Digital Photography Composition For Dummies®

Table of Contents


About This Book

Conventions Used in This Book

What You’re Not to Read

Foolish Assumptions

How This Book Is Organized

Part I: The Basics of Composition

Part II: Elements of Photographic Design

Part III: Arranging the Key Elements to Compose a Successful Shot

Part IV: Composition in Action

Part V: The Part of Tens

Icons Used in This Book

Where to Go from Here

Part I: The Basics of Composition

Chapter 1: Photographic Composition: The Overview

Getting a Grasp on Good Composition

Defining photographic composition

Leading the eye to important elements

Achieving balance

Gaining Control of Your Compositions

Working your basic camera settings

Choosing the lens that fits your message

Using perspective to enhance your message

Pulling together the elements of composition

Chapter 2: Developing an Eye for Composition

Studying What the Eye Sees




Relationships between subjects and supporting elements

Seeing What the Camera Sees

Revealing three dimensions in a two-dimensional medium

Paying attention to everything in the frame

Finding and Creating Effective Compositions

Chapter 3: Getting to Know Your Equipment

Making the All-Important Lens Choice

Working with a fixed lens

Saving time with a zoom lens

Exposing Your Images Properly

Taking a closer look at aperture, shutter speed, and ISO

Using a histogram to check exposure

Discovering your camera’s light meter

Relying on your camera’s automatic modes

Putting Together an Effective Toolkit

Finding a camera that fits your photography style and budget

Looking for a lens to suit your needs

Selecting memory cards

Getting the right external flash

Trying a tripod

Part II: Elements of Photographic Design

Chapter 4: Introducing the Elements of Photographic Design

Grasping the Point about Points

Following Lines, Real and Imagined

Looking at literal lines

Tracking implied lines

Bringing More to the Mix with Shape and Form

Distinguishing between shape and form

Emphasizing shape or form in a composition

Adding Scale or Depth with Texture

Considering Pattern Types

Adding interest with sequence patterns

Leading your viewer by using repetition

Breaking patterns to grab attention

Chapter 5: Arranging Visual Elements in a Frame According to the “Rules”

