PHOTOGRAPHY BASICS

Improve the composition of your photos

Composition can make or break a photograph. Here are 10 techniques to help you create beautifully composed images that brilliantly convey your personal style.
A lone tree in still waters silhouetted against a night sky streaked with orange and casting a reflection on the water's surface.

One of the beautiful things about photography is the scope it offers for creative freedom and emotional expression. So it may seem slightly constrictive to talk about following a set of rules for photographic composition. However, knowing some simple photography composition principles can help you get the best out of your subject matter, and bring scenes to life the way you truly want them to be seen.

Once you learn the basics of composing and arranging shots, you'll start applying them without thinking and can find your own style – and perhaps even break the 'rules' from time to time.

Here, we'll explain 10 photography composition techniques, discussing how each helps you balance the way elements are arranged in your images and enabling you to lead your viewer's eye around the frame.

1. The rule of thirds

The rear LCD screen of a Canon camera displaying gridlines over an image of a hut in a hilly landscape.

The rule of thirds is being applied here so that the grass, mountains and sky each take up a third of the image. The subject – the wooden hut – is also positioned at a point where the gridlines intersect.

A young dog with white and reddish fur, and its ears cocked, looks to its right intently.

For maximum impact when shooting portraits, try to position the eyes of your subject around the top third line. This applies regardless of the subject's position vertically in the frame. It is also a good rule of thumb no matter where the subject falls laterally, but positioning it off-centre creates a less static impression. Taken on a Canon EOS R50 with a Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/800 sec, f/2 and ISO 100.

Placing your subjects in the centre of the frame can be effective in some situations – simple subjects such as portraits, where just the face is lit and the background is much darker, work well with a central composition. However, asymmetrical compositions will feel more lively and dynamic. Applying the rule of thirds to your photography by positioning your subject in the right-hand or left-hand third of your frame will usually make a more interesting and attractive image.

Many cameras, including Canon EOS R System cameras such as the EOS R50, EOS R10 and EOS R7, have the option to display a 3x3 grid either in the viewfinder or on the rear LCD screen. A useful composition technique is to position the point of interest at one of the points where the horizontal and vertical lines intersect.

2. Level up

The Electronic Level on a Canon camera screen being used to level the horizon in a beach scene.

Unless you are tilting your camera for creative effect, try to ensure the horizon is level before you take a shot. This is particularly true when it comes to pictures of a lake or the sea, where a tilted horizon will make the water appear to run out of the frame.

Gridlines are also a useful way to check that the horizon is level. Many cameras can display an Electronic Level on the screen, which changes from red to green when the camera is straight. Some Canon cameras with In-Body Image Stabilisation (IBIS), such as the EOS R7, also have an auto levelling feature. When enabled, this adjusts the position of the sensor automatically to account for any slight tilt, giving you level photographs.

A view over rocks in shallow water towards a rocky outcrop in the sea, photographed with the camera's Auto Level function switched off, resulting in a tilted look.
A view over rocks in shallow water towards a rocky outcrop in the sea, photographed with the camera's Auto Level function switched on, resulting in a perfectly level horizon.

Auto Level off

Auto Level on

The EOS R50 and EOS R7 also have an Auto Level function in Movie IS mode which can automatically level horizontally tilted video footage.

Of course, you can also physically rotate the camera to an angle for interesting compositions. This intentional tilt is often called a Dutch or German angle and is used in feature films to create tension or disorientation – so use sparingly, and choose enough of an angle to ensure it doesn't look accidental. If you tilt one shot to the left, then try to capture the next with a tilt to the right. You can use this to convey the tension and excitement of exploring a new city, for example. It's a great way of introducing more variety into your images, and will look fantastic when printed. You could also change the aspect ratio in-camera to square to mix things up even more – which leads us on to framing and cropping.

3. Framing

A woodland path with trees curving over from each side, and three figures standing in sunlight in the distance.

In a natural setting such as a forest, you can use the trees to frame your subjects. If the scene is too dark, remember to adjust the exposure settings to strike a balance between the shadows and highlights. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 105mm, 1/80 sec, f/7.1 and ISO 1600.

A picturesque mountain setting framed by the open doors of a camper van. A pair of reclining legs can be seen in the foreground.

All sorts of image elements can be used to make creative and interesting frames for your shots, such as the back door of this camper van. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 Mark II with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 18mm, 1/1600 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 100. © Teddy Morellec

When you take a photo, consider how you frame your subject. Using a doorway or window is a good choice, as this forms a natural border and helps to focus attention on the scene within. You could use the doorway of a hotel or apartment to frame your view of a city, for example. It's best if the window or door is open, to avoid reflections on the glass.

You can also create an effective frame by cropping into a photo to isolate elements. You can use the Canon Camera Connect app to transfer images from your camera to your phone for editing, or edit on your computer in software such as Canon's Digital Photo Professional, or crop when printing using one of Canon's printing apps.

Take time to experiment with different crops. For landscape photography, try a panoramic crop to create a wide image. Even printing multiple images in a line will give the panoramic effect if they line up well.

4. Leading lines

A stepped path descending through greenery and down to the blue sea visible in the background.

Shot from a high vantage point, the snaking path guides the viewer down the hillside from the trees to the water. Taken on a Canon EOS R50 with a Canon RF-S 18-45mm F4.5-6.3 IS STM lens at 18mm, 1/125 sec, f/11 and ISO 100.

A woman in a yellow dress stands beneath an ornate archway in front of a long, narrow pool of water in which her reflection can be seen.

The brightly coloured, converging edges of the pool direct the attention towards the figure in a yellow dress, who is also framed by the arches of the building in the background. Taken on a Canon EOS R10 with a Canon RF-S 18-150mm F3.5-6.3 IS STM lens at 35mm, 1/2000 sec, f/5.6 and ISO 12,800.

Lines are a very powerful compositional tool, simply because we instinctively want to find out where they lead. When you're out and about, you'll see lines everywhere – paths, rivers, walls, fences, train tracks or road markings, all of which can be incorporated into your pictures.

Using the physical lines as compositional elements to lead the eye through the scene towards your focal point is probably the most effective way of incorporating leading lines into your imagery. You'll need to position your camera at a suitable vantage point to capture the natural lines in a scene, and that may mean getting up high or down low to maximise the effect. A camera with a fully-articulating vari-angle LCD screen will help you to frame the image when shooting from unusual angles.

It's also worth considering the direction in which the lines travel, and what you are trying to achieve. Converging lines are an effective tool for conveying distance and scale. Horizontal lines mirror the horizon and so can have a calming effect, whereas vertical lines can create tension. Diagonal lines, ideally from bottom left to top right, carry the eye across a scene, because that matches the accustomed reading direction in most Western cultures. Activate your camera's 3x3+diagonals display, if available, to help you line up diagonal lines and guide the viewer's eye through the frame.

Leading lines are often found when shooting outdoors, in both natural and built environments, making them one of the best composition tips for cityscapes and landscapes.

5. Shooting from different angles

An image, shot looking upwards, of a meshed dome made up of hexagonal shapes at the Rokko-Shidare Observatory in Japan.

When you're out and about, don't forget to look up for interesting perspectives. Taken on a Canon EOS R10 with a Canon RF-S 18-45mm F4.5-6.3 IS STM lens at 18mm, 1/400 sec, f/4.5 and ISO 100.

All too often, photographs are taken at eye level, but more creative viewpoints are available if you position your camera either lower or higher. When children take pictures, the results show a different view of the world – buildings, trees, plants and people look much larger from a lower camera position. If your camera has a vari-angle screen or can connect to your smartphone via Wi-Fi, this makes it easier to shoot with the camera on the ground for an unusual perspective.

In a city full of tall buildings, try using a wide-angle lens and look up towards the sky. Use Aperture priority (Av) mode and select an aperture of f/8 or f/11. Then, with the camera pointed towards the sky, frame the scene so that the buildings converge. Since such pictures often have a wide range of shadows and highlights, you may need to adjust the brightness using exposure compensation or experiment with different metering modes – expose for the foreground using spot metering, for example, or get a balance by using evaluative metering. It may also help to use the in-camera HDR function.

Similarly, the higher viewpoint from the top of buildings, or with the camera held above your head, works well too, giving more of an overview (literally) of a scene or situation.

6. Triangles

A bridge with overhead steel beams converges into the distance.

The repeated triangles in this image, created by the road edge converging into the distance and in the bridge supports and overhead beams, help to create a sense of balance and stability. Taken on a Canon PowerShot SX740 HS at 1/125 sec, f/8 and ISO 100.

A woman in a white ruffled top and black gloves leans to her right on a desk in a darkened room, forming a triangular shape.

Triangles in portrait photography help divide the frame, guide the viewer's eye and create dynamic compositions. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/200 sec, f/2.2 and ISO 800. © Ejiro Dafé

Composing your scene with triangles in mind can create more visually interesting photos. Try shooting street edges disappearing into the distance, with the resulting triangular sections in the side of the frame.

With its two diagonal lines and one horizontal line, a triangle can add visual movement to a portrait. Even with a relatively static portrait of a person at a table, try asking the subject to move their arms to create a triangular shape – with the elbows spread wider, and the hands supporting the chin. The composition will look much more aesthetically pleasing.

7. The Golden Ratio

A close-up of green Romanesco cauliflower, illustrating the Fibonacci Spiral in nature.

The Golden Ratio commonly appears throughout nature, such as in the spiral patterns on the head of a Romanesco cauliflower. Taken on a Canon EOS R10 with a Canon RF-S 18-150mm F3.5-6.3 IS STM lens at 35mm, 1/200 sec, f/10 and ISO 400.

An image shot upwards of a concrete spiral staircase, which forms a winding, shell-like pattern, while a man standing on the staircase points a camera upwards.

Staircases can be based on the trajectory of the Fibonacci sequence. You can accentuate the curves of a spiral staircase in your photographs by using a wide-angle lens.

The Golden Ratio (or Fibonacci Spiral) is widely used in art, architecture and design to create aesthetically pleasing proportions and compositions. The ratio is named after an Italian mathematician also known as Leonardo Bonacci, who, in about 1200AD, identified a sequence of ascending numbers, the ratio of which is widely found in nature – in the spiral patterns of seashells, the growth patterns of plants and the proportions of the human body.

The idea is that you can make a composition stronger and more pleasing to the human eye if you can compose the frame to include a line that guides the viewer along a spiral path to the main subject. Try positioning the start of the spiral in a corner of the frame, and include as much of the curve as possible so that the eye will follow it all the way around the picture. The principle can work across a range of images – from landscapes to portraits and more. Use a wide-angle lens to capture the entire sweep of large, architectural features such as staircases, or use a macro lens to focus on small spiral shapes in nature.

8. Minimalism and negative space

A person dangles from the overhang of a rock face with a statue of a mountain goat at the top. In the distance beyond is a mountain range with a purplish tinge.

Placing your subject right in the middle of a frame works effectively only for some pictures. Here the asymmetrical composition and open space accentuate the precarious position of the climber. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8 L IS USM lens at 124mm, 1/500 sec, f/7.1 and ISO 1600. © Ulla Lohmann

A Black Kite photographed in the right-hand half of the frame, swooping low over a body of water with wings outstretched.

Placing subjects off-centre and leaving space for them to fly or run into emphasises their direction of travel and adds to the impression of movement – or the anticipation of action. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM lens at 300mm, 1/4000 sec, f/5.6 and ISO 48000. © Robert Marc Lehmann

It might seem counter-intuitive but using a minimal composition can maximise the impact of an image. Minimal compositions focus on simplicity, featuring very few elements, but still deliver deep and thought-provoking images by cutting out unnecessary details and focusing the viewer's attention to a certain part of the frame.

Creating minimal, simplistic compositions may sound easy, but can be harder than a busier composition, as you have to find a way to remove unwanted elements and visual distractions without making an image boring.

A great way to get started with minimal compositions is to set subjects against 'negative' or 'empty' space. Photographing a beach hut against both a sky and a beach, for example, would use visual contrast to set the building against two negative open spaces — the beach and the sea — and focus the eye on the beach hut. An out-of-focus background in a portrait – created using a wide aperture (low f-number) setting, or shooting with a telephoto lens, or both – also creates negative space that helps the subject stand out.

Another way to achieve a minimal composition is to focus on shapes. Identify one or two shapes or geometric patterns within your frame and try to isolate these, potentially using negative space.

Empty space can also add a feeling of movement. If there's space in front of a subject, the subject looks like it's moving into that space or about to do so. Space behind can give the impression that the subject is moving so quickly that it's about the burst out of the frame.

9. Orient for your platform

A pair of hands hold a Canon EOS R10 vertically and point it at strawberries in a box at a fruit stall.

Cameras such as the EOS R10 and the EOS R50 support vertical video capture – ideal for producing social media ready content. The Canon EOS R50 can also automatically identify if you are shooting vertically or horizontally and will record in that format.

The LCD screen of a Canon camera displaying aspect markers, framing a close-up of a snow-covered branch in the centre of the shot.

Some cameras can display aspect guides when recording video, helping you keep important image elements within the frame you'll later crop to.

It's important to think about how your images and videos will be displayed. If you're shooting for specific social media platforms, for example, your final image might need to be a 4:5 or 9:16 vertical aspect ratio, depending on the platform. If you're capturing video for YouTube, you'll want a 16:9 landscape orientation for a cinematic look.

Some Canon EOS R System cameras – such as the EOS R6 Mark II, EOS R50 and EOS R8 – can display aspect markers for your chosen ratio, so that you can frame your scene correctly. The whole frame is still visible, but the guides show where it will be cropped so you can ensure that image elements you want to show will be included both horizontally and vertically.

10. Break the rules

A runner in a red top, captured to the right of the centre of the frame, runs in an open field towards the camera, with a line of trees behind.

Two different crops of the same image. Do both give the same impression of movement? Does the runner seem faster or more dynamic in one than in the other? Different compositions can significantly change the feel of a photo. Taken on a Canon EOS R50 with a Canon RF-S 55-210mm F5-7.1 IS STM lens at 77mm, 1/500 sec, f/7.1 and ISO 100.

A runner in a red top, captured in the left-hand half of the frame and closer to the camera, runs in an open field towards the camera, with a line of trees behind.

Many photographers aim to get their framing (and every other aspect of an image) right in-camera, but it's fun to experiment with variations in cropping and composition in editing software afterwards, and this will help you develop your eye for composition.

Rules are made to be broken, so once you've got to grips with the composition techniques above, try experimenting. If you're photographing a runner, for example, the conventional composition rule would be to leave space in front of the runner. However, leaving space behind the runner instead could imply for example that the runner is escaping something rather than running towards something. Positioning the subject in different parts of the frame can change the story you're conveying in the image.

Look for photos with unconventional compositions, such as vertical cityscapes, think about why they work, and try out some variations for yourself. It will help you develop your own personal style and achieve the creative effect you desire. Plus, it's great fun!

Written by Peter Wolinski

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