5 Habits that will Improve Your Photography Composition

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5 Habits that will Improve Your Photography Composition

One of the easiest ways to improve your photo results is to improve your photography composition.  Work on building some healthy habits and refresh some basic composition rules to step up your game.

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 photography composition game by changing your perspective!  The first and most straightforward rule 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 and standing on tip-toe or squatting down are great habits to get into (and your legs will start looking buff, too).

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

#2 - Look Around!

Don't Forget What's Behind You

It is easy to get so focused on where you’re going, it’s easy to forget what may be to the left, right, and even behind you.

Now is the time to start learning to slow down and pay attention to all of the views.  Be sure to look up, look down, and even 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.

Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis

Not long ago, I took a trip to St. Louis just for fun.  I definitely didn’t go to learn new rules and habits, but I did go to see beautiful sites and take amazing photos! 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.

It was so beautiful up there.  The darkness of the room with light focused on the crucifix in front was dripping with mood.  The rows of pews stretched in front of us, framing the view up front perfectly.

A Site to See

We made our way up the center aisle, taking pictures of the floor, the aisle, the pews, and finally, the crucifix that was amazing.  I could have spent hours there capturing the details of that altar.  The photo opportunities in the altar alone were amazing!

After I took as many shots as I could imagine, 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!  Add “Look around” to your rule book and you won’t be sorry.

altar with Christ on the cross for Habit post
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 for habit post
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...

Some of the Best Compositions are Above You

Back outside, I was busy thinking about where we had parked the vehicle and almost missed another great shot.  My habit is to pack up and start thinking of the next place I’m heading.  Fortunately, at the last moment, before getting into the car, I turned to take one last gander around the area.

I’m so glad my bad habit didn’t keep me from getting a look at the small falcon having a rest upon the cross at the top of the steeple (at least I think it’s a falcon).  Clearly, he didn’t care about rules, techniques, or habits.  He was just pleased to pose majestically atop that cross.  Leave me a comment if you’re a bird expert and can give me a definitive ID on that bird!

It is safe to say that had I not taken my time and really looked around, I may have missed a whole bunch of great shots.

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

Habit #3 - Change Your Settings!

Mix up your Composition Technique

You can sometimes get a cool shot by allowing an unconventional change to your camera settings.  It is so easy to fall into old habits and shoot with comfortable settings that you always use.

Don’t be afraid to mix it up.  My husband says I only like to follow the rules that apply to me.  Maybe that’s why I like photography so much.  Because sometimes breaking the rules is more fun than following them!

Make Your Own Rules

Back at our hotel in St. Louis, we weren’t quite ready to settle down for the night.  We decided to take a little walk around the hallways and found a balcony at the end of the hallway.

Once out on the balcony, we looked around and spotted this really cool Ferris wheel next door to our hotel.  It was amazing by night, lit with a full rainbow of colors.

After a quick assessment of the area, we decided the parking lot would give us the best view.  Back to the room we went to gather up tripods and head out to the parking garage.  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 the aperture and/or ISO to get the correct exposure.  Both are great shots, but there’s something uniquely cool about that second one, don’t you think?

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 for habit post
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 cull it out of your collection.  No harm is 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, break the rules, and try switching it up!  This rule works not only for settings but in general photography composition as well.

#4 - Details Matter!

Just like learning to slow down and take in the view from every angle, you should begin to develop your attention to detail when composing your shots.  Details make all the difference.  If you’re learning to edit, it may be tempting to think, “oh, I’ll fix that in post” but the better the shot is straight from the camera, the less time you will have to spend “fixing” what you could have gotten right straight out of the camera. 

With the details rule in mind, take a look at the area and objects around you and your subject when you’re framing up your shot.  Look not only for distracting objects that can be moved, but also for items that can add to the end photo. 

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.”  You can see some great examples of photos using leading lines by clicking here:  How to Rock Your Photos with Leading Lines  

Photography Composition is in the Details

If you’re photographing a large, unmovable object, this means YOU may have to move 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, don’t be afraid to move the object 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.  Many of these little oopsies can be corrected in photoshop, but getting these details right in camera sure makes editing a lot simpler, and dare I say, more enjoyable?

Read more from my friends at SeeImagery:  13 Photography Composition Tips

Habit #5 - Rule of Thirds!

Finally, a habit you’ll want to develop is composing your shot in thirds.  The simplest technique when using the thirds rule 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.

Putting it all together!

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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