Photography Composition: How to Make Compelling Photos

What Is Photography Composition?

Photography Composition is a term for the formal structure of works of art. The term composition refers to the relationships between the elements of a photograph. These include:

  • The arrangement of figures or objects and their geometric relationships

  • Perspective and lines (real as well as imagined)

  • Principles of organization such as symmetry, grouping, structure, grid, and contrast

  • light and color

In this article, we’re going to explore a few examples where we can see different rules of composition coming to fruition. That way you can apply them to your own photography and start taking more compelling photos.


A very basic and well-known rule of composition is the rule-of-thirds. If you want to apply this rule simply divide the composition into thirds both vertically and horizontally, then arrange your subjects so they align with the intersections.

Let me give you an example with the following photo. See how the two protagonists are positioned exactly where the lines intersect? Applying this rule, you always place the most important subjects on top of the lines or where the lines intersect. Doing so will add balance to your photo. Some cameras even offer an option to overlay a rule-of-thirds grid over the LCD screen or viewfinder. Enabling this grid view in your LCD is a great way to rain your eye to compose better.

Rule of thirds method is about placing important objects or lines along or intersections of the rule of thirds grid.

Rule of thirds method is about placing important objects or lines along or intersections of the rule of thirds grid.

In addition to the composition, I like the content of this photo as it refers to our blind spots. Only I am aware of the smiling girl behind the corner while taking the picture. The second photographer depicted in this image is, on the other hand, aware of something I am not aware of. Look at his gaze drawn to something outside the frame and look at his open mouth. It looks like he spotted something!

Golden Triangle

A little more dynamic than the rule-of-thirds is the rule of the golden triangle. The concept derives from the “golden section,” in which mathematicians, architects, and artists have discovered the ideal ratio for design is 1:1.618. They have found this ratio throughout nature, man-made objects, buildings, and other forms of classical art.

So, how do you construct it and apply it to your photography? First, you draw a diagonal line from the bottom-left of the frame to the top-right. Then draw another diagonal line that intersects the first line at a 90-degree angle. It’s called the perpendicular line. Note that you can also do this the other way round! Again, put the objects deserving attention in the intersection points or let their outlines follow the imaginary lines we just drew.

Here is a rather mean example. It shows a market situation where two people seem to negotiate over a girl. The facilitating truth is, (of course!), that the seller just offers a mirror so the young girl can see herself, but the way of the composition offers the first mentioned interpretation. Observe how the important details are aligned along the crossing diagonal! The seller and his stretched arm, the small girl in the mirror and the money counting hands of the buyer. With composition, you can influence the way you want your image to be understood!

An image composed using the Golden Triangle.

An image composed using the Golden Triangle.

Leading Lines

Another way to compose your photos is through leading lines. See in the following photo how all the important lines lead to the centered protagonist on the bike. Leading lines have the purpose of creating perspective by leading the eye into the image. Further, you can use them to point something or someone out.

A photograph of a cyclist in the middle of the screen with many leading lines pointing towards him.

A photograph of a cyclist in the middle of the screen with many leading lines pointing towards him.

Another example of using leading lines in your composition.

Another example of using leading lines in your composition.

As our eyes are trained to read from left to right, try to compose pictures with lines hindering your eye from jumping out of the frame too fast. For example, it’s better to compose a mountain range entering in the bottom left and ascending to the top right rather than the other way round. Of course, you can have lines running from the top left to the bottom right, just make sure you have elements that stop the eye before it leaves the frame.

Your eyes are trained to look from left to right.

Your eyes are trained to look from left to right.

Composing with Color

If you shoot mainly in color, consider there are certain colors which work better together. According to color theory, introduced by the German writer and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1810, there are colors which are complementary, with the effect of boosting each other’s intensity when displayed next to each other.

