DCR Workshop: Shot Composition 101

by Reads (433)

For novice shooters, developing an understanding of basic camera functions is the necessary first step of the journey down the path of photography as a hobby: if you don’t understand how to control your camera, how to make it take properly focused, properly exposed pictures, the finer points of shot composition don’t seem particularly important. Once you develop this basic understanding, however, what’s left to learn?

The answer has less to do with technical than with aesthetic considerations – less to do with how the camera works, and more to do with how the shots it takes look. Taking a well-composed shot is, at the most basic level, at the core of the art of photography (and yes, even the apparently humble act of taking good snapshots is an art – perhaps a more difficult one to master than composing a grand landscape, even). As such, composition is a skill that one develops over a lifetime: even the most skilled photographers continue to refine their compositional sensibilities.

While composition can’t be mastered by reading about it, there three basic jumping-off points that can be extremely useful in helping the rest of us begin to think more seriously and critically about the images we make.

Learn the Rule of Thirds…and know when to break it

For many photographers, composition basics begin and end at the Rule of Thirds, and understanding this principle provides a basic context for talking about photographic composition – and ideas of composition in visual art generally.

Let’s get this out of the way first: the “Rule” of Thirds isn’t a rule in the hard-and-fast sense. There is no punishment for breaking the rule, and there are often good reasons, technical and aesthetic, in composing a photograph to ignore it. Think of it more as a tried and true approach for bringing visual interest to a photo in many situations.

Here’s how it works. Most digital cameras produce by default a rectangular image that’s shaped and proportioned something like the following gray block:

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(Note that the aspect ratio – the ratio of width to height – can vary depending on the camera and settings. I’ve used a 4:3 block as the model here, but 3:2, 16:9, and even the occasional 1:1 square format are among the other aspect ratio options afforded by current digital cameras. However, the Rule of Thirds generally applies in the same way regardless of the aspect ratio.)

Looking at this image-shaped block without any image to distract the eye, it’s easy enough to imagine superimposing two evenly spaced vertical lines and two evenly spaced horizontal ones, dividing the space into nine equally sized areas.

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This proportional division of both the horizontal and vertical axes of the image frame into the thirds is the root of the Rule of Thirds. Dividing a frame in this way, the Rule of Thirds suggests placing the point (or points) of interest in a composition where the grid lines intersect.

The following shot illustrates this kind of placement.

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If we overlay the grid, note that the interest point in the photo – the cliff towering in the foreground – sits almost directly on the intersection of the grid.

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In working with landscapes, the horizontal grid lines provided by the Rule of Thirds also serve as tool for establishing where the horizon should sit in a shot. Positioning the horizon at or near the lower third line draws emphasis to the sky, while positioning the horizon on the upper line has just the opposite effect, making expanses of land look more “stretched out.”

In the shot below, this basic idea has been employed. The existence of two horizons, in effect – the foreground horizon, and the mountains in the distance – allows equally proportioning of the shot using the Rule of Thirds.

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Although many feel the Rule of Thirds to be most broadly applicable in landscape compositions and portraiture (where the subject’s eyes are often positioned as the focal point at the top intersection), using thirds proportioning can fundamentally change the look and feel of just about any image. Consider the example of a basic macro shot:

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In this case, shooting straight on provides a nice, frame-filling image and is probably the best choice if your goal is show off as much detail as possible. A thirds composition takes on what’s arguably a more visually interesting look, however:

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In this case, the natural focal point at the center of the flower falls very close to the bottom-right grid intersection.

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Constructed in this way, the composition draws the eye across the image from top left to bottom right (the natural “line” that most of us follow when first viewing an image) and gives a sense of depth that can be lacking in straight-ahead shots. In this case, the choice of one compositional approach over the other is both aesthetic and subjective, but whether or not you prefer the thirds composition or not it still provides another weapon in your photographic arsenal when approaching a shot opportunity.

For many, the Rule of Thirds isn’t common sense: it goes against the seemingly obvious principles of symmetry and “halves” division. Yet if you look around with a careful eye, you may be surprised to discover just how much of our world (and especially designed objects – cars, buildings, even camera bodies themselves) makes use of this proportioning guideline.

Thankfully, if it isn’t always easy for you to see thirds proportioning in a frame, most compact digital cameras will help you out. Almost every new compact made these days has a thirds composition grid that can be overlaid on the screen in shooting mode.

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Turning a composition grid on and leaving it on can be a huge help in thinking more carefully about shot composition and learning to see the world with an eye to proportion – one of the keys to making good photographs.

With all of that said, at certain times and for certain subjects the Rule of Thirds is almost too prescriptive: it can make some shots (especially architectural shots) come off as a little too “scripted” looking. As a proportioning guideline rather than a hard and fast rule, there’s nothing that dictates that all shots will look better, or will even make the most sense, when this kind of composition grid is applied. As suggested, even for some landscapes the most interesting possible composition throws the Rule of Thirds out the window.

