How to Create Compelling Compositions: A Beginner's Guide

One of the few things that separate great photographers from people who just take photos is the knack for weaving compelling compositions. The best photographers know that great photography takes more than just mastering the technical aspects and having the right equipment. Great photography also requires the creativity to compose compelling and visually appealing shots that draw an audience in and hold their attention.

Since photography is an art form, there are obviously many roads to creating compelling images. However, these ten methods have been tried, tested, and proven effective by the greats themselves to massively improve your compositions.

Of course, following a set of hard and fast rules to be creative sounds like an oxymoron. Creativity, after all, involves the use of your own imagination, artistry, and individual vision, and sticking to rigid rules might only limit you. So think of these as your rough guidelines to help those creative juices flowing.

Evoke the Rule of Thirds

We know! Why put a rule at the top of this list (or even add one at all) when we just established that following a set of rules might only hinder your creativity? Well, first of all, because while it might have the word "rule" in its name, that doesn't mean that you have to follow it every single time.

However, because it is super simple and easy to do--perhaps the simplest and easiest of all the composition guidelines--and because it is a foolproof way of taking your photography to the next level, we recommend applying it to every photo you take.

How simple is it exactly? All you need to do is imagine that there are 2 vertical and 2 horizontal lines across your frame, dividing it into 9 equal segments. The idea is to position the most important elements of your shot--whether it's your actual subject, the horizon, or your background--along these lines or at their four points of intersection.

That's it! It's that easy. You know what, you might not even need to imagine as many cameras come equipped with a Rule of Thirds grid that you can simply turn on.

Tell a Story

Nothing else can turn a shot into an insipid photograph as fast as not having a story to tell. Think about it; how interesting could an image be if it's just a photo of something and it doesn't really tell its audience anything? If it's a technically good capture, it may attract an audience. However, will it hold their attention?

Another surefire way to improve your photography is to have your photos tell a story. It doesn't have to be an epic one or an original one; you're not writing the next great American novel. It just has to tell a story that appeals to people and evoke an emotion in them. Don't forget these important elements to help with telling that story: your subject, the background and/or foreground, and the mood.

Fill the Frame

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It's easy to fit in as many things in your shot as you want. What's hard is to try to minimize and eliminate the unimportant elements that might prove to be a distraction, and maximize your frame so that it's more impactful. This is especially applicable to portraits, pet shots, and other photos in which you have a singular subject you'd like the viewers to focus on.

A great way to do both is by filling your frame, which basically just means going in, shooting tight--whether by zooming in or by moving closer, and filling in your frame with your subject. If that's not possible with the lens you have, don't fret. You can simply crop that shot in post to achieve a similar effect.

Create Depth

Flat photographs are uninteresting and unappealing. Though photographs are typically 2D representations, it's not that hard to simulate depth in your captures. One thing you can effectively achieve depth is by incorporating layers--a foreground, a background, and a middle--in your compositions. This is especially useful when you're capturing landscapes and cityscapes, and it can make for interesting portraits as well.

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Another thing you can do, especially with portraits, is by using lenses with longer focal lengths and wide apertures. This combination produces photos with shallower depths of field, giving you creamy backgrounds and subjects that stand out more.

Make Triangles

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Another way to take your photography to another level without requiring a lot of technical knowledge from you is by employing triangles in your compositions. It's not as easy to implement as the Rule of Thirds, but you're probably already doing it subconsciously. You just need to refine the technique and use it to your advantage.

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What exactly do we mean by forming triangles in your photos? One thing you can do is by simply identifying the three points of interest in your composition then arranging and capturing them in a way that is most interesting. Another is by incorporating triangle-ish shaped subjects, whether that be a mountain top or a dome of a building.

Balance Your Frame

How balanced your composition is can make or break your photograph. A well-balanced photo generally appeals more to people than an unbalanced one as it conveys a sense of harmony and gratification. A surefire way to create balance is by simply capturing symmetry, keeping things centered and both sides of the frame more or less even. You know, a la Wes Anderson.

However, while that technique can make for charming photographs, it's not always applicable. Sometimes, or rather most of the time, off-center framing is called for. One way you can stabilize this type of composition is by employing converging and leading lines, which also provide a bit of dynamic tension.

Draw Us In with Leading Lines

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Speaking of leading lines, they not only add stability and balance to your composition. They also help draw the viewers' eyes to something in your image in particular, whether that is your subject, a doorway, or just a specific part of your frame.

Leading lines do not have to be straight lines, either. They can be curved or crooked. They don't even have to be actual lines either; they can be repeated elements or even a babbling brook. The more important thing is that they're doing their actual job: directing the audience's attention exactly where you want it.

Watch Your Horizontal Lines

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One common mistake people make when taking photos is the dreaded crooked horizon. It's so common, in fact, that many Instagram influencers that make a lot of money from their Instagram photos still make this mistake. It's hardly a surprise. It's easy to overlook the horizon in the background when you're too busy paying attention to your subject.

The problem with crooked horizons is that they give viewers a sense of instability, and they make your images unbalanced. The good news is that they are easily fixed using any photo editing software. But why fix in post what you can do something about before you even click that shutter? It isn't hard. Simply develop the habit of paying attention to your horizon so that you can straighten it whenever necessary before you take the photo.

Capture Textures & Patterns

Though skin correcting photo apps and exaggerated noise eliminating features might send the opposite message, capturing textures and patterns not just on your subjects but also in your foreground and background can definitely help you create more compelling compositions. In fact, overly smoothened photos are fake looking and frankly, unpleasant and amateurish.

Change It Up

Photography is also about experimentation. Let the scene speak to you and go with your gut, even if it breaks the so-called rules. Sometimes, the most compelling images are the ones where you've thrown the guidebook out the window and just let your creativity be your guide. Don't be afraid to change it up and to experiment with different techniques, not to mention different angles.