Composition: Mastering Photography

Mastering the Art of Photography. Is That Even Possible?

Composition, the first and the last area of photography that one needs to master. Yet, even with a lifetime of practice, is it even possible to master this concept?

Like most art, photography is ever changing. Once someone believes they have mastered something like composition, some new way or trend pops up changing the game of photography.

My thought on composition is that no one can ever truly master it. Sure, you can capture an image that you and many others deem a masterpiece, but have you truly mastered the concept off of one image? Or even hundreds?

What is Composition?

The basic idea of the composition includes everything placed within the frame of images and how these elements interact with one another. Every medium of photography seems to differ in what I call technical composition, whether that’s landscapes, portraits, wildlife, or fine art. Yet, there seem to be a couple rules that most photographers try to follow. That is the rule of thirds and leading lines. I shoot mainly landscapes, so I will explain using landscapes as an example.

Rule of Thirds:

The Rule of Thirds is quite simple. Divide your frame horizontally and vertically with 2 lines in each direction making a total of 9 boxes. With these boxes, you’ll want to put the sky in either the top 1/3rd section of the frame with the landscape in the bottom 2/3rds. If you feel like there is more interest in the sky, then you can reverse it making the sky fill the top 2/3rds instead. If you try to center the horizon in the frame, the composition can look a bit off, yet sometimes I feel it is needed. Typically the main subject should be positioned close to the 4 points that make up the center box, whether its flowers, rocks, a tree, or a human.

Rule of Thrids Example
As you can see here, I have placed the sky in only the top 1/3rd of the frame. While the sunset is nice, the focus is the rocks and the human.
Rule of thirds example
The Milky Way is the main subject of this image, and the tent helps fill the foreground with interest.

Leading Lines:

Leading Lines are any form of a line that draws the viewers eye into the image, often leading toward the main subject. The best example would a river or stream leading your eye through the frame toward a mountain range or waterfall. My favorite type of leading line is an s-curve. They can be found in flowing bodies of water, roads, and trails.

Leading line example
The rocky shoreline here leads the eyes to the cliff and sky in the background.
Leading lines examples
Here I have placed the leading line through the frame towards my campsite in the background. The human on the trail adds more to the story here as he is walking to his camp.

How Can You Change Composition? (Three Ways)

Are you looking through the viewfinder and just don’t think that your composition is working? That’s OK. It’ll be hard to find that perfect composition on the first setup. Just remember to not get discouraged! Below I have listed the 3 things that I find myself doing the most in order to find the right composition.

1. Moving the Camera or Subject:

This might be the simplest and most obvious way to change your composition, especially if you are shooting handheld. Moving the camera up, down, or sideways can have drastic changes that can make or break your composition. Most people shoot at eye level, even I find myself doing this at for a majority of times. If you end up shooting a bit higher or my favorite down low, you can find an image that is unique from all the rest. If the subject is easy to move like a person or tent, go ahead and try that as well.

2. Adding to or Removing Something from the Frame:

This can sometimes be a bit harder, especially for landscapes. If there is a big ugly tree or rock in the frame, you can’t really move that now, can you? I do often find myself removing some fallen twigs or branches or even some dead flowers that have already wilted. Some things you can easily add are humans and objects. Adding a tent on top of a mountain with a person drinking their morning coffee can add a lot to an already beautiful landscape. By doing so, you add more emotion that the viewer can connect to on another level.

3. Changing Your Focal Length (Zooming In or Out):

Sometimes when you shoot wide, let’s say 16mm, there are just too many elements crowding your composition. This confuses the viewer on what they should focus on and usually just pass the photo without much notice. Zooming in will increase the focal length and help isolate the subject. Usually, this makes things a bit more minimalistic and more intimate with the subject and I’m fine with that.

3 Ways to Improve Composition
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Breaking the Rules of Composition.

The thing about art is that it can be interpreted in many different ways. Sometimes to make it your own you may need to break the rules. I often find myself wanting both the sky and foreground to be even. In this situation I find myself putting the horizon in the middle of the frame and you know what? That works for me in those situations. If you can’t find that composition using the “rules”, break them! You might find yourself with an image that’s more unique and personal to your own style.

Breaking the rules
This was one such composition where I was wanting the lower part of the canyon with the rock in-frame. The sky also lit up so that had to be in-frame as well. I compromised to have the horizon in the middle of the frame. With a wider lens, it may have been possible to use the rule of thirds but I was limited with what I had.

So, did you learn something new about photography and composition that you didn’t know already? Let’s discuss composition in the comments below! Let me know what you think about my interpretation of it. Want to learn more about photography and how to get the perfect image? Subscribe to my newsletter to be informed when I post a new blog about photography. You will also receive adventure ideas, wallpapers, print discounts, simple photo tips, and more! Subscribe here now.

Nate Bowery

View posts by Nate Bowery
I’m Nate Bowery, a photographer from the Southeast US. I have a passion for landscape and adventure photography that takes me all over the Southeast US and occasionally the west.

6 Comments

  1. How often are you keeping an eye out for those leading lines? What is your favorite type of leading line? I love the s-curves, especially a river leading the eye into some magnificent rocky mountain peaks!

    1. Hey Nate! I find myself almost religiously sticking to the rule of thirds (at least trying) and being afraid to break it when the image doesn’t feel quite right.

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