Looking at Foreground, Background, and the Space Between

Enlivening Your Images with the Rule of Thirds

Dividing your frame to conquer composition

Using the thirds to their fullest

Interpreting the rule of thirds to make it work for your scene

Taking Advantage of Space to Get Your Message Across

Giving your subject more (or less) space

Allowing shapes room to breathe

Staggering objects within your frame

Containing lines inside your frame

Keeping an Image Simple or Unleashing Controlled Chaos

Balancing Your Compositions

Chapter 6: Paying Attention to Color in Composition

Discovering Color Basics

Using complementary colors for contrast

Maximizing monochromatic color schemes

Creating harmony with analogous colors

Drawing the eye with color

Shooting for Black and White

Being aware of how your digital sensor sees light

Exposing your photo for black and white

Converting an image to black and white using the three channels

Color or Black and White? How Your Decision Impacts Your Message

Part III: Arranging the Key Elements to Compose a Successful Shot

Chapter 7: Using Focal Points to Tell a Story

Finding Your Focal Point and Helping It Take Center Stage

Making your focal point stand out

Using your camera’s focus control to select your focal point

Determining how much of the frame your focal point should cover

Enhancing Your Message with Selective Focus

Getting creative with your focal points

Controlling depth of field

Adding a Secondary Focal Point to Your Composition

Chapter 8: Finding Your Perspective

Looking at Things from a New Perspective

Understanding how perspective impacts your message

Making choices about perspective

Selecting perspective according to light

Considering Techniques to Get the Shot

Moving the subject or yourself

Zooming in to reveal details

Using focal length to achieve your goals

Rotating Your Camera to Create Unusual Angles

Putting the subject off center

Placing the subject in the top or bottom of the frame

Changing your camera’s orientation

Chapter 9: Backgrounds: As Important as the Subject

From Great Outdoors to Crawlspace: Considering Types of Backgrounds

Working with wide-open spaces

Handling tight spaces

Using solid backgrounds

Recognizing Problem Backgrounds

Badly lit backgrounds

Distracting backgrounds

Backgrounds that merge with your subject

Preventing and Fixing Problems

Identifying poor backgrounds by reviewing your work as you go

Creating your own backgrounds to avoid problems

Using Background Elements to Support Your Subject

Chapter 10: Using Light to Tell Your Story

Recognizing Sources of Light

Understanding Light Quality and Intensity

Considering hard light versus soft light

Controlling your contrast

Modifying the quality and contrast of light

The Relationship between Light Source and Subject

Seeing how distance makes a difference

Positioning your light source to create lighting patterns

Adding a third light source

Breaking the patterns and creating your own look

Manipulating the Direction of Natural Light

Giving yourself the time of day

Appreciating different results in different seasons

Setting Light in Motion

Accounting for the Color of Light

Chapter 11: Adding Interest through Framing and Formatting

Making the Most of Framing

Giving your image a sense of depth

Adding interest by getting creative with your compositional frame

Keeping a viewer in the frame

Choosing between the Horizontal and Vertical Formats

Understanding how your message influences which format to use

Determining format based on the subject

Letting the environment dictate format

Chapter 12: Exploring Other Compositional Ideas

Creating Harmony with Balance and a Sense of Scale

Keeping the elements balanced and properly weighted

Including a sense of scale

Using Rhythm and Repetition of Elements

Pulling harmony out of chaos

Shooting simple compositions

Reinforcing your subject or intended message with repeating elements

Creative Ways to Break the Rules or Cheat the System

Experimenting with the tilt-shift lens

Taking multiple digital exposures

Crafting soft, dream-like compositions

Part IV: Composition in Action

Chapter 13: Showing People in Their Best Light

Showing a Person’s Essence in Portraits

Capturing genuine expressions

Choosing your angle and your lens

Adding interest by integrating your subject’s hands into the photo

Taking advantage of a person’s surroundings

Getting Great Results from Both Candid and Posed Portraits

Making a case for candids

Taking control with posed shots

Photographing People Together: Showing Connections

Overcoming the technical challenges of photographing groups

Composing portraits of couples

Setting up group portraits

Fabulous Darling, You’re Gorgeous: Shooting Fashion Photography

Chapter 14: In Nature: Landscapes and Wildlife

Recognizing Compositional Elements in Nature

Expansive landscapes: Basking in your surroundings

Narrowing in on intimate landscapes

Exploring fine detail through macro photography

Capturing Wildlife

Finding animals to photograph

Getting the best-composed shot

Developing a Respect for Nature’s Elements

Photographing the Forest

Determining what you want to photograph

Factoring in light when in the forest

Taking advantage of night in the forest

Chapter 15: Shooting Still-Life Photography

Making Everyday Objects Interesting

Seeing objects as fine art

Selling objects with photography

Photographing Flowers in Studio and in Nature

Producing images in the studio

Capturing flowers in their natural environments

Cooking Up Beautiful Food Photos

Working with Architectural and Interior Photography

Crafting images of building exteriors

Taking a look inside: Composing interior shots

Chapter 16: Capturing (Or Stopping) Motion through Photography

Following Compositional Principles When a Subject Isn’t Stationary

Focusing on moving subjects

Composing subjects in motion

Deciding whether to freeze or show motion

Up for the Challenge: Photographing Subjects Constantly on the Move

Taking successful images of children

Catching shots of the family pet

Tackling sporting events

Chapter 17: Artsy Photos: Fine Art, Composite Pictures, and Abstracts

Classifying Photography as Fine Art

Lighting your subject

Making the best of your situation

Composing Abstract Photos

Keeping the effects of color in mind

Using shapes and lines to create meaning

Playing with tonality

Putting it all together

Combining Multiple Shots to Create a Single Photo

Mimicking a made-up scene with multiple exposures

Creating collages

Chapter 18: Improving Composition through Postproduction Editing

Cleaning Up Your Composition

Removing unwanted elements and flaws

Changing your perspective

Editing Your Images to Draw the Viewer to Your Subject

Adjusting contrast in the scene using Curves Layers

Enhancing an image’s light

Sharpening your photos

Part V: The Part of Tens

Chapter 19: Ten Ways to Improve Composition

Reveal Contrast with Complementary Colors

Harmonize with Monochromatic Colors

Make a Subtle Statement with Analogous Colors

Use a Shallow Depth of Field to Tell a Story

Shoot Until You’ve Exhausted the Possibilities

Choose a Background That Says Something

Tackle Transparent and Reflective Elements

Treat Light as the Subject

Incorporate a Compositional Frame

Create a Composite Image

Chapter 20: Ten Tips for Finding Photographic Inspiration

Take a Walk, Take Photos, and Take Notes

Try Something Completely New

Emulate Your Favorite Shots by Other Photographers

Watch a Good Movie

Visit a Museum

Compile a Wall of Inspiration

Purchase a New Lens

Head Out for a Nighttime Photo Shoot

Reveal the Lapse of Time in a Scene

Join a Photography Forum

Chapter 21: Viewing Ten Compositions of One Scene

Choosing a High Angle to Show the Scene

Selecting a Low Angle to Emphasize the Subject

Highlighting the Subject and the Scene with a Wide-Angle Lens

Showing More Scenery with a Wide-Angle Lens

Narrowing In on Your Subject with a Long Lens

Creating an Intimate Portrait by Using a Long Lens

Paying Attention to the Foreground Elements in Your Scene

Giving Your Photo a Compositional Frame

Finding Negative Space

Backlighting Your Subject to Emphasize Shape

Digital Photography Composition For Dummies®

by Tom Clark


About the Author

Tom Clark is a successful commercial photographer in Miami. After receiving a Bachelor of Arts in Commercial Photography, he moved to Miami and began his career by assisting local photographers on fashion, editorial, and portrait assignments. Tom also assisted some of the city’s top architectural and interior photographers and worked on set with many of the top photographers in New York, Los Angeles, and Europe for fashion, editorial, and celebrity portraiture. With the combination of his experience on set and his education, Tom successfully made the move from photo assistant to photographer. Today he shoots for a number of local and international publications on a freelance basis, and he provides commercial advertising services to clients of all sizes.

What aren’t discussed in Tom’s commercial success but are possibly the root of his inspiration are the long trips into the wilderness, up mountains, and to the seas where getting the perfect shot is an exploration and nights are filled with campfires, starry skies, and long exposures. To check out Tom’s work and see his Photo of the Week (which highlights his most interesting recent captures), visit his Web site at


For my dad.

Author’s Acknowledgments

Thank you to Traci Cumbay for working so closely on this project and helping to keep the work consistent with the For Dummies style. It was great to have someone to share ideas with. More thanks to Project Editor Sarah Faulkner and Copy Editor Jessica Smith for keeping the flow and organization of this book in check.

I am delighted that Erin Calligan Mooney contacted me for this project and presented such a great opportunity to me. Thank you Stacy Kennedy for managing this project, and thank you Craig Denis for contributing architectural and interior photographs that worked so well to validate my points on the topic.

The models I would like to thank for appearing in this book include the following: Fania Castro, Gillian Richardson, Alejandro Nuñez, Omar Bain, Niurka Zamora, Amy Larue, Autumn Suna, Emily Jo Burton, Joe Kydd, Diego Alberto, Clarissa Hempel, Josh Noe, Eduard Kotysh, Lauren Koenig, Ivonne Padilla, Melissa Gil, Greg Norman, Jr, Francisco Stanzione, Oleg Dankovtsev, and Alejandra Pinzón.

