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10 Powerful Tips for Leveling Up Your Photography Compositions 

10 Powerful Tips for Leveling Up Your Photography Compositions 

A source of brilliant tension as an artist is feeling yourself on the cusp of improvement. If you’re an intermediate photographer, you’re likely aching to level up your skill.

One of the most reliable places to start creating a portfolio that stops viewers in their tracks is composition. The art of arranging subjects, background elements, and backgrounds together is a craft even expert photographers need refreshing on. 

I have ten powerful tips to help you create bold, memorable compositions in your photography. From technical improvement to approaching your work on a mental level, your next brilliant shot is right around the corner. 

Source Image: Pixabay

Table Of Contents:

  1. Introduction 
  2. Muse Over Your Style
  3. Ask What Story You’re Trying to Tell
  4. Level Up With the Golden Ratio
  5. Get Creative With Your Framing
  6. Experiment With Visual Tension
  7. Study the Work of Famous Photographers
  8. Embrace the Art of Shape Language
  9. Understand the Benefits of Odd and Even Numbers
  10. Refresh the Basics of Composition as a Visual Language
  11. Conclusion: Leveling Up Your Photography is Just a Few Experimental Sessions Away

a person wearing blue jeans and brown sneakers stretching their legs out in front of a gray and brown mountain

Source Image: Pixabay

1. Muse Over Your Style 

Not all of your photography skills are developed on camera. When you take the time to sit down and muse over your personal touch, you’ll get closer to creating more memorable fare. 

A photography style – or any artistic style – is composed of a collection of quirks and preferences that create a unique whole. In other words, ten photographers could take a photo of a forest, but you’ll get ten different ways of looking at the same subject. 

Stylistic preferences you should think about when taking photos are:

Color Schemes are a Vibrant Signature

A color scheme is a prime ingredient to create a composition that sings or sinks. Color schemes aren’t just visually pleasing, but impact us on a mental and emotional level. 

A certain color scheme can grab attention, improve memory retention, or increase brand recognition. While that’s not to say black and white photography isn’t capable of snagging attention – indeed, it’s an entire subgenre – color is an important signature. Your composition will benefit from a more thoughtful eye that uses color contrast to tell a story.

Your arrangement of colors can be culturally inspired or an artistic preference you find personally pleasing. Either way, it’ll show up repeatedly in your portfolio and become a recognizable detail for viewers. 

Subject Matter Says Volumes About You

What do you like to take photographs of and why? The subject matter(s) you favor contributes mightily to your final composition.

For example, photographers who love portrait work are often empathetic and enjoy studying the nuances of expression. Photographers who love wildlife or nature photography are often curious or adventurous. 

Your camera is an extension of you. What you tend to focus and hone in on speaks volumes about how you view the world. 

Photomanipulation Provides an Exceptionally Unique Touch

Photography captures the world more or less how we see it. Photomanipulation elevates your composition to greater heights through mild touch-ups or splashy special effects.

If you’re still not entirely comfortable with photo editing, I highly recommend trying out a freeware editing program and getting your feet wet. Photomanipulation can be a subtle art, such as color correction on a ray of light. It can also be the main feature of your work such as a collage.

Photomanipulation also allows you to show off other disciplines such as design, illustration, or modeling.

a young blonde woman closing her eyes and sipping tea against the sunset

Source Image: Pixabay

2. Ask What Story You’re Trying to Tell

Another essential part of improving composition is figuring out the stories you want to tell. While some photographs are impulsive snapshots, others can be personal stories years in the making. 

Consider the photo above of a young woman drinking tea. The composition has her as the focal point, but provides breathing room to showcase the sun setting through the window. There are a thousand stories that can be told with this snapshot alone. Is she seeking a moment of solace after a stressful day? Perhaps she’s grieving the loss of someone she knew and remembering the times they spent sipping tea together. 

Storytelling is an art form literally as old as humanity itself. Good questions to ask yourself as you practice storytelling are:

What story am I trying to portray to the viewer?

Composition is how you arrange the elements in your photography to tell a story. When you take a photo of a cat on a bench or a flower in a lake, ask yourself: what am I trying to say with this photo?

This conscientious outlook will have you approaching subject matter more purposefully. You won’t just see a cat on a bench, but a peaceful creature embracing a moment of silence. You won’t just see a flower in a lake, but a symbol of a bold venture into unfamiliar territory. 

What emotions do I want to invoke in the viewer?

