Photography isn’t just a technical pastime; it’s an art. While it’s important to understand how to control your camera, it should be so you can capture the kind of photos you want, rather than so you can take boring, if technically correct, photos.

Here is a technically perfect, awful photo. It’s well exposed, there are good shadow and highlight details, the colors are accurate, and it’s thoroughly and completely boring.

And here is one of my favorite photos that I’ve taken this year. It was shot with an old film camera, so the quality isn’t perfect. There are a few development artifacts, and it’s a little soft. But it’s a much more interesting image than the photo of my light switch.

Now, this is an extreme example, but it’s a point that holds across all areas of photography. There is something more to photography than just technical perfection. It’s more than just taking photos of pretty places or people, and it’s what separates art from snapshots and good photos from bad. The word for that something more is composition.

Composition Is How You Place Things

Composition, at its most basic, is how you place your subject (and everything else) in your image. While it’s rare that you’ll be able to physically position buildings and trees where you want them to be, your choice of focal length, aperture, and where you stand all drastically change how different things will appear in the frame.

RELATED: What Focal Length Should I Use For My Photos?

Composition is the language of photography. How your subjects appear relative to each other, any additional objects, and the background communicates a lot to the viewer. In the photo below, you can see how I spent some time playing around with different compositions involving the small formation of rocks.

I finally settled on this as the strongest composition because I liked how it balanced the rocks, sea, and sky. The other compositions all placed too much emphasis on one thing over the other two.

In this photo, since the model is the only real subject, I didn’t want the people in the background being a distraction. To make sure they weren’t, I used a wide aperture to get a shallow depth of field to blur them out.

On the other hand, in this shot, which is about the relationship between the three restaurant workers on a break, I used a narrow depth of field to make sure they were all in focus.

As you can see, where you place the different parts of your image and how they appear relative to one another is how you convey your message to the viewer. Now, I’m not saying every photo needs some big, world-changing message. But at their best, every photo tells a story—even if it’s a small story. The most common themes that run through my photos are:

  • Humans are pretty cool.
  • Nature is seriously beautiful.

If you look at the majority of photos in my tutorials here on How-To Geek, they fall into one of those two big buckets. But, just because the message is simple, doesn’t mean that I’m not putting effort into conveying it. Here’s a shot of mine that combines both.

See how I’ve made Will, the skier, small relative to the nature around him and used the steepness of the slope, the spray from his skis, and the space he has to move into to show his speed? This is what I mean when I say that composition is the language of photography. It’s decisions like these that give your photos meaning.

Composition Follows “Rules”

The good news is that, while composition takes years to master, it does tend to follow some basic “rules”—well, really guidelines.

You’ve probably heard of the rule of thirds, and while it’s a bit too simplistic to be really useful, there are other, stronger ideas with which you can play around. We’ll be exploring many of these in a lot more depth here on How-To Geek, but here are a few to get you started.

RELATED: Is the Rule of Thirds Really a Photography Rule?

Size in the frame matters. The larger something is, the more important it will feel, especially when it’s contrasted with something that appears relatively small. Take this shot: by making myself small in the frame, it gives both me and the mountains scale.

People will see what’s in focus first. Even though the grass stalks are large and in front of the model, our eyes are drawn to her because she’s the only thing in focus.

Lines, either natural or manmade, are a great way to lead the viewer’s eyes exactly where you want them. Just look at how all the leading lines—I’ve marked them in pink—pull your eyes straight to the model.

A good photo should feel balanced. You can achieve this either through symmetry or by balancing different elements against each other. In this photo, despite being drastically different sizes in the frame, the moon and rock offset each other nicely.

Don’t just use the foreground. Use the midground and background too. It gives your images a much greater sense of depth.

Color is incredibly important. The brightest, most saturated colors will always draw our eyes. Different colors also convey different moods and emotions. Pale blues are peaceful while bright reds can be angry or energetic. I wanted a sense of tranquility in this photo, so I emphasized the almost pastel blue and gold colors.

And that’s just a small sampling of some of the ways you can use composition to convey different meanings. Once you start thinking about it while you’re shooting, you’re well on your way to developing a great eye for photography.

Composition is the language that you, the photographer, can use to communicate with the viewer. How you place the different components of your image relative to each other is what gives your photos meaning.

Profile Photo for Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like The New York Times and on a variety of other websites, from Lifehacker to Popular Science and Medium's OneZero.
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