Goethe’s Color Wheel

Goethe’s Color Wheel

Thus, the colors shown in the circle above create the strongest contrast with the color on the opposite side of the color wheel. Red goes best with green, orange pops out the blue, and purple is the complementary color of yellow. If you want to draw attention to your images, search for those color contrasts!


Of course, there are many more ways to compose than just those mentioned. You can play with bright/dark contrasts or you can implement letters and incorporate words and road signs to make your image more interesting.

The composition can underline your “message” so it’s smart to be aware of it. But, in my reality as a street photographer, I don’t think too much about the rules once I’m out there. Life happens too fast and good photographers will apply them intuitively without thinking. In fact, I am sure that in almost all the examples shown above I didn’t even think for a fraction of a second on composition rules. It’s good to know the basics, but there’s also a lot to be said for shooting with your heart and following your intuition.

Let me finish with what Edward Weston, photographer, and co-founder of the famous f/64 Group, said:

Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph, is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk.
My Playa Photographer in the streets of Havana

Controlling Shutter Speed with your Camera

The following article is a small guide for those who consider to shoot their cameras manually. As you give away responsibility when putting your camera on auto-mode, I highly recommend you to bother about learning to set up your camera. Besides the manual mode „M“ there are different half manual modes (priority modes / Tv, Av, P) worth considering. Getting used to priority modes is not as complicated as you think and it has clear advantages: the influence on what your camera is doing will be much higher than in auto-mode, thus your results will be much more satisfying.

The three major parameters you can control in a camera are the exposure time (shutter speed), the aperture of your lens and the sensitivity of your sensor (or film) towards light. Here we try to concentrate just on one major aspect of the exposure triangle (ISO, APERTURE, TIME), the shutter speed.

The principle of shutter speed

As the name already suggests the shutter speed defines how fast or slow the shutter mechanism of your camera is opening and closing again. The shutter stays closed until you fire your camera. What happens when you shoot is that a shutter curtain opens, and the sensor gets exposed to light, the moment you framed is captured, the shutter closes again. All that happens in the amount of time in which you set up your camera. Classic shutter speeds (exposure times) from short to long are:

1/1000 - 1/500 - 1/250 - 1/125 - 1/60 - 1/30 - 1/15 - 1/8 - 1/4 - 1/2 - 1“ - 2“ - 4“ - 8“ - 15“ - 30“.

I marked the shutter speed 1/60 in bold letters because the risk of producing blurry images through handshake increases from that exposure time on.  This assumption doesn’t count for all cameras. With heavier cameras and bigger lenses attached you might even produce handshake at 1/125. With lightweight point-and-shoot cameras or rangefinders you can achieve sharp results even at 1/30 or 1/15, in case you have a steady hand.

Why should you control exposure time?

Decide yourself if you want to freeze action or if you want to indicate movement through motion blur! Two examples:

Action is frozen in the left image. Clear motion blur in the dancers legs of the right image.

Action is frozen in the left image. Clear motion blur in the dancers legs of the right image.

The image on the left shows a street scene in Havana. My camera was set on a film speed of ISO 400. The aperture I prefer during the day is usually somewhere in between f5.6 and f16, depending on the amount of light. Here it was set to f5.6 and to get exposure right, the shutter speed was set to 1/250. As result my camera froze the moment just when the girl starts to run out of her hiding place.

In the right image you can observe the effect of motion blur.  A photo day in Mexico City came to an end, music was played and people were dancing salsa. One energetic dancing couple caught my attention. The dimmed light condition only allowed me to shoot with a shutter speed of 1/30 at ISO400 and my aperture was wide open at f2.8. Because of the long exposure time the movement of the men’s twisting leg is visible as motion blur inside the image.

Use shutter speed creatively

I just chose these two very simple examples to demonstrate the effect of shutter speed. However you can be much more extreme in your creativity. Let me show you one of the longtime exposures that struck me. A helicopter taking off  photographed by the old master, Andreas Feininger.  The timeframe of the image is most probably somewhere in between 30 seconds and a minute. You can see the helicopter rising as the illuminated rotor blades are ascending concentrically. Controlling time gives you plenty of options getting creative.

