I want to give you some practical photography composition tips:
1. Look at the edges
The first tip I have is to look at the edges of the frame when you’re shooting. Too often we become ‘tunnel-visioned’ and only look at the center of the frame.
If you shoot photos while looking at the edges of the frame, you are more likely to have a cleaner background.
2. Have a clean background
Having a messy background is one of the biggest things that ruins a photograph.
To make a better composition, start off with a blank slate. “Carte blanche” (as the French say).
Richard Avedon is a photographer who mastered the art of the white background. He started with the cleanest background possible, to have the maximum impact for his subjects in the photographs.
So to start off, find a blank white, grey, or black wall. Then either ask your subjects to stand in front of that wall, or wait for your subjects to enter the frame (if you’re shooting street photography).
3. Don’t crop
One of the timeless composition tips from Henri Cartier-Bresson is this: don’t crop.
In today’s world, we are crop-a-holics. I certainly used to be one.
The problem of cropping is this: it makes you lazier in your photography. Not only that, but you never learn how to internalize good composition, if you know you can crop your photos later.
For myself, I used to crop all my photos. But the problem is that it taught me not to hustle when I went to shoot. I didn’t ‘work the scene.’ Rather, I fell into complacency, and would just photograph all my subjects from far away (with a telephoto lens), telling myself: “Eh, I can just crop it later.”
As a practical assignment, try not to crop any of your photos for a year. This will give you discipline to get closer to your subjects. It will help force you to focus on the edges of your frame, to fill the frame, and to have maximum impact in your photos.
The biggest issue with a lot of our photos is that there is no separation between our subjects and the background. They also call this ‘figure to ground.’
The easiest way to fix this problem is to use a flash. I just use the “P” mode in my camera, and use the built-in flash on my Ricoh GR II.
The way you can improve your contrast or separation of your subjects from the background is to either start off with a simple background, or to ask your subject to move to a simpler background.
Another tip: practice shooting in high-contrast black and white. This will help you better identify what is dark and what is light in your photos.
5. Integrate diagonals
The last tip I will give you about composition is this: integrate more diagonals into your photos.
Don’t use the rule of thirds. Rather, think diagonals.
Diagonals are more dynamic than horizontal or vertical lines. Diagonals can be found anywhere. Or you can tilt your camera to create an artificial diagonal.
You can also look for ‘leading lines‘ with diagonals, and wait for the right subject to enter the frame.
The best tip I have about shooting composition is this — learn how to internalize it.
Shoot from the gut, but dissect your photos after-the-fact.
What I mean by that is this: study your compositions when you go home, and look at your photos. Figure out what you did well, and what you can do to improve your compositions.
Henri Cartier-Bresson apparently printed a lot of his photos, and would put transparent tracing paper over his photos, and then mark up his compositions.
So shoot with your gut when you’re on the streets. But study your compositions afterwards. Then you will learn how to internalize composition.
Keep composing beautiful shots,
Improve your composition
For distilled lessons on composition and street photography, download my free ebook: “The Street Photography Composition Manual.”
In-depth composition lessons:
- Composition Lesson #1: Triangles
- Composition Lesson #2: Figure-to-ground
- Composition Lesson #3: Diagonals
- Composition Lesson #4: Leading Lines
- Composition Lesson #5: Depth
- Composition Lesson #6: Framing
- Composition Lesson #7: Perspective
- Composition Lesson #8: Curves
- Composition Lesson #9: Self-Portraits
- Composition Lesson #10: Urban Landscapes
- Composition Lesson #11: “Spot the not”
- Composition Lesson #12: Color Theory
- Composition Lesson #13: Multiple-Subjects
- Composition Lesson #14: Square Format
More theory on composition:
- Don’t Think About Composition When You’re Shooting Street Photography
- How to Use Negative Space
- Street Photography Composition 101
- The Theory of Composition in Street Photography: 7 Lessons from Henri Cartier-Bresson
Learn more: Photography 101 >