, make sure you have enough depth of field.
  • Look for things in the composition that will allow you to use the basic design elements of line, shape, texture and form.
  • Look for good foreground subjects to add that three-dimensional look to the composition.
  • Finally, when photographing at the top of high cliffs or overhangs, don't step back to admire your work! Just checking if you're paying attention.