One way to improve your photography is through better “composition,” which only means thoughtfully “composing” the image in the viewfinder for the greatest impact. By Alfred DeBat


water One way to improve your photography is through better “composition,” which only means thoughtfully “composing” the image in the viewfinder for the greatest impact. After learning a few basic rules, it is easy to do because these rules focus your attention on the subject and its surroundings in the viewfinder. Digital photographers have a distinct advantage of seeing the picture just taken on the LCD monitor of the camera. You can immediately reshoot an improved version of the previous image. This is not complicated, but it means paying attention to what you are doing. If you read a book on composition, one of the first things covered is the “Rule of Thirds.” This rule suggests the viewfinder image should be divided equally into three imaginary horizontal sections and three imaginary vertical sections. In scenic photos, never have the horizon or the subject directly in the middle of the photo. Rather, two-thirds of the photograph should show the sky (hopefully with some interesting looking clouds) or two-thirds should show the landscape, seascape, or cityscape with one-third (or less) as sky.

Why? Because most scenic pictures with the horizon in the middle are boring. The same rule applies to subject placement in the photo. For example, if you are taking a seascape and place the lighthouse in the middle of the picture, the image is very static and uninteresting. However, if the lighthouse is moved to one of one-third or two-thirds location on the imaginary grid, the overall image becomes more dynamic with greater appeal. The viewer’s eyes will travel back and forth between the open expanse of sea and the lighthouse on one side of the photo. To prove this to yourself, take a look at a book illustrating the works of realistic fine-art painters or a photo annual displaying the work of professional photographers, both of whom regularly employ the Rule of Thirds.

Another composition “rule” is the use of the “S” curve, such as a serpentine road, river, railroad tracks, etc., winding out of the photo into the distance. If available, this visual device will give the photo “depth.” There are other visual devices that create depth. Some visual element (even out of focus) near the camera, along with a sharply focused middle ground and background image, also provides the illusion of depth. For example, in a photo of the Grand Canyon, tree branches in the corner or a silhouette of a hiker standing near the rim make a more interesting photo than the Grand Canyon alone. The branches provide a reference point for the distant scene, and the hiker helps relate the viewer to the size and expanse of the panorama. Remember to keep the Rule of Thirds in mind when it comes to the horizon and placement of the secondary subjects.

Perspective is another composition tool. For example, a line of trees, a line of telephone poles, or a narrowing roadway receding into the distance also indicates depth. If the main subject is in the foreground, be sure there is something in the distance to which the viewer can relate, such as a smaller or less important secondary subject. If the foreground subject is a person, try to include a meaningful object, building, monument, mountain, etc., in the scene to provide additional interest and depth to the image through perspective.


Rules are made to be broken, so don’t worry if you don’t slavishly follow them all the time. But it is important to remember the rules and be very aware of what you are composing in the viewfinder. Too many snapshot shooters pay little attention to what they see or don’t see in the camera viewfinder. For example, if photographing one or more people, make sure tree limbs or traffic signs aren’t growing out of the top of their heads. Usually, the camera can be moved to avoid disturbing background elements. It just takes a moment to notice what you are doing and move your camera position for a better shot.

Outdoors, the same thing can be said about lighting. If a group of people are squinting because of bright overhead sunlight, move them into the shade for a more pleasant portrait. Or ask them to turn around, and place the sun behind them. Then select the “fill flash” or “force flash” setting on the camera for a close-up flash portrait of the group. The flash with sunlight will fill in any shadows on their faces and produce a very nice portrait. (When it comes to composition, I can’t figure out why so many snapshot shooters tend to take full-length pictures of their friends and family. Are their subjects’ shoes that interesting? It’s much better to fill the viewfinder up with just faces. I really think many people are just too shy to get up close to their subjects – and that’s a mistake.)


Concerning portraits, it is probably one place the Rule of Thirds doesn’t necessarily apply all the time. Here, the portrait subject is the center of interest. There are really two kinds of portraits – formal and environmental. Formal portraits are mainly in a controlled situation, frequently with muted or out-of-focus backgrounds, so the subject is the only point of interest. Usually a head-and-shoulders view, the formal portrait is designed to provide an attractive depiction of the subject that can be enjoyed for years to come; therefore, the portrait subject is usually centered in the photograph.


An environmental portrait is one made in an “environment” that usually has some connection to the portrait subject. Examples include: a carpenter working in his woodshop, a homemaker in the kitchen, a sailing buff with his boat, a cyber whiz at a computer, or a hunter and his dog in the field. Here, the challenge is to capture the subject in an environment depicting work, a hobby, or an avocation through the backdrop of his or her surroundings. The rules of composition can still apply since the photo combines several elements in addition to the portrait subject.

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