When I first started out in photography my head was so full of shutter speeds, apertures, camera settings, white balance, focus, and all the rest of it that I hardly had any time to think about what I was actually photographing. Rather than do things that way I would suggest starting out in full auto mode and learn about your camera as you go. Move to aperture priority when you're comfortable with it and you understand things like depth of field and the exposure triangle. If you do that, learning photography will be much more fun. Rather than fill your head with techie stuff to begin with, shoot in Auto mode and learn some of these principles about composition instead. That will keep things interesting and enjoyable as your learn.

The Rule of Thirds

This rule is inappropriately named as there are no such things as rules when it comes to photography. There are guidelines which can help you compose better images, but these guidelines are just that, guidelines, and they may be broken if the situation warrants it. The rule of thirds should be regarded more as a guideline than a rule. Having said that, generally speaking, it is usually a good thing to keep subjects away from the middle of a photo and place them on a third either horizontally or diagonally, as in this example of a street performer taken in Paris. The photo is much more interesting with her off to one side looking into the photo than it would be if she was in the middle looking right at the camera. Using the rule of thirds in this case produced a strong image. The same is true with the banner at the top of the page.

This photo of purple sandpipers being washed by surf is much more powerful than it would be if the rock was placed half way up the frame. In essence, the photo is split into three horizontal bands, the rock, the birds, and the sea. Cropping to employ the principles of thirds produced a strong image.

So, if this rule is only a guideline and may be broken, when could you break it? That comes with experience, but to give you an idea, you may break the rule with impunity when it comes to landscapes mirrored in the surface of a river or lake, such as this boat on Loch Brora in the Highlands.

When we look at a photo we tend to look at certain things which affect the feelings we get from it. A photograph can create a sense of balance, give a sense of pleasure or unease, or convey nothing at all. Space is very important in this regards.

For example if your subject has nowhere to go except out of the edge of the photo, that's where the eyes of those who look at your work will also go. Our job as photographers is to keep people in our images and give them an experience they will remember, not send their eyes straight out of the frame. So another benefit to initially observing the rule of thirds, especially with close subjects, is that it automatically gives your viewers space to enjoy the image. In the example below, although the eyes of the seal are on a third, your eyes tend to follow the seal's straight out of the photo. The composition could be better even though the rule of thirds has been applied.

This second example has employed the rule of thirds but also created a bit of space into which the seal is looking. This gives your eye a far more memorable experience. Generally speaking then, give space to movement and eyes. Again, this rule can be broken, but it takes a professional eye to pull it off. For now, stick to the guidelines and master the basics.

Leading Lines

The rule of thirds and giving space to your subjects are only two of a number of compositional guides. Another one is called leading lines, where you use lines in an image to direct the eye. One very effective and simple illustration of this is a road. In this photo it isn't just the road and the white lines leading you into the image, it is the lines of the grassy verges and the sloping lines of the hills as well. Everything in the photo leads you into the distance and holds your attention. This is the road to Glen Carron in the Highlands of Scotland.

Fill the Frame

Another great compositional technique is to fill your frame. What does that mean? Well, the two photos below are of the same tulip and were taken at the same time. I didn't even move my feet. All I did was zoom in until the flower filled the frame. This doesn't work all the time, but it is something else to be aware of when composing a shot. In the right situations, it's easy to see how effective this technique can be.

Here's another example. This first photo of a cat is nothing to write home about. There’s nothing exciting about it, it isn’t even interesting enough to share on social media. It’s really recycle bin material, but look what happens when I filled the frame with the cat and did a bit of post processing to bring out detail and contrast..


Just as the subject of your photo is important, so too is your background. Real life examples are probably the best way to illustrate this. The photo below on the left has a number of notable compositional problems. One is that the subject is placed in the middle of the photo while another is that the background is extremely distracting. Your eyes really have no idea where to look and they run all over the place and quickly tire and want to look at something else. The second photo was taken in exactly the same spot. I moved in closer with the camera, asked the model to crouch so I could fill the frame with the creels, opened the aperture for a shallow depth of field, and finally focused on her eyes and aligned her with the left third. Now your eyes remain on the model, while the creels provide a nice out of focus creamy backdrop.

This next example is similar but illustrates how being in aperture priority when the light is good so you can control depth of field is a good 'default' walkaround setting for your camera. In the first photo, the model is hard up against the stone wall and everything is in focus. The problem is that your eyes run all over the wall and not your subject. I moved the model a few feet away from the wall, opened the aperture as far as it would go to create as shallow a depth of field as possible, then moved closer, focused and made sure she was on the left third. In the second photo the model is very much the subject, and rather than compete the wall now remains very much in the background. As you're probably becoming aware, taking good photos is neither complicated nor technically challenging.

Another thing to be aware of when composing your photo with regards to backgrounds is not to do silly things like have lamp posts stick out of folk's heads, as in the photo below. The house going through the model doesn't do very much for her either and tends to take your eyes out of the photo on the right. The sky is also washed out and boring and adds nothing whatsoever to the composition. The photo on the right was taken in exactly the same spot. I moved in closer, asked the model to crouch so I could fill the frame with grass and daffodils, opened my aperture for a shallow depth of field, focused on her eyes and made sure she was on a third. Good photography isn't difficult.

Point of View

Another general guideline when composing photos of people and animals is to get onto their eye level. Generally speaking, looking down on someone or on an animal isn't very flattering. This isn't always the case and the rule can be broken, but I'd suggest keeping to this until you learn when you can break it without demeaning your subject. As well as the compositional errors in the photo below on the left, like the distracting cluttered background such as the ladder, the yellow hose and the trailer, I'm also looking down on the model and it isn't a very flattering photo of her. The second image was taken in exactly the same spot. I moved in closer, filled the frame with the boat, opened the aperture to get a shallow depth of field, kneeled down to get slightly below her eye level, focused and placed her on a third.

Getting down onto eye level with animals works most effectively. It may feel a bit strange lying down on the ground with a camera at first, but once you see the photos you will soon get over it. I usually wear tough goretex outer shells to keep me dry while I'm on the ground. Flip screens on cameras definitely help in these situations. This is a young grey seal pup on a remote Highland coast, and a robin fledgling taken in my garden. Note that neither of these photos employs the rule of thirds, but they both work because their eyes are on horizontal thirds.

Credits -  All photos copyright George Maciver, all rights reserved.