How to Compose Photos with Impact Using Elements of Design

All visual artists have a common goal of creating an image with impact. But unlike painters who start with a blank canvas and add to it, photographers start with a sometimes chaotic scene and must decide what to remove from it. Which parts of the scene should be included and which excluded to create the greatest impact?

Mobius Arch by Anne McKinnell - How to Compose Photos with Impact Using Elements of Design

This rock arch, known as Mobius Arch, frames the mountains in the background.

Part of your job as the photographer job is to bring order to the chaos by deciding how to arrange the elements in the scene in your camera’s frame. You cannot just hold up your camera and expect to make an impactful image. You have to evaluate the scene and discover what elements of design are there to work with and how you are going to use them to create your composition.

There are visual clues to good composition all around you. Clues that will help you see with your photographer’s eye if you take the time to slow down and take notice of them. The elements of design are there, but sometimes you don’t notice them until you go looking specifically. That’s the key – you have to go looking for them. Once you start looking for a particular element of design, you will be surprised how often you will discover it in the world around you.

Valella Valella by Anne McKinnell - How to Compose Photos with Impact Using Elements of Design

These creatures are called Valella Valella. As they wash up on shore, they create a leading line that guides the viewer’s eye into the frame.

1. Lines

Lines are one of the fundamental building blocks of composition. They direct the eye around an image and give the viewer a path to follow. Understanding the power that lines have in graphic design, and how different lines have different effects on the viewer, will help you add more impact to your images.

  • Horizontal lines exist in almost every scene. They tend to be calming and give a sense of peace and tranquility.
  • Vertical lines tend to be associated with strength and power. Think of skyscrapers, trees in a forest, or waterfalls — all features of strength and grandeur.
  • Diagonal lines add energy to an image and give a sense of movement.
  • Curves create a graphic design that makes an image easy to look at by leading the viewer’s eye through the frame. They can be c-curves, s-curves, arches, circles or spirals.
  • Leading lines can be any type of line that leads the viewer’s eye toward the main subject.
North Algodones Sand Dunes, California by Anne McKinnell - How to Compose Photos with Impact Using Elements of Design

The lines in these California sand dunes lead the viewer’s eye into the frame toward the main subject.

2. Color

Colors determine the viewer’s emotional response to an image. They set the mood and determine what part of an image gets the most attention.

One of the most impactful ways to use color in your composition is to look for complementary colors. Complementary colors are opposites on the color wheel such as blue and orange, red and green, purple and yellow.

Sea Nettle by Anne McKinnell - How to Compose Photos with Impact Using Elements of Design

Blue and orange are complementary colors.

3. Patterns

The human eye is drawn to patterns in the same way that our ears are drawn to the beat of music or the chorus of a song. The visual rhythm that the pattern creates makes order out of the chaos. It can give an image a sense of movement as our eyes travel from the first element to the next.

Filling the frame with a pattern is a sure way of turning a snapshot into a compelling photograph.

A pattern is simply a repetition of a graphic element such as a line, shape or color. Usually, a pattern is made up of at least three repetitions, but the more the better!

Jing'an Temple, Shanghai, China by Anne McKinnell

These prayer ribbons create a repeating pattern in the frame.

4. Symmetry

Despite everything we have been taught in photography about the rule of thirds and keeping things off balance and out of the middle, symmetry has always been associated with beauty. In a symmetrical composition, your main subject is placed at center stage and the eye is encouraged to travel in a circular center around the frame. This will make a scene feel harmonious and calm. But it’s a lot more difficult than it sounds!

The difference is in the details. It’s in the absolute perfection of the symmetry. A composition that is almost symmetrical will seem off and boring, one that is perfect will seem awe inspiring.

To make a photograph that is symmetrical, you will have to hone your eye to find items in the scene that are symmetrical and leave everything out of the frame that does not fit. The composition should have symmetry from corner to corner, which means that the background if there is one, must be symmetrical too.

Legislature in Victoria, British Columbia by Anne McKinnell - How to Compose Photos with Impact Using Elements of Design

This photo uses both symmetry and frame-in-frame as design elements.

5. Frame-in-Frame

One way to quickly add a new dimension to your subject is to give it a frame inside the boundaries of the image. The edges of your photograph are the first frame. Then, you want to add another frame around your subject, which is internal to the photograph.

The idea is to add interest to your photograph by framing your main subject inside another frame. This isn’t always possible, of course, but if you keep your eyes open for opportunities you will start to notice them more often.

Windows and doors are one of the most accessible frames for this technique because you find them everywhere. If you have a wonderful view from your window, try including the window in your image. Remember you can look from the inside out or from outside looking in.

Hatley Castle by Anne McKinnell - How to Compose Photos with Impact Using Elements of Design

This gazebo provides an arch that frames the garden and castle outside.


The next time you are out photographing, keep one of the above elements of design in mind and go looking for it. Being purposeful about your composition is how you will progress from taking snapshots to making great images.

If you’re ready to dive deeper into composition and the elements of image design, be sure to check out Anne’s eBook The Compelling Photograph – Techniques for Creating Better Images.

The post How to Compose Photos with Impact Using Elements of Design by Anne McKinnell appeared first on Digital Photography School.

How to Create Strong Compositions Using Color Contrast

Color contrast and composition

When I wrote about making dramatic images using shadow and contrast, a reader rightly pointed out that a couple of my photos were also good examples of color contrast.

This is interesting because it shows how two photographers can look at the same scene, and see different things. In those examples I saw textures, shadows, and tonal contrast, and instinctively converted them to black and white. But another photographer might place more importance on the strong colors, and make them the centre point of the composition.

Here’s the first of those images. The color contrast here is between the orange car and the blue sky.

Color contrast and composition

If you look at a color wheel, used by artists and graphic designers to show the relationships between colors, you will see that orange and blue are on nearly opposite sides. They are said to be complementary colors (as opposed to analogous colors, which are close to, or next to each other on the wheel).

Color wheel

Diagram by Wikipedia contributor Jacobolus

Using contrasting colors in a composition nearly always results in a strong image. The key is to keep the composition simple, and not to overwhelm it with too many hues.

Here are a couple more examples. The first shows dramatic red stripes on a lighthouse against a dark blue sky (I used a polarizing filter to intensify the colors). Red and blue are also nearly opposite on the color wheel.

Color contrast and composition

The second shows red flowers, against a green background.

Color contrast and composition

These three color combinations – orange/blue, red/blue, red/green – occur a lot in both natural and man-made environments.

Below is the second photo from the earlier article, mentioned above. It uses a different type of color contrast. The green apples are displayed against a grey background. The lack of color in the background makes the green of the apples seem more intense than it is in reality.

Color contrast and composition

This technique of placing a colored object against a dark or neutral background is another that you can use over and over. It’s very effective. Here are two more examples.

The first shows a work created by artist Chris Meek. The grey background emphasises the yellow paintwork, the only strong color in the image.

Color contrast and composition

Image used with the permission of the artist

The second shows a display of pumpkins. The dark grey background emphasizes the intensity of the orange hues.

Color contrast and composition

The key here again is to keep the composition simple. Imagine each of the previous examples with a splash of red in the image somewhere. The red would pull your attention away from the dominant colors, and diminish the impact of the composition.

Another approach to using color contrast is to look for scenes with a limited color palette. Here’s an example – the image below is a portrait of a friend of mine, sitting in front of a gypsy caravan, that she made herself. The image is full of color, but they are mostly shades of two different hues – red and green, which we know are near opposites on the color wheel.

Color contrast and composition

Here’s another example. It’s a colorful image, but again there are two dominant hues – blue and red. The incongruity of the plastic sleeves the chef is using to protect his arms, combines with the color contrast to make a strong composition. The colours are more muted than the earlier examples with this color combination, but it still works.

Color contrast and composition

The images in this article have several things in common: strong use of color (in different ways), simple composition (simplicity often equals strength in design), and good observational skills.

It is is one thing to analyze these things in photos, it is another to train yourself to see them. To do so, you really have to think about the scene in front of you. What colors do you see? Does the light suit the subject? How can you simplify the composition to make those colors stronger? If you can figure out the answers to these questions, your images will be stronger.

Do you have any questions about color contrast, or any photos to show us? Please let us know in the comments below.

Mastering Composition

Mastering Composition ebook by Andrew S. GibsonMy ebook Mastering Composition will help you learn to see and compose photos better. It takes you on a journey beyond the rule of thirds, exploring the principles of composition you need to understand in order to make beautiful images. You’ll also learn how to use colour to create photos like the ones in this article. Click the link to learn more or buy.

The post How to Create Strong Compositions Using Color Contrast by Andrew S. Gibson appeared first on Digital Photography School.

6 Advanced Composition Techniques to Improve Your Photos

When you think of composition in photography, what is the first idea that pops into your head? Let me guess – the rule of thirds?

Likely that was true for many of you who reading this, why do you think that is? The rule of thirds is probably the most widely known, and well used compositional tool in photography. Most often, it is the first composition tool we are taught (it was for me anyway). Once we know it, and use it, we don’t really think about it, or about any other compositional techniques.

There are other methods though, using visual design techniques that talk about texture and colour, amongst others. Many photographers simply default to the rule of thirds and take the shot, without trying other compositions. These other techniques can make a difference in your images. This article is about six techniques you can use to improve your compositions, and your photos Some of these would be known as advanced techniques, but once you understand them, they are pretty self explanatory.

1. The Golden Ratio or Fibonacci Spiral

Use the Golden Ratio to enhance your composition

Use the Golden Ratio to enhance your composition

This is a tool that has been used for centuries, as a design principle. Many famous works of art use the Golden Ratio in their composition and it is often seen in nature’s own designs. Think of the spiral of a snail shell, how it curls in on itself. That shape conforms to the Golden Ratio. It is a ratio of 1:1.618 which seems to work really well in design and photography. To read much more detail about this technique check out: Divine Composition With Fibonacci’s Ratio (The Rule of Thirds on Steroids).

2. Unity

Unity is about order. Repetition can be very powerful in this regard. You can repeat shapes, lines, or colours in your image. By doing so you create a unified view of the scene, and this in turn gives a very powerful compositional effect. Unity can bring a calming feel to the image, try and find a subject that portrays this.

The lines and the rivets in the image make it feel uniform, as does the lack of colour

The lines and the rivets in the image make it feel uniform, as does the lack of colour

3. Coherence

Different from unity, coherence is more about similar types of elements or shapes in your scene. Think of a rocky river bed with similar sized rocks and pebbles. This scene would be coherent if the rocks and pebbles are a similar size, shape, and colour. Coherence appeals to the viewer’s sense of order, and can make for very interesting images.

Similar shapes and colours make this image feel more coherent

Similar shapes and colours make this image feel more coherent

4. Balance and Rhythm

Balance is pretty much as it says, the idea here is to try and arrange the elements in your scene so that the image is symmetrical. This can be done using lines and shapes. The ideas is to create a sense of equality in the scene. Rhythm is similar in a sense, but is about a repeating pattern in the scene. These are a little more difficult to find, but often a close up or abstract image can showcase this technique well.

The centred composition of this image of a theatre shows the balance in the scene

The centred composition of this image of a theatre shows the balance in the scene

The curved shapes of the glass buildings gives a great sense of rhythm

The repeated curved shapes of the glass buildings gives a great sense of rhythm

5. Space

Open, or negative space, in your image is sometimes as important as the subject. Negative space gives your subject context, and shows the viewer where or how your subject relates to its surroundings. Quite often, negative space is the sky. It can be tempting to ignore this one, but if it’s used correctly, this can be a very powerful compositional tool.

The texture in the clouds in give this image some gravity. If the sky were simply blue, it would not be as impactful

The texture in the clouds in give this image some gravity. If the sky were simply blue, it would not be as impactful

6. Breaking the Rules

Now that you have some new ideas about how to make better compositions. Knowing these techniques will certainly improve some of your images, but also, knowing how to break them is just as important. In some cases, it will be obvious which technique to use, in others, you may find that putting your subject in the middle of your frame works best. You need to decide what will work for your image. Try techniques like this and see if one works. If not, break the rules and do what you think looks good.

By cropping the building quite aggressively, the image seems unfinished, but the colours and the sky make it work

By cropping the building quite aggressively, the image seems unfinished, but the colours and the sky make it work

The post 6 Advanced Composition Techniques to Improve Your Photos by Barry J Brady appeared first on Digital Photography School.

How to Use Shadow and Contrast to Create Dramatic Images

shadow and contrast

You can use shadow and contrast to create dramatic images. The key is to forget about shadow detail. You don’t need it. Shadows are meant to be dark and mysterious. This is good – it leaves something to the viewer’s imagination.

Utilize the dynamic range of your sensor. Expose for the highlights, and let the shadows fall where they will. If the light is strong enough, the shadows will contain very little detail.

Harsh light can make dramatic images

I took the following photo in Bolivia. The sun was sinking behind me, casting a strong shadow that had started to touch the underneath of the old car. The shadow fills the bottom third of the image. We don’t need detail in the shadow, although a little doesn’t hurt. Shoot in Raw format, and in most cases you’ll be able to pull some shadow detail out in post-processing, giving you a choice.

shadow and contrast

When I see a dramatic image like this, with strong shadows, my immediate instinct is to convert it to black and white. High contrast scenes look great in monochrome. There’s something about removing colour that emphasizes the depth of the shadows, and the drama of the composition. You can add impact by increasing contrast in Lightroom and emphasizing texture using the Clarity slider. Here’s my black and white conversion of the photo above.

shadow and contrast

Look for naturally contrasty scenes

I took the next photo indoors, in an old manor house that had been converted to a museum. The apples were lit by light coming through a window. The windows were small, so the interior of the room was naturally dark, which is why there is so little detail in the background. It’s a high contrast scene – the area lit by window light ,is much brighter than the rest of the scene.

shadow and contrast

Here’s the same image converted to black and white. Without colour, the emphasis is on the textures and shadows.

shadow and contrast


The following photo of an approaching storm uses also uses shadow and contrast. The mountains are backlit and silhouetted. The approaching storm clouds are dark and ominous. A brightly lit strip of sky fills the gap between the two dark areas. A silhouetted telegraph pole forms a natural focal point. The drama of the light has created a dramatic image.

shadow and contrast

The image is naturally monochromatic, and converts well to black and white.

shadow and contrast

There are lots of shadows in this seascape. But the ones that caught my eye were the silhouetted figures on the right. After I had set up the shot, two children walked across the beach, and climbed up on the rock. I used a long shutter speed (30 seconds) to blur the water, which also blurred the silhouetted children. I was fortunate because the figures add human interest and scale to the scene. They are a natural focal point that pulls the eye across the photo.

shadow and contrast

shadow and contrast

It also converted well to black and white.

The final image is also one that uses shadow to create mystery and drama. I focused on the grass on the foreground, set a wide aperture, and let the sun go out of focus. I adjusted the white balance in Lightroom to emphasize the warmth of the setting sun. This image is different from the others in that the colour is an important part of the composition and it doesn’t work as well in black and white.

shadow and contrast


One of my aims with this article is to dispel the idea that it is essential to capture lots of shadow detail, and that if you fail to do so, it is some kind of technical shortcoming. Not so – let’s celebrate the fact that camera sensors don’t capture the full range of brightness that our eyes are capable of seeing. Let’s use the interplay of light and shadow to create interesting and dynamic compositions. Let’s create some mystery and leave gaps for the viewer’s imagination to fill in.

Do you use shadows in your images? Please share your images with lots of shadow and contrast in the comments below.

Mastering Composition ebookMastering Composition

My new ebook Mastering Composition will help you learn to see and compose photos better. It takes you on a journey beyond the rule of thirds, exploring the principles of composition you need to understand in order to make beautiful images.


The post How to Use Shadow and Contrast to Create Dramatic Images by Andrew S. Gibson appeared first on Digital Photography School.

How to Use Foreground to Create Depth in Your Images

One of the biggest hurdles in photography is the fact that our majestic three-dimensional scene is rendered into a mere two-dimensional image, and the physical depth that we experience in real life is lost. To resurrect this spacious feeling, we can create the illusion of depth where there is none, by using strong elements in the foreground.

Cannon Beach, Oregon, by Anne McKinnell

When we make a photograph, our natural urge is to get a clear shot of the main subject, without other objects getting between it and the lens. That’s exactly what makes foreground elements so powerful though – they’re unexpected, and sometimes even counter-intuitive. Like any other compositional element, they create shapes, lines, and patterns that lead the viewer’s eye through the image and can be used to enhance its visual impact.

What is the foreground?

When you are working with a grand vista landscape scene, you can often divide it into three sections: the foreground, mid-ground, and background. For example, the scene below contains some colorful shrubs in the foreground, a pond in the mid-ground, and trees in the background.

Paradise Meadows by Anne McKinnell

The foreground, mid-ground, and background areas are not at fixed distances, but are understood relative to each other. The foreground consists of anything that lies between you and your subject, which is typically considered to be in the mid-ground (but not always). The background is made up of everything behind the subject.

You can think of a photograph like a stage: you have the upstage – that’s the background. It gives setting and context to what happens below it. Center stage is the mid-ground, where the bulk of the action takes place. But downstage – the foreground – is the closest to the audience, and therefore the most intimate part. It is capable of whispering to them and luring them into the action. It is the most easily seen and heard, and therefore understood, and can reveal the finer details of the story.

Trona Pinnacles, California, by Anne McKinnell

Not all photographs have three sections though, some just have a foreground and a background, and some have no depth at all.

How is the foreground used?

The foreground should contain some key point of interest, such as a human figure, a tree, a boat, some flowers, rocks, or anything else that is comparatively near to you. Composing in this way evokes depth, and gives your image the illusion of that missing third dimension.

Green Point, Newfoundland, by Anne McKinnell

When you’re composing a photo and you feel that it’s looking a little too flat, placing something in the foreground can instantly add a sense of depth. Exactly how this is done depends entirely on your subject, and on your own creative decisions. This can mean physically adding something to your scene, if you are able to. But most of the time, you’ll be looking for objects in the surrounding area that would make an interesting foreground, and changing your perspective – either by moving your camera higher, lower, or to one side – to incorporate those elements inside of the frame.

For example, imagine a group of oak trees in a field, all standing in a row. If you photograph them head-on, they’ll all look more or less identical – their size, distance, and focus will be the same, and the composition will likely be a flat, static one. However, if you change your perspective and shoot them from one side, everything changes. One becomes closer, and therefore larger, while the others shrink in comparison. When a viewer sees this image, their eyes will immediately fall on the tree in the foreground first, and the implied line created by the row will pull their gaze inwards towards the other trees. Suddenly, the composition has depth!

Boone Hall Plantation, South Carolina, by Anne McKinnelll

Likewise, you could change your perspective by lowering your camera angle to incorporate rocks, flowers, or anything else that is on the ground, into your image. This use of foreground will provide a point for the viewer’s eye to enter the image, and any lines created in the foreground will direct their eye into the image.

Like any other compositional element, the foreground is only helpful if it adds to the impact of the image. If it doesn’t help tell the story, or worse yet, if it distracts the eye, then it isn’t working as a benefit to your image. Your foreground should be an important part of the scene, and not something distracting. Look for things that point towards the focal point in some way.

Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik, Iceland, by Anne McKinnell

Foreground elements can even be made of simple shapes and lines. In some cases, your foreground elements may be nothing but shapes and lines, like the paint on a stretch of road, the waves on the ocean’s shore, or the shadows cast across a wind-swept desert. Anything that forms a line towards your subject is especially effective. These are known as leading lines.

Similarly, a wall that stretches into the picture from the foreground will carry the eye along with it. The corners of your frame are especially strong points, and anything that leads inwards from them will have a particular impact. Textures are another compositional tool that can make for an interesting foreground.

Salton Sea, California, by Anne McKinnell

Arranging your composition so that there are interesting elements in front of your main subject is a very effective compositional tool that can evoke depth, by giving your image the illusion of the missing third dimension.

This week on dPS we’re featuring a series of articles about composition. Many different elements and ways to compose images for more impact. Check out the ones we’ve done so far:

The post How to Use Foreground to Create Depth in Your Images by Anne McKinnell appeared first on Digital Photography School.

How to Take Control of Aperture and Create Stronger Photos

aperture and composition

The focal length of the lens you use, combined with the aperture setting, determines how the camera sees whatever you point it at. This has profound implications for composition. Let’s look at them one by one.

Selective focus and bokeh

Selective focus occurs when you focus on your subject, and use a wide aperture to make the background go out of focus. Bokeh is the blurred parts of your photo. It originates from the Japanese word boke, and has come into use because we don’t have a word in English for it.

aperture and composition

This photo shows both selective focus and bokeh. I focused on the model’s eyes, and selected an aperture of f/1.4, to blur the background as much as possible.

There are several factors that affect bokeh.

1. Aperture

The wider the aperture, the less depth-of-field there is, and the more bokeh you get. Photographers that like to use selective focus buy prime lenses, as they have often wider maximum aperture settings than zooms.

But, you can still obtain nice bokeh with zooms, if you pay attention to the following points.

2. Camera to subject distance

The closer you are to the subject the less depth-of-field there is. This is a useful tip if you have a zoom lens with a limited maximum aperture (such as an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens). Just set the focal length to longest available setting, the aperture to its widest setting, and move in as close as you can. You’ll be surprised by what you can achieve.

aperture and composition

This photo was taken with an 18-55mm kit lens set to 55mm and f/5.6, the widest available aperture at that focal length. It’s not nearly as close to how little depth-of-field there would be if I had used an 50mm prime lens at f/1.4 – but it’s still enough to blur the background.

3. Subject to background distance

The more distance there is between subject and background, the more out of focus the background will get, at any given aperture setting.

4. Quality of light

Light affects bokeh. Soft light (like that on an overcast day) produces smooth, even bokeh. Sunlight or reflections, create a different type of bokeh with more texture.

aperture and composition

I took this photo on an overcast day. The bokeh is very smooth.

aperture and composition

I took this photo in the early evening. The artificial lights reflecting from the shiny objects in the background have created a different type of bokeh.

5. The aperture blades of the lens

The more blades the lens has, the rounder the shape of the aperture, and the smoother the quality of the bokeh. Less expensive lenses tend to have fewer aperture blades, and may not produce the same quality of bokeh as better ones.

6. Other optical characteristics of the lens

Some lenses, such as the Helios 58mm f/2 lens, used to take the photo below, have optical characteristics (or more likely, flaws) that produce a certain type of bokeh. Lensbaby is a company that makes lenses that produce a specific type of bokeh.

Aperture and composition

f/2.8 on a prime lens

I’ve singled this aperture setting out because it hits a sweet spot when it comes to composition, especially for portraits.

If you have a normal or short telephoto prime lens, and use the widest aperture setting (generally f/1.2, f/1.4 or f/1.8) then the depth-of-field is very narrow indeed. Sometimes that works really well, but other times you need a little more depth-of-field to create a stronger image. It’s like any technique – overuse it and it becomes a gimmick.

The solution is to mix it up a little by using aperture settings like f/2, f/2.8, and f/4. You’ll still get a narrow depth-of-field and create some beautiful bokeh, but a little more of your subject will be in focus.