Following hot off the heels of the story you’re trying to tell, you should also consider how emotional responses connect to your composition. Photography is a powerful medium for garnering knee-jerk responses such as delight, anger, or sorrow. 

Everything from the angle of your shot to your color scheme will affect how the viewer feels. In fact, despite color symbolism shifting from culture to culture, many people have similar emotional responses to certain colors.

What do I want the viewer to walk away with?

Last but not least: what do you want the viewer to walk away with after they’re done? This simple question is not just the centerpiece of a memorable composition, but of your work at large.

Do you want your viewer to walk away inspired? How about feeling a little lighter in mood? Whatever you’re aiming for, keep it in mind as you piece together your subjects and backgrounds. 

a smudgy white chalk drawing illustrating the golden ratio

Source Image: Pixabay

3. Level Up With the Golden Ratio

You’re already familiar with the rule of thirds and leading lines, but what about the golden ratio? This compositional technique is as old as classical art and is useful for crafting complex photos using a dash of mathematics. 

Also known by names such as the divine proportion or golden number, the golden ratio is a technique thousands of years old. Ancient Greek scholars first studied the golden ratio as it repeatedly appeared in mathematics. In fact, Leonardo Da Vinci would later use it to inspire his artistic and technical creations. 

Simply put, this term refers to the distance between two numbers – or in photography, two or more objects. The number is 1.618 to 1 and is something you can utilize using the grid in the photo above. 

Fine art and photography often go hand in hand. You can use the golden ratio to create balanced, striking, and classical compositions. You can apply this grid either before taking a photo or afterwards during the editing process.

two girls wearing white dresses with long brown hair playing patty cake in a grassy field

Source Image: Pixabay

4. Treat the Background or Backdrop as a Supporting Character

A thoughtful way to level up your composition is to treat your backdrop or background as a supporting character. While it can’t be the focus, it still has just as much personality as your subject.

First, let’s get these two terms out of the way: backdrop and background are sometimes used interchangeably, but they’re a little different. A background is any environment, such as a forest or a city. To contrast, a backdrop is very simple, such as a blank sheet or a flat color. 

When you treat your background or backdrop as a character in of itself, you already achieve the following:

You Set the Tone For Your Scene

When you get considerate about your background or backdrop, you set the tone for the rest of the photo. Your focal point will have a narrative framing device in the form of what surrounds it.

For example, consider the photo above. Two girls playing a game of pattycake takes on a whimsical atmosphere when in a large, grassy field. The symbolism here could be of the carefree nature of childhood or a connection to Mother Earth. The tone of the photograph feels playful and spirited, free from the confines of modern life.

Now imagine how the scene could change if they were playing pattycake in a dirty, dusty garage. The scene could take on a more bittersweet tone, such as trying to find a moment of brevity in a rundown environment.

Complement Your Subject to Tell Their Story

Following closely on the heels of tone, you also complement your subject. Your background or backdrop says just as much about the subject as any other part of your composition. 

What else does the background say about the two girls playing a game? One visual suggestion is that the field is a regular source of play. However, their sleek white dresses also provide contrast to a wilder and dirtier environment. This contrast could imply they’re celebrating a special occasion. 

Everything in your composition works together. The background informs the girls, while the girls inform the background.

Let the Eye Breathe

Lastly, your background or backdrop allows the composition to breathe. Too many focal points usually compete for attention and result in a cluttered, distracted photograph.

The wide swath of green surrounding the two girls not only tells a story, but gives us some much-needed space. There’s particularly good use of focal length here to sharpen the subject and blur the background a little, too. 

a winding road surrounded by tall, lush trees during a misty evening

Source Image: Pixabay

5. Get Creative With Your Framing

As you think critically about how to craft composition that captures attention, let’s touch on a similar skill: framing. I’m not just talking narrative framing, but a literal frame within your photo’s frame. 

Creative framing is a fun and striking way to direct the viewer’s eye through surrounding elements. The above photo has a distinctive focal point framed by the very background itself. The trees and grass all but wrap around most of the frame, leaving a sliver of misty trees bleeding into the gray road. 

the viewer peering through the shadowed frame of a cove at the bright ocean and rock outside

Source Image: Pixabay

This photo is another example of creative framing through the use of a cave’s interior. A few ways you can get creative with framing your compositions include:

  • Cathedral arches and windows
  • The fold of a person’s hands
  • Branches or leaves that the viewer ‘peers through’

an example of dynamic tension in photography with a worm's eye view of blue and white skyscrapers

Source Image: Pixabay

6. Experiment With Visual Tension 

The human eye constantly seeks balance, such as light vs dark or colorful vs desaturated. Our limitation in physical height also prevents us from seeing certain subjects from certain points of view. 