Andreas Feininger

Andreas Feininger

Chose priority modes before going manual

If you understood the principle shutter speed but you are still afraid to shoot all manually try the following. All digital cameras offer the priority mode “Tv” (= shutter priority on a Canon, with Nikon it is the “S”-Mode). In this mode you simply adjust the time you prioritise and your camera will set all the other parameters for you to get correct exposure.   

To get better in photography it is important to check your settings before you shoot and also in revision of your photos on your computer.

This article is a brief reminder of what you can do with a camera. Photography is not just pushing a button. A camera is a tool to express yourself and the better you understand the technology and mechanics behind it, the more options you will have to tell us your story.



Complete DSLR Guide That Will Get You Amazing Results from Your Camera


Lot’s of folks new to photography live with the illusion that they can purchase an expensive DSLR and it will automatically get nice pictures for them. Disappointment spreads some days after the buy as the buyer realizes the complexity of their new tool. Overwhelmed with the number of buttons and the complexity of the official DSLR guide booklet, the purchaser gives up. The camera ends up being an opportunity for more ambitious photographers on eBay.

Sounds familiar?

In this DSLR guide, we want to change that and explain, in simple terms, how to get the most out of your expensive purchase.

We recommend you read the rest of this guide with your camera nearby so you can test and confirm where buttons and dials are located in your model.

Hopefully, you will decide to keep your DSLR and enjoy photography.

The basics of DSLR

Understanding the basics of your new DSLR will help set yourself up for success. However, be aware, I’m just mentioning the major settings of a DSLR since I want you to go deeper and practice yourself. If your camera model looks different to the one shown below, don’t be deterred! The settings and buttons I mention in this text are very similar to the camera you own!

A photo of a DSLR camera without the lens attached, showing the camera sensor

A photo of a DSLR camera without the lens attached, showing the camera sensor

Camera Sensor

Every DSLR has a camera sensor. The sensor is the medium that is “recording” your image once you press the shutter button. What was Film in analog photography, is a sensor in digital photography. Most DSLR cameras have an APS-C sensor (cropped-frame) or a full-frame sensor. The bigger full-frame sensor has the same size as a 35mm negative in analog photography.

Why is bigger better? The answer to that lays in enlargement. APS-C sensors are a bit smaller and offer less image quality. Blowing up your image to 100×70 cm from a bigger surface, such as the sensors found on full-frame cameras, will result in better images with more details than enlarging it to the same size from a smaller surface (APS-C). In other words, it’s similar to blowing up a balloon. The vibrant red of the empty balloon will lose it’s intensity once you put air in it.

Tip: Don’t go running to the store to buy a full-frame camera! Your APS-C cropped sensor can take amazing photos!

Shutter button

If you push this button half way down your camera will start focusing and beeping when the desired object is in focus. Push it all the way down to fire your camera. Remember, in most DSLRs, this button is a two-step function. Most beginner DSLR owners press the shutter immediately without much thought as to the first step, focusing.

Practice: Turn on your camera now and aim it at an object. Press the shutter half-way down and observe the lens movement, focus beep, and focus achieved signal (usually a solid green light on your viewfinder, if it is flashing, that means focus was not achieved)

Lens release

Push the lens release button to switch lenses. Hold it down while detaching the lens. When you want to put a new lens to your camera, align the red or white dot on your lens with the dot on the camera’s metal thread.

Practice: Hold the lens release button and remove your lens by turning the lens counter-clockwise. Then put it back on.

DOF preview

What is DOF? In simple terms, DOF (depth-of-field) refers to the focus pane of your shot. Everything inside focus pane will be in focus. Everything before or after the focus pane will be out of focus.

The DOF preview button helps you determine what photos will look like before you push the shutter. Many beginner photographers don’t realize the image they are seeing in the viewfinder does not necessarily have the same depth of field as the image they are about to take. This is because the camera automatically gives a preview of the image at the camera’s lowest possible aperture setting. So if you’re shooting on a narrow aperture, say f/8, on a lens that can stop down to f/1.8, the image in the viewfinder will display at f1.8. That’s a big difference in depth of field from f/8!

However, you can press the DOF button and the lens will stop down to the aperture that you have set. Then, you will be able to see a preview of what the final image will look like through the viewfinder. As depth-of-field defines what areas of your picture stay sharp, the button is good to help show you which elements inside your image are sharp and which ones will fall off to blur.

Practice: Set a higher f-number in your camera such as f/11 and focus on an object around you. Then look through the viewfinder while pressing the DOF preview button. Do you see the focus area change as you release the DOF Preview button?

Pop-up Flash Button

Most DSLR cameras include a built-in pop-up flash. Push the button and the flash on top of your camera will pop up. You can hide the flash again just by pushing it down manually.

Practice: Press the pop-up flash button to release the flash.

Back of a DSLR camera

Back of a DSLR camera

Hot Shoe

Besides the built-in pop-up flash, every DSLR offers a hot shoe. You can use the hot shoe to attach a more powerful external flash or other gear and accessories to increase the functions of your camera. For example, remote triggers or perhaps a microphone when taking videos. This is usually located just behind the pop-up flash. You can identify it by the metal connectors as shown.

The Viewfinder

Almost needless to say, looking through the viewfinder will allow you to see the image you are about to take. The nice thing on a DSLR is that you actually see through the lens. Thus you can see the final image with high accuracy. Furthermore, looking through the viewfinder, you will find a small display showing the major exposure settings.

As you can see in the viewfinder image below, exposure control shows that, with the settings of ISO800, f4.5 and 1/25 shutter speed, I would underexpose my dog by almost two stops. Also, note the small square (focus point) right next to his leg indicating that I would focus wrong! The square should be on his eye, as I want sharpness there, not on the blanket. Last but not least, you can see how much my dog loves it when I’m writing the blog instead of playing with him.

Look through your viewfinder and identify the numbers shown

Look through your viewfinder and identify the numbers shown

LCD Screen

The LCD Screen allows you to see your masterpieces right away just by clicking the small “>” play button! Further, the screen gives you more information about your image. It show’s the chosen exposure setting like ISO, aperture, shutter speed, and many more things. Also, the LCD screen is where you will access your camera’s ever important menu system.

Practice: Take an image and press the ‘Play’ button to view it in your LCD screen.

Live View Switch

Most DSLR’s allow you to compose an image either by looking through the viewfinder or by live view on your LCD screen. Push this button to switch from one view to the other. Although I prefer composing through the viewfinder, live view has a clear advantage: you can check sharpness with an electronic magnifying glass. To switch back (turn off live view) you can press this button once more.

Practice: Press the Live View Switch button a few times to switch between the viewfinder and live view preview (LCD).

Quick Control Dial

The quick control dial has several functions. By turning the wheel you can rush through your pictures in play-mode. While shooting in manual mode, it allows you to change the aperture or the ISO depending on how you set up your camera.

Most of the wheels and buttons are customizable and that’s a good thing! Once you learn to handle the camera you can customize it the way it works best for you. The goal is that your fingers melt with the major buttons of your camera. Most camera bodies have very well thought out ergonomics and, after a while, you will handle them intuitively.

Practice: Press the ‘play’ button and turn the ‘Quick Control Dial’ clockwise and counter-clockwise to go through your photos in LCD. Half press the shutter button to switch back to shooting mode and turn ‘Quick Control Dial’ to see which settings change (look through your viewfinder)


This button, located in the middle of the Quick Control Dial, allows you to jump through the menu. In shooting mode, you will most likely use it to move your focus-point through the viewfinder. Both, multi-control and quick control dial are operated with the thumb.