Using f/2.8 (or thereabouts) shows subtlety, restraint, and maturity.

aperture and composition

I took this photo with an 85mm lens (full-frame) at f/2.8. The depth-of-field is still shallow enough to blur the background nicely.

The middle apertures

Now we get into the middling apertures, those from around f/4 or f/5.6, to f/8, depending on your lens.

The effect of these apertures depends on the focal length of your lens and how close you are to your subject. For example, you could use a super telephoto lens (300mm plus) and shoot from farther away from your subject to create images with shallow depth-of-field at f/5.6, or get the entire scene in focus at the same aperture with a wide-angle lens (35mm and less) if you focus on the right spot and are much closer to your subject.

These middle apertures represent the transition between photos where some of the image is out of focus, to those where everything is in focus.

You can still use selective focus at these apertures (although perhaps not with wide-angles), although the effect is much gentler than with the widest aperture settings of your lens. Use these apertures when you want good depth-of-field but don’t mind if the background is out of focus a little.

aperture and composition

I used an aperture of f/4.5 for this photo. The depth-of-field is sufficient to get the man, the statue, and the wooden baskets in focus. The background is unimportant and doesn’t need to be in focus.

The smaller apertures

These are the ones you use when you need everything within the frame to be sharp, like with landscape photography. This can be anything from f/8 on a wide-angle lens, to f/11 or f/16 on longer focal lengths. With telephotos and macro lenses you can stop down to f/16 and still not get everything in focus.

The thing you need to be aware of here is diffraction. When the aperture gets too small, the light passing through it spreads out, and softens the image. Thanks to diffraction, images taken at f/22 are usually visibly softer overall, than those taken at f/8 or f/11. Noticeable diffraction may start at f/16 or f/22 on a full-frame camera, and around f/11 on an APS-C camera.

aperture and composition

An aperture of f/11 ensured everything in this photo, taken with a 14mm lens (APS-C), was in focus.

Take control

Every time you take a photo you should be thinking about what the optimum aperture is for the composition you want to make. Do you want to open the aperture and throw the background out of focus? Do you want to stop down and get as much as possible in focus? Or somewhere in between?

What aperture settings do you like to use with your photos? Do you use a Lensbaby or other lens that gives a certain bokeh effect? Please let us know in the comments – I’d love to hear your thoughts and see your images.

This week on dPS we’re featuring a series of articles about composition. Many different elements and ways to compose images for more impact. Check out the ones we’ve done so far:

Mastering Composition ebookMastering Composition

My new ebook Mastering Composition will help you learn to see and compose photos better. It takes you on a journey beyond the rule of thirds, exploring the principles of composition you need to understand in order to make beautiful imag

The post How to Take Control of Aperture and Create Stronger Photos by Andrew S. Gibson appeared first on Digital Photography School.

4 Things You Should Know About Focal Length and Composition

Lenses are the eye of your camera. The focal length of a lens (and your point of view) determine how much of the subject your camera sees.

You may already be familiar with the basics, and understand the difference between, say, wide-angle and telephoto lenses, but let’s dive into the the topic a little deeper to see what’s really going on.

focal length and composition

There are four fundamental things to know and understand about the focal length and composition.

1. Focal length is not as important as field-of-view

There are two factors that determine the field-of-view of a lens:

  1. The focal length.
  2. The digital sensor or film size

Field-of-view (sometimes called angle-of-view) is far more important than focal length, because it tells you how much of the scene the lens sees. However, as field-of-view changes according to sensor size, manufacturers tell us the focal length instead. Focal length is a fixed measurement that doesn’t change (it is literally the distance from the middle of the lens to the focal plane, which is the sensor).

Here are some practical examples.

Example #1 – 50mm prime lens

A 50mm prime lens has a field-of-view of 47 degrees on a full-frame camera. This field-of-view approximates what we see with our own eyes. But what happens when you put the 50mm lens on an APS-C camera (crop factor of 1.6x)? The crop factor of the smaller sensor means that the lens now has a field-of-view of around 30 degrees, making it a short telephoto lens.

This change in field-of-view means that you have to move further away from your subject in order to fit it in the frame, which also changes the perspective (giving the compressed effect that characterizes short telephoto lenses).

If you want the equivalent of a 50mm lens on an APS-C camera you need to use a focal length of around 31mm, as it has the same field-of-view (47 degrees).

A prime lens with that focal length doesn’t exist (you could choose between a 28mm or a 35mm depending on whether you wanted a slightly wider or a tighter field-of-view), but you can set that focal length if you have a zoom.

focal length and composition

50mm lens, full-frame camera. The lens has a field-of-view of 47 degrees.

focal length and composition

50mm lens, APS-C camera. The same lens has a field of view of 30 degrees with this camera.

Example #2 – 21mm lens

The same applies to wide-angle lenses. A 21mm prime lens has a field-of-view of around 92 degrees. That’s a nice wide field-of-view ideal for landscape photography, or creating images with dramatic perspective.

But put it on an APS-C camera the field of view narrows to around 65 degrees. It’s still a wide-angle, but the effect is much more moderate. It now has nearly the same field-of-view as a 35mm lens does on a full-frame camera

To get the same field-of-view as the 21mm lens (on a full frame) you would use a 14mm lens (on an APS-C camera).

focal length and composition

This photo was taken with a 14mm lens on an APS-C camera. It has the same field-of-view as a 21mm lens does on a full-frame camera.

Example #3 – 16mm lenses

It’s even possible to have two lenses with the same focal length, but different fields-of-view (on the same camera).

A 16mm wide-angle lens has a field-of-view of 107 degrees – but a 16mm fisheye has a field-of-view of 180 degrees.

They have the same focal length but each one is designed for a different purpose. The 16mm wide-angle is designed to keep straight lines straight. The fisheye doesn’t try to do that, and as a result has a much wider field-of-view.

This table shows the field-of-view of common focal lengths with full-frame, APS-C and micro four-thirds cameras.

focal length and composition

The next points explore the relationship between field-of-view and composition.

