What makes a great photo? (Composition!)

Lots of people want to know the "secrets" of photography. They think that there are things that are some kind of professional trade secrets that we photographers use to make great pictures, and you know what? They are right.

The truth is that there are a few very basic things that any good photographer does to make their pictures better. The most simple and powerful of these is composition. 

Actively deciding on what you want in the frame and where to put it is fundamental to making pictures and having a few simple concepts to tell you where those items go can be a huge advantage. Have you noticed that most people who are taking pictures just put the subject in the center of the frame and snap the shutter? For some photos that can be a great way to get good drama, but sadly, for most pictures, it's nothing but boring! Here are a few things to think about when you are trying to make more interesting pictures. The first part is "Get the subject out of the center of the frame!"

The best place to start is with a simple idea called the "Rule of Thirds." Simply stated it suggests that you break the frame into thirds on both the horizontal and vertical axis. It would make the frame look like this: 

The frame broken into thirds with the intersections of the lines as "Anchor Points" for placing a subject. 

The frame broken into thirds with the intersections of the lines as "Anchor Points" for placing a subject. 

The red circles in the above diagram show "Anchor Points" where a subject might be placed to great effect. Think of putting some single point of interest in one of these imaginary circles. It can really make a great impact in how you see it. Take a look:

The tree in the photo is set in the lower left anchor point in a rule of thirds shot. 

The tree in the photo is set in the lower left anchor point in a rule of thirds shot. 

Giving the tree the space to stand against the background makes it more pleasing to the eye. By placing the subject on an anchor point or having the horizon line fall along one of the "thirds" lines you create a good perspective and give a pleasing balance that more matches what most people perceive as a "real" horizon.  

All of this was actually thought about way back before the era of photography in the late 1700's by people who were trying to understand the fundamentals of painting. These folks also used another standard way of breaking up the frame. They tried using the "Golden Ratio" as a method to compose frames and it works nicely as well.  It goes like this:

A Diagram of the golden ratio. Note how each rectangle breaks into a square with the remainder leaving yet another rectangle of the same proportions as the original. 

A Diagram of the golden ratio. Note how each rectangle breaks into a square with the remainder leaving yet another rectangle of the same proportions as the original. 

The above diagram shows the golden ratio frame as it is broken into smaller sub frames. Your own camera probably doesn't start at the golden ratio framing but it is probably pretty close so you can think about placing a subject at the point where the large square in the frame is, to make a good classical composition. That would look like this to borrow once again from a painting.

Note how the tree in this shot "Squares" the frame from the left side. 

Note how the tree in this shot "Squares" the frame from the left side. 

Even though the horizon in the above painting is in the mid line of the vertical axis, having the tree placed at the point where the frame would be "squared" from the left side makes for a pleasing feel to the overall image. This is the concept of the golden ratio at work. 

 As you can see there are many ways you can compose a frame that give it much more impact than just placing everything dead center. Try playing around with some of these ideas next time you go out. It might just have you seeing things differently!