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Centering the subject in the shot above to emphasize its massiveness and give the entire scene an imposing quality.

To wrap up, while the Rule of Thirds doesn’t dictate or decide ideal composition, in order to know when it might be better to break the rules you first have to know what the rules are. This is where learning to see your shot compositions (and those of others) in the context of thirds proportioning can be extremely helpful.

Approach the world sideways

Most serious photographers – even landscape photographers – rely heavily on the powerful effect that shot orientation can have on the overall feel of an image. Interestingly, while a little common-sense analysis suggests that many of the objects and images we deal with on a daily basis have a long-side vertical (or “portrait”) orientation (versus a long-side horizontal, or “landscape” one), many novice camera users seem to be stuck in a rut, capturing stacks of landscape-oriented images without ever thinking to turn their cameras sideways.

Admittedly, many compacts cameras are not particularly conducive to shooting in portrait orientation, with controls that are uncomfortable and poorly placed when the camera is rotated. Hence, landscape orientation is probably your default setting when composing an image. I’ve often heard less experienced photographers say that they rarely shoot in portrait orientation, viewing it more as a novelty or an oddity than one of the basic compositional tools at their disposal.

For the thinking photographer, choosing to compose a shot in one orientation versus the other has more to do with aesthetics and emphasis than the shape of the subject. While many casual photographers only resort to portrait-style shooting to squeeze a tall subject into the frame, sometimes the more visually compelling way to capture a particular subject is the one that goes against the expected or natural tendency. In shooting architecture, especially, subjects with a lot of vertical reach can often benefit from the perspective afforded by a wider, landscape-style presentation (of course, if you want to emphasize height, the natural cropping of portrait composition may be preferable). Likewise, portrait shots tend to have a more “zeroed in” or focus look that can be appealing for highlighting details.

As with the Rule of Thirds, varying a composition’s orientation often fundamentally changes the emphasis. In the following shot, the wide lake and mountains in the background suggested a composition with more horizontal reach.

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If the scenery is the star in the first version, however, portrait orientation emphasizes the boat itself, giving the impression of zooming in on the boat in spite of the fact that the subject is the same proportional size in both shots.

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Considering portrait orientation for a particular shot is even easier than employing the Rule of Thirds: there are no settings to change or visual indicators to turn on. Just turn your camera sideways and shoot. Of course, you can always crop landscape shots to a portrait orientation after the fact, but learning to see how portrait orientation changes the implied lines and proportional relationships in an image is usually best accomplished the old fashioned way.

Consider space and motion

The final piece of our three related concepts in basic shot composition has to do most obviously with animate subjects and subjects in motion (people and animals, but also vehicles, etc.). Drawing on thirds proportioning, one basic compositional approach suggests that if a subject could be considered to have a “front,” the shot should be composed such that the subject is facing/moving into the frame rather than out of it. The idea is most easily visualized with a subject in motion.

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The above shot, in which the motorcycle is facing/traveling from right to left, outlines the most common compositional approach to subjects of this kind. If we overlay two evenly spaced horizontal lines (as in the composition grid suggested by the Rule of Thirds), note that the subject is positioned a third of the way into the frame such that it faces or travels toward the remaining two thirds of the image.

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Using thirds positioning, the idea is to place subjects such that they appear to be moving into the frame, rather than moving out of it. For subjects in motion, especially, this kind of compositional arrangement does more than a centered-subject arrangement to imply movement.

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As seen above, the same basic compositional arrangement also effectively utilizes the balance of space in an image. In this particularly sparse example, the visually empty space that the pitcher faces draws out the image and emphasizes the focal point through proportioning.

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Obviously, this shot could just as easily be composed with the subject dead-center, but the balance of space on both sides doesn’t draw the eye as much in the direction of the photo’s emphasis – toward an implied home plate, in this case.

All of this suggests the need for a compelling photograph – and especially one emphasizing motion – to play areas of visual interest off of more subdued, less distracting “filler” space. A good, distraction-free background helps make subjects pop, and achieving the right balance for framing the focus of your photo may require work with your camera’s aperture (to narrow your depth of field and put more of the image out of focus) or a change of perspective or shooting angle.


The basic principles of composition outlined above are hardly secret or arcane knowledge. You’ll find these ideas expressed in similar terms in photography textbooks and tutorials, as well as more general references on visual art. Their ubiquity, however, doesn’t make them any less valuable as a starting point for new photographers wanting to think more seriously about making images, as opposed to merely snapping photos.

For most, one of the primary purposes of photography, and one of its primary attractions, is presenting the things we see around us – people, places, and objects – in unique ways. Even for those of us who don’t aspire to be visual artists with our cameras, a basic understanding of shot composition principles is another tool for drawing out these unique details and capturing places and events in meaningful, memorable ways.

Published at the beginning of each month, DCR Workshop provides tips, tools, and tricks for taking better pictures and using digital photo technology. If there’s a how-to topic you would like to see covered in a future DCR Workshop installment, send your suggestions to editor@digitalcamerareview.com.

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