2. Wide-angle lenses are lenses of inclusion

You can think of any lens with a field-of-view wider than around 63 degrees as being a wide-angle. That’s 35mm or shorter on a full-frame camera, 20mm on APS-C, and around 18mm on micro four-thirds.

Wide-angle lenses have two characteristics that affect composition:

  1. The wide field-of-view means that you have to move in close to your subject to fill the frame. But, at the same time wide-angle lenses also include quite a bit of the background. The shorter the focal length, the closer you need to get, and the more background is included.
  2. Wide-angle lenses also appear to have more depth-of-field at any given aperture setting than longer focal lengths (they actually don’t, it has to do with lens to subject distance which also changes with focal length).

These two factors combine to make wide-angle lenses, ones of inclusion. You can always fit more into the frame with a wide-angle lens, no matter how close you get to your subject. The background is also more likely to appear more in focus, than it is with longer focal lengths. Getting in close, creates the dramatic perspective that some photographers love. It emphasizes line, and creates a sense of depth, that images taken with longer focal lengths can lack.

The slightest change in your point of view makes a dramatic difference to the composition of the photo. The shorter the focal length, the more this applies. As wide-angle lenses include so much background it can be difficult to simplify the composition and remove all distractions. There’s no way around it, it’s just a characteristic you have to embrace.

focal length and composition

This photo, taken with an 18mm lens (APS-C), includes the buildings, the city wall, the reflection in the water, the city trees disappearing into the distance, and keeps everything in sharp focus.

3. Telephoto lenses are lenses of exclusion

A telephoto lens is one that has a field-of-view of around 30 degrees or less. That’s around 85mm or longer on a full-frame camera, 50mm on an APS-C camera, and 40mm on micro four-thirds.

Telephoto lenses are ones of exclusion. They have a narrow field-of-view. Fill the frame with your subject, and you won’t get much background in at all. It is also easy to throw the background out of focus by using a wide aperture, and making sure there is sufficient distance between your subject and the background.

focal length and composition

This photo, taken with a 50-150mm lens set to 72 mm (APS-C), shows the woman’s hands and the textiles she is selling. There is not much in the background at all.

4. Normal lenses occupy the middle ground

Normal lenses, those with a field-of-view somewhere around 55 degrees, occupy the middle ground between wide-angle and telephoto. They don’t create images with the dramatic perspective that you can obtain with a wide-angle, nor do they exclude the background to the same extent as telephotos.

If you have a normal prime lens you can open the aperture up to defocus the background, sometimes quite dramatically if you get close enough to the subject. But, you can also often stop down enough to get everything within the frame in focus.

focal length and composition

I took this photo with a 35mm lens, a normal lens on an APS-C camera. It lacks the dramatic perspective, and wide field-of-view of the photos taken with wide-angle lenses. But it includes more of the background and shows less compression than the photos taken with telephoto lenses.

Your turn

Can you think of anything else that photographers ought to know about focal length, field-of-view, and composition? If so, please let us know in the comments. I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Note: this is the second in a series of articles on dPS this week talking about composition. See: Using Framing for More Effective Compositions and look for more over the next few days.

Mastering Composition ebookMastering Composition

My new ebook Mastering Composition will help you learn to see and compose photos better. It takes you on a journey beyond the rule of thirds, exploring the principles of composition you need to understand in order to make beautiful imag

The post 4 Things You Should Know About Focal Length and Composition by Andrew S. Gibson appeared first on Digital Photography School.

Easy Tips to Help Beginners Understand Composition


Place your subject to the right or left of centre. For portraits, the eyes should be above the centre line for a pleasant good composition.

Composition is all about the balance of the elements in your photograph. This also includes colors tones and textures. This is what separates a snapshot from a great shot. If you want to achieve a good composition, you need to plan it out and see where each element is going to be placed before you take the shot.

You may have heard photographers talk about seeing the shot in their head before they have actually taken the shot. It’s this ‘seeing’ that I’m going to describe in more detail. I’ll also demonstrate a few useful tips to train your eye in seeing or framing a scene with or without a camera, and in post-editing.

A good composition in a photo will most likely have followed a compositional rule. These are very useful to know. I’ve chosen five of these principles to describe how they work. I prefer to call them principles or guides rather than rules. There are many more, but these five are a good place to start.


Cut-out cardboard frame for training your eye to see.


Let’s get back to seeing your shot or framing the scene. For this exercise, you won’t need a camera. You might get funny looks but bear with me. Choose any place, location that you want.

Cut out a frame from cardboard or any material you want as long as it’s a rectangle. See above.

You could equally use your hands, but I preferred using the cardboard frame.



Framing your shot using hands.


As you will see, the frame narrows your field of vision and helps to block out distractions and look for the main focal point, which is what the viewer’s eye is drawn to. I can’t emphasize enough that this simple exercise will help you train your eye to see better in terms of composition. Don’t forget to get down low and look up too.



Take this metal bridge, for example. Not a very interesting photo.



By using the cardboard frame to ‘see’ the potential for an interesting shot.



Bring it into your post-editing software and create an interesting texture shot.

Another useful tip that I would highly recommend is a trip to your local art gallery to see great works of art. Not only is it visually pleasing, but you get the chance to study how these great artists used composition to great effect. So the next time that you happen to be in such a museum, observe and take note. Ask why you liked a particular painting? How were the elements in the painting arranged or placed? Where was the horizon line – a third up from the bottom? What about color and texture?

Okay, what if you don’t live near an art gallery? Then maybe a visit to your local library could be an option? Libraries are such a wonderful resource. In the art section alone, you have great masters, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt and so forth. And of course, the masters in the photography world such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ansel Adams, to name just a couple.


Go to your local library for inspiration from the masters in the art world to see how they used composition in their works.


Before you go and get your camera, let me explain the following five compositional principles I believe are a great starting point for beginners.