Enter the art of visual tension in photography. Visual tension creates intrigue for the viewer by capitalizing on what the human eye naturally finds strange. This effect is achieved through subjects and angles such as:

  • Diagonal compositions with heavy tilts to the left or right
  • Extremes such as a splash of color in an otherwise desaturated scene
  • Unnatural shapes rarely encountered, such as sharp triangles

Use visual tension to create compositions that are uncomfortable, intense, or dramatic. 

a DSLR camera sitting on a brown map surrounded by sepia toned photos

Source Image: Pixabay

7. Study the Work of Photographers

You can be so wrapped up in your work that you forget to study what came before. Studying famous photographers will expose you to unique art styles as well as classical compositions. 

A helpful place to start studying famous photographers is to choose a niche you’re familiar with. For example, if you’re trying to improve the compositions of your portrait photography, consider studying the work of Dorothea Lange. This American photographer became famous through her compelling documentation of The Great Depression. Her most famous piece, The Pea Picker Family, is a stunning snapshot of the misery befalling families at the time.

If you’re wondering how to improve your fashion photography, there are incredible niche sites that will provide inspiration. A great example of composition in fashion photography is Tokyo Fashion, a blog dedicated to Japanese street fashion and magazine spreads.

Through your study you’ll learn what makes styles stand out and how to shake up your composition.

a slew of colorful wooden blocks in different shapes and sizes on a brown wooden floor

Source Image: Pixabay

8. Embrace the Art of Shape Language

Shape language is, quite literally, the language of shapes – what they make us feel, how they draw the eye, and how they result in a compelling composition.

This visual philosophy is also popular in animation and illustration to create character designs the audience can quickly recognize. That’s not to say shape language is just a means of contrast. Shapes themselves are filled with meaning that shape our perceptions and, therefore, what your composition communicates to a viewer. 

For example, the human eye often interprets round shapes as soft and relaxed. To contrast, angular shapes are often more tense or threatening. 

Consider how you use shape language when choosing subjects or framing for your composition. 

three vibrant pink flowers against a backdrop of green stems

Source Image: Pixabay

9. Understand the Benefits of Odd and Even Numbers 

Effective photography often replicates how the human eye works to be readable and approachable by the viewer. Odd and even numbers are a shortcut that allow you to create natural scenes with odd numbers, which appear random and less ‘calculated’.

The opposite is also true. Even numbers are less natural in our day to day life, standing out starkly against our world of irregular objects and crooked settings. These numbers are fantastic for generating tense or surreal compositions. The human eye is often automatically drawn to this bizarre evenness out of curiosity. 

Of course, this is still not a hard and fast rule – even numbered subjects can be pleasingly balanced, while odd numbered subjects can be framed in a surreal way. Just like anything else in your composition, no element exists alone. 

an overhead shot of a little back patio with a curving white staircase, chairs, and plants

Source Image: Pixabay

10. Refresh the Basics of Composition as a Visual Language

No matter how much you improve as a photographer, it’s always a good time to refresh the basics. Composition is a visual language that communicates intent while anticipating a response from the viewer.

One of my favorite books on the subject is Picture This: How Pictures Work by Molly Bang – it’s one of my strongest tools in improving composition, whether in photography or illustration.  While I’ve been a commercial artist for years, I repeatedly come back to this book to keep my head on straight when I get overwhelmed with ideas. 

a wide shot of several orange trees in a lake on a bright morning

Source Image: Pixabay

Conclusion: Leveling Up Your Photography is Just a Few Experimental Sessions Away 

Learning how to improve composition in photography is just as much personal as it is technical. Every time you experiment with a shot or look at a subject in a new angle, you learn about yourself.

Leveling up your photography compositions involves asking questions such as the story you’re trying to tell or the emotions you want to invoke. However, technical polish still helps with arranging subjects in a scene, such as the golden ratio or creative framing. 

If you want a dedicated method of improving your photography composition, a 30-day photography challenge is a fun way to get the creative juices flowing. As long as you keep an open mind and approach photography with the intent to communicate, you’re already on the fast track to improvement.

Do you want more help with creating compelling compositions? Check out the posts below: