Guest Post: The 10 Elements of Photo Composition

I’m guest blogging here at Canadian Family with some tips, tricks and techniques on how to improve your family photography. So far we’ve talked about light and about some basic elements of composition.

Today, I want to talk about 10 key concepts of composition and how you can use them to improve your everyday photography. Not every photograph will contain every element, but these are concepts that you should learn to look for and incorporate them whenever you can.

1 Line

Lines lead your eye around a photograph. They can draw you in to an image, but if you are not careful they can lead the eye right back out again. Lines are a powerful tool in an image. See how the lines of the surf lead right to the figure, and how the line of the horizon also points to him?

Horizontal lines are usually restful and occasionally static; vertical lines are more dynamic and diagonal lines even moreso. Curvy lines are very pleasing to the eye.

2 Shape

A closed line becomes a shape. Shapes have strong symbolic meaning. Think of circles, squares, stars. A triangle is very pleasing in photography, and things in odd-numbered sets seem to be more dynamic than things in even-numbered sets.

3 Colour

I could write a whole post on colour alone, and of course, entire textbooks have been devoted to colour theory. Colour has temperature (blues and greens are cool, oranges and reds are warm) and intensity and hue. Colours opposite each other on the colour wheel are complimentary and “pop” when beside each other. Red seems to come forward in a picture while blue recedes.

The yellow of the child’s t-shirt in the photo above really pops against all that blue, and the difference draws your eye to him immediately. When you’re looking through the viewfinder, consider how the colour works in the scene – is a red item in the background drawing attention away from your subject? Does the green couch clash with your baby’s orange jumper? Would a yellow slicker make your toddler stand out against an emerald green sea of grass on a rainy day?  And of course, the absence of colour speaks for itself.  A black and white image, which has been completely desaturated of colour, can be just as compelling as a full-colour one.

4 Space

Space is quantified as positive and negative. Positive space is the space occupied by the people and objects in your images and negative space is the space around them, like the sky. If your image is too crowded, it will be unpleasant for the viewer. Space is closely related to balance, which we will discuss below.

5 Texture

Texture is what gives your photo a feeling of depth and dimension. Side lighting helps illustrate texture with gentle shadows. When you capture texture in an image, the viewer can imagine if something is soft or hard, bumpy or smooth. Think of the way soft light can make a baby’s skin glow – you’ve captured the texture.

6 Pattern and repetition

The eye is drawn to things that stand out, so if you have a pattern of five squares and one star, your eye is drawn immediately to the star. You can use this in photos by establishing and then breaking a pattern – four empty swings plus one with your child in it, or a plate full of apple slices with one timbit, or five beer bottles and one baby bottle lined up on the countertop. (Not that I would know what that looks like. Ahem.)

You don’t have to break a pattern for it to be effective. This has always been one of my favourite pictures. Just some shoes in three sizes – but it captures a moment in time for me. The shoes offer their own pattern, and the deck rails establish their own complimentary rhythm to the picture.

7 Balance

Balance is an easy concept to understand but a hard one to explain. Just as your subjects need a certain amount of negative space around them so they don’t feel crowded, you must have a certain amount of balance in your pictures. Larger and closer subjects seem to have more “weight” but can be balanced by smaller and more distant items.

8 Symmetry

Symmetry is balance in the extreme. Some symmetrical pictures can be very pleasing; imagine a landscape with a snow-topped mountain reflected in a mirror-still lake. On the other hand, symmetry can also be static and undynamic.  Breaking the symmetry of an image can lead to very interesting results.

9 Framing

No, I’m not talking about printing your fave shots and putting them up on the wall. Look for natural opportunities to frame your subject within your photo. I am personally addicted to frames within frames – it’s something I see everywhere and often try to capture. Doorframes, windows, mirrors – those are some of the more obvious choices for framing. But also consider shooting through two stacks of blocks at a builder at work, or shooting through the monkey bars on the playground, or between two tree branches.

10 Motion

Good news! That blurry picture of your baby crawling out of your perfectly-composed image? That’s a technique! With a quick shutter speed (usually the “sports” setting on a point-and-shoot) you can freeze action, or you can choose a longer shutter speed to intentionally show a subject in motion. Panning is a technique where you follow a moving subject with your shutter open – in theory, your subject will remain crisp while the background is blurred behind it. This is fun to try later in the evening near twilight when the kids are playing in the driveway but the light is low. Try to follow them smoothly as they ride by on their bikes – it’s a neat effect when you can make it work!

If you are interested in a more detailed explanation of some of these concepts, I recommend an article called Composition & the Elements of Visual Design.

Tomorrow, I’ve got some more practical tips for you. We’ll talk about candid versus posed shots, ideas for props and locations, and how to avoid the “smile for the camera” grimace that looks like your child just ate a spam-coated lemon drop.

And don’t forget to drop by my blog to for your chance to win one of five gift subscriptions to Canadian Family!

—Dani Girl, Postcards from the Mothership

One response to “Guest Post: The 10 Elements of Photo Composition”

  1. jemrah says:

    i wish i could take good photos – i am happy that my daughter is interested in photography and she is very good at it (in my opinion!). Thanks for the tips!