5 Habits that will Improve Your Photography Composition

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It’s a beautiful feeling to know how to use your camera with manual settings.  I mean – the basics of photography are all about understanding how to get the light into the camera and how to manipulate it to give you the best quality photo, right?  It’s easy to get caught up in the settings and what to put them on, but it’s just as important to learn how to compose your photo.  That’s where building healthy habits for composing your photos comes in.

Photography composition is all about how and where objects appear in your photo; how do they relate to one another and to the viewer?  Try building these five habits while shooting and see what happens.  I bet you will start to see a creative shift in your imagery.

Habit #1 - Get LOW... or HIGH!

Up your composition game by changing your perspective!  The first and most straightforward way to change your perspective is to change your position.  It’s pretty simple just to line up and snap your photo from a standing position.  But before you do that, take a minute to look through your lens and see what happens to your view when you crouch down or step up on tippy-toes.  You might be amazed at what a difference you see.  A view from up high or down low can change the look of your photo entirely!

For more details and examples of getting low, check out One Small Photo Tip that will Make a Big Difference.  

#2 - Look Around!

Another habit you can develop is to look around.  Look up, look down, and be sure and turn around and look behind you.  Sometimes I get so focused on what I’m seeing in front of me that I forget that there’s a whole different view behind me.  And sometimes that view is just as incredible, if not more.

Not long ago, I took a trip to St. Louis just for fun.  While there, we visited the magnificent Cathedral Basilica.

The Cathedral was beautiful from the outside, and even more stunning inside.  From the moment we entered, our focus was entirely on the front of the sanctuary.  We made our way up the center aisle, taking pictures of the floor, the aisle, the pews, and finally, the crucifix upfront that was simply amazing.  I could have spent hours there capturing the details of that altar.  However, after I took multiple shots, I turned around to find my friends and was amazed at all the beautiful sights that I had missed on my way up to the front.  The views to the sides, back, and straight up to the ceiling are some of my favorite shots of the day!  Check these out.

altar with Christ on the cross
The alter at the front of the Cathedral Basilica - isn't it gorgeous!? All of that detail work is mosaic tile.
Wide view of Cathedral Basilica
The front of the alter. But look what happens when I looked up a little and added that dome into the shot. Amazing!
Image on the ceiling of the Cathedral Basilica
When I looked straight up, there were murals and artwork surrounding us - every inch of the ceilings were covered in this gorgeous artwork!
A man praying at an altar
When I looked around behind me, I saw this man standing at another alter, offering a prayer while waiting for his confession. I think this is my favorite shot of the day! Imagine if I hadn't looked around! I would have missed it.

Keep Looking Up...

Back outside, I looked up again and was thrilled to get a glimpse of a small falcon having a rest upon the cross at the top of the steeple.  At least I think it’s a falcon.  Do I have any bird experts out there who want to weigh in on that one?  Leave me a comment!

Cross at the top of Cathedral Basilica with Falcon perched
Check out that bird up there who took a rest on the cross while we visited the Cathedral Basilica.

Habit #3 - Change Your Settings!

You can sometimes get a cool shot by allowing an unconventional change to your settings.  Back at our hotel in St. Louis, we looked around and found this really cool Ferris wheel next to our hotel.  It was amazing by night, lit with a full rainbow of colors.  We grabbed our tripods and headed out to the parking garage to capture some shots.  These were taken just a moment apart, the first at a faster shutter speed, and the second slower, to capture the moving Ferris wheel.  Of course, changing the shutter speed means adjusting aperture and/or ISO to get the correct exposure.  Both are great shots, but there’s something uniquely cool about that second one!

Related:  Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Nighttime Photography  

Pink Ferris Wheel taken with fast shutter speed
Fast Shutter Speed to freeze the action of the moving Ferris Wheel
Pink Ferris Wheel taken with slow shutter
Slow shutter speed to blur motion gives a unique and interesting look!

One of the benefits of shooting in digital nowadays is the ability to experiment while you’re in the field.  You can always try something out to see how it works.  If you don’t like it when you’re back at your desk editing, you can simply cull it out of your collection.  No harm done.  But one thing is for sure; if you don’t try it, you won’t get to save it if you like it!  So, go ahead, live wild, and try switching it up!

#4 - Details Matter!

When you’re framing up your photos, take a look at the area and objects around you and your subject.  Start looking for poles, roads, pathways, fences, anything that will give you an opportunity to frame your subject and lead your eye directly to it.  Artists call this “leading lines.”

Related:  How to Rock Your Photos with Leading Lines  

If you’re photographing a large, unmovable object, this means you may have to move yourself around the object to line up the perfect composition.  If you are shooting a moving subject, such as a family or an object like a car, then don’t be afraid to move it around.  Check the background and make sure there’s nothing unsightly showing.  Keep an eye peeled for photobombers that try to mess with your photos, such as rogue tree branches or items you just don’t want to see.  Those small details can make or break a photo.  Countless times I have framed up a shot I just love, only to notice back at my studio that there’s a person in just the wrong place in the background or a tree growing out of the top of someone’s head.  A lot of these little oopsies can be corrected in photoshop, but getting these details right in camera sure does make editing a whole lot simpler, and dare I say, more enjoyable?

Habit #5 - Rule of Thirds!

Finally, a habit you’ll want to develop is composing your shot in thirds.  The simplest way to think of the rule of thirds is to draw an imaginary tic-tac-toe board over the image.  Some DSLR cameras allow you to see the thirds lines through the viewfinder or on the live shooting screen.  Check your camera’s manual for instructions on how to do that.

Don’t worry if you can’t view it.  Once you start thinking in terms of thirds, you will soon be doing it automatically.  A trick I employed when I was learning was to set my focus point in-camera to one of the ideal positions in the thirds grid.  For more information about using thirds, and some examples of what the thirds grid looks like, read  The top 5 tips the pros use when cropping photos.

Example of good crop using thirds lines
The ideal area in which to place the most compelling parts of your image is along the thirds lines or near where the horizontal and vertical guidelines intersect.

Perfecting a skill involves developing healthy habits and sometimes breaking bad habits.  With this list, you’re off to a good start in knowing what habits you want to build.  The best way to keep growing healthy habits is to practice, practice, practice!

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