Rule of Thirds

You may have already heard of this one. This is an actual formula based on mathematical principles of harmony and proportion. It has been used by artists for centuries. So think of your photo with imaginary lines that are drawn dividing the image into thirds both horizontally and vertically. You place important elements of your composition where these lines intersect. Similar to a tic-tac-toe game.


How the rule of thirds looks like. Where the lines intersect are the points in which to place your elements.

Rule of Odds

This may sound a bit odd (sorry, excuse the pun), but our brain looks for evenness and symmetry. So this principle asserts that having an odd number of objects in an image will be more interesting and, therefore, more pleasing. By having one or three elements is better than two.


Odd numbers of elements are more pleasing and interesting than even ones.


Keep the horizontal lines level and the vertical lines straight. This is particularly important if you shoot landscapes, seascapes and cityscapes. Leading lines are also very effective for drawing the viewer to where the focal point is.


The red lines are to show the horizontal lines are even and the vertical lines are straight.

Color and textures

Color and textures are a great way to demonstrate good composition.


Here is an example of color and rule of thirds for this composition. Notice the curve elements.

Negative space

This is an abstract concept which describes the space around your subject, otherwise known as ‘white space’ that draws your eye to it. Basically like ‘sky’ or a blurred background that provides the main emphasis on the subject.
Think of it in terms of letting your main subject or object breathe by giving it room.

As photography is about creativity, rules are not meant to be strictly adhered to. In the bikini photo, although I used two of them and they are symmetrical, I used color to contrast the elements and by not placing them in the centre gives the photo a more pleasing compositional effect.


Although I used two pairs of elements and I know that these are even, the color contrast and using the rule of thirds still makes this image a good composition.

Right, let’s get the camera out. Most DSLR cameras have built-in grid lines and some have a virtual horizon or a spirit level. If your camera has none of these options, you can always add a leveling aid, such as a hot shoe-mounted spirit level or use the focusing points within the viewfinder.

Use your tripod to help you frame your shot so that you get a good composition. Look through the viewfinder, see what elements are in the frame. Then take a look at the scene in front of you with both eyes, then go back to your viewfinder, recompose, then shoot.

Practice will improve your understanding and shooting better compositions. Don’t expect to get it in one go. Give yourself time.

Last, but not least, cropping your images in post-editing. Whether you use Camera Raw, Photoshop or Lightroom, cropping your photos will give you a better understanding of how the principles of composition apply.

You can easily straighten crooked horizon lines by using the Crop Tool or get rid of barrel distortion in buildings using the Lens Correction filter in Photoshop. Or simply change the image dramatically from the one you shot originally. All of these edits can be done non-destructively, so you can crop to your hearts content!


This is how the photo at top of this article was shot, yet when I cropped in tight on the model to the right, it gave me a different shot.

To summarize, like any complex subject that goes beyond just one article, I hope I have illustrated some useful tips to show the importance of composition in your photography. Please share your comments below.

The post Easy Tips to Help Beginners Understand Composition by Sarah Hipwell appeared first on Digital Photography School.

How to Compose Brilliant Black and White Photos

Composition in black and white photography

Brilliant black and white photos are created in two steps. The second of these is post-processing, and is very important. But before you get to that stage, you have to learn how to see and compose photos in black and white. This is just as important as processing – it doesn’t matter how creative or clever you are in Lightroom or Photoshop, if the image is badly composed, or the subject just isn’t suitable for black and white, then you are going to struggle to make a half-way decent monochrome conversion, let alone a great one.

I thought it would be interesting for you to look at some of my favourite black and white photos and learn why they work in terms of composition.

Wooden boats – Puerto Aysen, Chile

Composition in black and white photography

Puerto Aysen is a small port town in south-west Chile. The weather is often cold and miserable, even in summer. It rains a lot. I was wandering around the outskirts of the town when I came across these old wooden boats. Initially I was attracted to the atmosphere of the scene – there was a soft rain, and in the original uncropped photo you can see the hills on the horizon fading through the drizzle. The scene worked in colour (see below), but in the post-processing stage I also realized that it would come out beautifully in monochrome.

Composition in black and white photography

The reasons the image works well in black and white are:

  • Tonal contrast: The boats are painted light tones and the background is mainly comprised of dark tones. The eye is naturally pulled to the largest boat in the scene which becomes the focal point of the photo.
  • Texture: The weathered surfaces of the boats and the grass are beautiful textures which tend to be more effective in black and white than colour. This image wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if the boats were brand new.
  • Lines: The position of the boats in the scene creates two diagonal lines. The first moves from the bottom left through to the top right, and the second line, formed by the rowboat, creates a second diagonal line that meets the first. Diagonal lines pull the viewer’s eye through the photo and help add a sense of movement to the composition.
  • Panoramic crop: I decided the hills in the distance were a distraction and cropped the photo to concentrate attention on the boats. This took place in post-processing and strengthened the composition by focusing attention on the boats.

Chairman Mao watch – Shanghai, China

Composition in black and white photography

I went to Dongtai Road antiques market in Shanghai, an open-air street market comprised of stalls and shops where you can buy a variety of genuine and fake antiques, plus kitsch ornaments and souvenirs. I found the watch that this vendor was offering quite amusing. I didn’t want to buy the watch, but I asked if I could take a photo. The answer was yes.

Why the image works in black and white:

  • Strong use of shape: The watch face is a circle. It is placed in the centre of the composition and dominates it.
  • Lots of texture. The textures of the watch and the vendor’s hand are very strong.
  • Strong diagonal lines. The vendor’s fingers create lines that pull the viewer’s eye up from the bottom of the frame. I deliberately framed the photo so the fingers ran at an angle across the frame rather than parallel with the edges. This creates a more dynamic composition.
  • Simple composition. I moved in close to create a simple composition that emphasized shape, line and texture, the dominant elements of the photo. Another benefit of moving in close and using a wide aperture was that the background went out of focus, eliminating potential distractions.

John – Wellington, New Zealand

Composition in black and white photography

I got in contact with John via Model Mayhem and we arranged a portrait shoot. The setup was simple – I used an 85mm lens (with a full-frame camera) and a wide aperture of f/2.8 to blur the background. The portrait is lit by natural light – John stood underneath an archway so the light fell from his left (camera right).

Men can be great subjects for black and white portraits because there is no pressure to retouch skin. Black and white emphasizes texture – the texture of skin can be a beautiful thing that doesn’t (or perhaps shouldn’t) need retouching as often as some people think it does.

Why this photo works in black and white:

  • Strong eye contact. The strength of this portrait is in the eye contact. John is gazing directly at the camera which creates a powerful connection with the viewer. His face is level with the camera so I could use a wide aperture to defocus the background, while keeping both eyes in sharp focus.
  • Texture. The texture of John’s skin, especially in the sharpest areas around his eyes, renders beautifully in black and white. The background is out of focus and lacks texture, and this sets up a contrast between the sharp areas of the model’s face and the heavily blurred background.
  • Tonal contrast. The model’s face is a lighter tone than the background. Light tones pull the eye, and the tonal contrast here (combined with the strong eye contact) establishes the model’s face as the focal point of the composition. The side lighting effect, created by asking the model to stand in an archway, means that one side of his face is lighter than the other. This creates depth, by revealing the shape of this face.

Common themes

Analyzing these photos is a simple exercise but it brings up several elements that work well in most black and white photos – texture, line, shape, tonal contrast, and simple composition. When you find a subject where these elements come together, you know you have the potential for a great black and white photo.

What do you think is important for a brilliant black and white photo? Please let us know in the comments. I’m looking forward to hearing what you think.

Editor’s Note: We recently ran a series of articles this week featuring black and white photography tips. Look for more on this topic below.

Mastering Composition ebookMastering Composition

My new ebook Mastering Composition will help you learn to see and compose photos better. It takes you on a journey beyond the rule of thirds, exploring the principles of composition you need to understand in order to make beautiful images.

The post How to Compose Brilliant Black and White Photos by Andrew S. Gibson appeared first on Digital Photography School.

6 Tips Using Visual Weight to Improve Your Composition

Andrew’s newest ebook Mastering Composition is now on special for a limited time only at Snapndeals.

Visual weight (also called visual mass) is the principle that some elements of the photo pull the eye more than others.

Take a look at the portrait below. Where does your eye go? It should go straight to the eyes, because they have the most visual weight. They are the element exerting the greatest pull.

Visual weight and composition

Notice that the model’s eyes are not positioned on the traditional intersection points created by the rule of thirds. That doesn’t stop them from pulling the eye, although it could be argued that their visual weight would be strengthened by placing them on a third.

Let’s look at the principles of visual weight (or visual mass) that you can use to improve the composition of your photos.

1. Light tones

Light tones and highlights pull the eye more than dark ones (the basis of tonal contrast). There is a strong contrast in the portrait above between the model’s skin and hair, and the dark background. It is easier to see in a black and white version of the same photo.

Visual weight and composition

2. People

Curiosity about other people is part of the human condition. Our eye goes straight to any human figure that is present in a photo. Recognixable faces exert a stronger pull, while the eyes (the window to the soul) have the strongest visual weight of all.

This explains why you can use people, small in the frame, to give scale and context. It works because our eyes go straight to those figures, as long as they stand out from the background (gestalt theory in action).

The people in the photo below are small, yet the eye goes straight to them. The inclusion of the human figures helps give the scene scale, and emphasizes the size of the mountain behind them.

Visual weight and composition

3. Visual weight and size

The larger the element of a photo, the more it pulls the viewer’s eye. This principle works in harmony with the others discussed in this section. A small human figure, for example, can have much more pull than a large, inanimate object. A small splash of red can also pull the eye very strongly. But for objects of similar texture and colour, the larger one has the stronger pull.

For example, the dials in this photo are virtually identical in terms of shape and design. The one on the right has the most visual weight because it is the largest of the two.

Visual weight and composition

4. Sharp or recognizable elements

Objects that are sharp or easy to recognize pull the eye more than ones that aren’t. According to gestalt theory, the mind looks for patterns and shapes that helps it make sense of chaotic scenes. Once something is identified, it gains significance in the frame compared to those that aren’t.

The most obvious example of this is a portrait taken against a strongly blurred background. The visual weight of the background is reduced because it is no longer sharp, and no longer recognizable. The use of negative space also comes into play.

Visual weight and composition

5. High contrast

High contrast subjects have more visual weight than low contrast ones. This is a good principle to apply in post-processing as well as the photo taking stage. Instead of increasing contrast universally across the image, try increasing it more in the areas where you want the viewer’s eye to travel. Lightroom’s Clarity slider is an excellent tool for this.

In this example I used the Clarity slider to emphasise the texture of the old car and help draw the eye to it.

Visual weight and composition

6. Visual weight and colour

Bright, saturated colours draw the eye. But not all colours are equal. Warm hues have more visual weight than cool ones. Red is the strongest colour of all.

Simplifying the composition makes the relationship between the colours in the photo easier to see. A technique you can use, if your subject is brightly coloured, is to position it against a background comprised subdued, less powerful hues like grey, green and brown.

Simplifying works for all aspects of visual weight. Eliminate everything that isn’t necessary. Keep the background as simple as you can. Once you’ve done this, look at the remaining elements and think about how the eye will move around between them, according to the principles of visual weight. The relationships between them become clearer as the composition is simplified.

The red figurine in the centre of the photo below has the most visual weight. I emphasised this in post-processing by using the Clarity slider to increase its contrast and adding a vignette to darken the background.

Visual weight and composition

Mastering CompositionMastering Composition

My new ebook Mastering Composition will help you learn to see and compose photos better. It takes you on a journey beyond the rule of thirds, exploring the principles of composition you need to understand in order to make beautiful images. It’s on special for a limited time only at Snapndeals.

The post 6 Tips Using Visual Weight to Improve Your Composition by Andrew S. Gibson appeared first on Digital Photography School.

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