Practice: Find the AF-point (autofocus point) button (in our example, it is located to the left of the Exposure Lock Button) and press it. This will highlight the current focus point(s). Then use the ‘Multi-control’ button to jump from focus points.

Exposure Lock Button

I love this one! The * allows you to freeze a certain exposure. The most useful tip I ever got for street-photography on a cloudy day was to measure the light on the street. Just point your camera at the asphalt and push the exposure lock. Your camera will remember the luminance of the street and you will get astonishingly correct exposures as the light on the ground is a very steady reference for your light meter.

Tip: after each shot, your memorized exposure will reset. So if you want a specific exposure for the next shot, take exposure again from the desired object by focusing on it and pressing the ‘*’ button, before taking the shot.

Practice: Focus and lock the exposure on a relatively dark object/area. Then take a photo and observe how the camera made the shot bright. Camera locked the exposure so that our dark object/area is well lit. You can do the same with a bright object/area.

The top view of a DSLR camera

The top view of a DSLR camera

Dioptric Adjustment

Another very helpful feature of your DSLR is the little dioptric wheel. People who normally wear glasses can adjust the wheel to their vision. Another useful tip I got was to remove the rubber eyecup from the viewfinder. It allows you to get closer to the hole and have a better view.

Practice: Look through the viewfinder and adjust the Dioptric Adjustment to see how your focus points go in and out of focus. Set this to a level where focus points are sharp.

Mode Dial

Model dial selects the programming mode for the camera. If you Turn the dial to A+ (AUTO), your camera will automatically choose all the settings for you. However, I’d strongly advise anyone against using this mode as you give away all the responsibility. When shooting in AUTO mode, you are not being creative and run the risk of not getting your desired shot.

All beginner photographers should start using one of the semi-manual or manual modes:

Semi-Automatic Program Mode (“P”)

Shutter Priority Mode (“Tv” on Canon or “S” on Nikon)

Aperture Priority Mode (“Av” on Canon or “A” on Nikon)

Manual Mode (“M”)

Bulb Mode (“B)

The “P” mode and priority modes are autoexposure modes, which means your camera automatically adjust one or more parts of the exposure triangle to achieve the desired exposure. Choose the “M” mode if you want the full control of the camera.

Still feeling confused by what all these modes do? Let’s go into a little more detail since it’s important you know when to use each of the different modes.

Semi-Automatic Program Mode (P)

P stands for program-automatic. Here the camera chooses aperture and shutter speed for you as soon as you press your shutter half way down. Since you can still change the aperture/shutter speed combination by turning the wheel right next to the shutter button, the P-Mode is superior to the fully automatic mode. If you are still using automatic mode, you may want to start with this mode to see how aperture and shutter speed affect your photos.

Shutter Priority (Tv/S)

In this mode, you choose the shutter speed manually. Depending if you want longer exposures times to show motion blur or shorter exposure times to freeze motion, you will choose either slower or faster shutter speeds. Your camera will automatically set the aperture to get the correct amount of light on your sensor (exposure). This mode is great if you are shooting sports or want to introduce motion blur to your photos.

Practice: Turn your mode dial to Shutter Priority mode and select a fast shutter speed like 1/500 second. Take a shot of a moving subject (a child, pet, pedestrians) and attempt to freeze motion. Increase the shutter speed if you have to. Then, try with a slower shutter speed and capture motion blur.

Aperture Priority (Av/A)

Most of you who will start shooting in advanced modes most likely will end up in “Av” in 90% of the time and that’s ok! Here you choose the aperture yourself and the camera adjust the shutter speed to get the desired exposure. BY settings the aperture manually, you are in creative control of things like isolating your subject with a blurry background or an image with overall sharpness. Use this mode if you are shooting landscape (large f-number to get a higher depth of field) or portraits (lower f-number to get a shallow depth of field, thereby a blurry background)

Practice: Turn your mode dial to Aperture Priority mode and select a large aperture (small f-number like f/2.8) and attempt to blur the background in your photos. Then turn the dial up to something like f/11 in an attempt to have your background in focus as well.

Manual Mode (M)

With “M” mode, you operate your camera manually and have the full control. When shooting wedding and events, (most likely with a flash) it’s inevitable to use manual mode, as light conditions change constantly. Even if you have time, like in landscape photography, manual mode is the fastest and safest way to go. Adjust your settings until you get the exposure right. And always check your screen and histogram to judge if you got it right!

Tip: Being forced to be aware of your settings and exposure makes you learn rapidly. Plus, you become more creative by having the full control.

Practice: Turn your mode dial to manual mode and start with f/2.8, 1/500sec, and ISO 100. Is your photo overexposed? Try to correct the exposure by adjusting either shutter speed or the aperture. Don’t be afraid to take 20 shots if you have to, it’s free!

Bulb-mode (B)

B stands for Bulb-mode. In this mode, your camera will expose the sensor as long as you hold down the shutter. Why is this useful? As most DSLRs only offer shutter speeds up to 30″ seconds you will use the bulb mode in case you want to expose longer than that. When using Bulb mode, your camera should be mounted on a tripod and you must fire the shutter with a remote control to avoid camera shake.

Use this mode to get a ghost effect (make moving objects invisible) on busy landscapes or smooth out water, clouds…etc.

Practice: Turn your mode dial to Bulb mode and mount your camera on a tripod. Aim to create motion blur (traffic, pedestrians, spinning objects, flowing water) by pressing your shutter speed as long as you want. You will be amazed by the results!

Custom Modes

In Cannon DSRL there are custom mode selectors (C1, C2, and C3) that you can pre-adjust and save all your settings.  For Nikon users, in your settings menu, look for a setting named “Shooting Menu Banks” where you can store all your settings under a custom shooting mode name.

Custom modes can be extremely helpful if you are often changing to the same settings. For example, if you do a lot of studio work where you frequently use the exact same lighting setup, you may find them useful. Another example is if you are shooting wildlife. Here, having all your settings in one custom mode allows you to quickly load them all at once and start shooting.

Use The LCD Panel To Set Up Your Camera

Last but not least, I want to give you a brief overview of the LCD panel (usually located on the top). Here you have all the important settings at sight. Illuminate the panel by pushing the light bulb button on the top right.

DSLR camera’s LCD panel can quickly give you information about the settings you are using

DSLR camera’s LCD panel can quickly give you information about the settings you are using

What can we see in the panel shown above?

My shutter speed is set on 1/125 of a second, the aperture is f3.5, and the ISO is 800. I have 1027 pictures to go until my memory card is full. Additionally, the white balance (WB) is switched to tungsten light.

  • WB is a color correction tool. You can choose from different WB settings (daylight, shade, cloudy, flash,…) depending on what your major light source is. The result of correct WB is natural looking colors in your image.

  • Picture format I am using is RAW. You can choose RAW or JPG. As the RAW format saves much more information, I highly recommend you to shoot in RAW.

  • Metering mode is set on “centered metering”, meaning my camera will measure the light arriving in the center of the image and calculate an average for the whole scene. Please read more about metering modes in your camera manual as it is essential to photography!

  • Drive-mode tells you if you are about to fire a single shot or a series of pictures or if you’re using a self-timer.

  • Exposure level indicator can be found on the LCD panel and inside the viewfinder. It ranges from three stops under to three stops overexposed.

Practice Until It’s Second Nature

I hope I was able to make your DSLR a bit more familiar to you. I know it is a lot of information to take, but don’t be afraid to go deeper. After a while, you will automate the processes and will learn to use the camera intuitively as an extension of your eye and hand. It takes a lot of practice but everybody started where you are today. It’s just a matter of putting in the hours.

The secret is to enjoy the process and not stress over it! After all, digital photography doesn’t cost much after the initial camera investment.