Last but not least, thank you Emily Noe for assisting with the production of the photos for this book and for being a wonderful muse.

Publisher’s Acknowledgments

We’re proud of this book; please send us your comments through our online registration form located at For other comments, please contact our Customer Care Department within the U.S. at 877-762-2974, outside the U.S. at 317-572-3993, or fax 317-572-4002.

Some of the people who helped bring this book to market include the following:

Acquisitions, Editorial, and Media Development

Project Editor: Sarah Faulkner

Acquisitions Editor: Stacy Kennedy

Copy Editor: Jessica Smith

Assistant Editor: Erin Calligan Mooney

Senior Editorial Assistant: David Lutton

Technical Editor: Susan B. Fleck

Editorial Manager: Christine Meloy Beck

Editorial Assistants: Jennette ElNaggar, Rachelle S. Amick

Cover Photos: Tom Clark

Cartoons: Rich Tennant (

Composition Services

Project Coordinator: Sheree Montgomery

Layout and Graphics: Carl Byers, Carrie A. Cesavice, Samantha K. Cherolis

Proofreaders: Laura Albert, John Greenough, Nancy L. Reinhardt

Indexer: Sharon Shock

Special Help: Traci Cumbay, Christine Pingleton

Publishing and Editorial for Consumer Dummies

Diane Graves Steele, Vice President and Publisher, Consumer Dummies

Kristin Ferguson-Wagstaffe, Product Development Director, Consumer Dummies

Ensley Eikenburg, Associate Publisher, Travel

Kelly Regan, Editorial Director, Travel

Publishing for Technology Dummies

Andy Cummings, Vice President and Publisher, Dummies Technology/General User

Composition Services

Debbie Stailey, Director of Composition Services


If you want to create interesting and aesthetically pleasing photographs, you need to understand great composition. You have rules (which can, of course, be broken) to guide you, decisions to make, and techniques and tools to get the job done. Put all these together, and you give purpose and meaning to your photographs.

After you realize why some photographs look better than others and more successfully tell their stories, you can create amazing images wherever you are and in any conditions. You can approach any scene in many ways, and each photographer will do so differently. You want to be sure that you approach a scene with the confidence of a person who understands how to compose great images — and has fun doing so.

Whether you’re an amateur, pro, semipro, hobbyist, scrapbooker, traveler, artist, or someone who just received a camera as a gift, knowing more about composition will make your photographs better. Besides, if you’re going to take pictures, they may as well be good ones.

About This Book

Photographic composition is a complex topic that covers a wide range of theories and competing schools of thought. Many photographers carry separate opinions when it comes to defining what’s most important in creating great compositions. Some feel that following the rules is essential, and others feel that to be unique you need to break the rules. In this book, I provide a thorough coverage of the rules (because in order to break the rules successfully, it helps to know what they are). I also do my best to give you the information necessary to determine when to go with the rule book and when to go with your gut.

In this book, you find information that covers composition from all angles. I designed each chapter to present valuable information that can improve your ability to see potential in what you’re photographing and to capture that potential with your camera. Combining ideas from multiple chapters makes you a more dynamic photographer, but you certainly can take one chapter at a time, focusing on one skill or technique until you’re moved to expand your compositional repertoire.

Ultimately, you make the decisions about what good composition is. Use this book to introduce new ideas to your creative thought process, to enhance your decision-making skills, and to understand the technical information you need to achieve the results you want.

And remember that this book isn’t designed to be read from cover to cover. You can jump in wherever you need the most help without feeling like you’ve skipped a beat. No chapter relies on your knowledge of any preceding chapter to make sense. You may want to practice the ideas in one chapter before you move on to the next, but you’re going to find everything you need (or directions to further information) anywhere you start reading.

Conventions Used in This Book

In this book, I use the following conventions to make sure the text is consistent and easy to understand:

For each photograph, I include the following information:

Focal length: This number shows the angle of view provided by the particular lens used. It determines how much of your scene is captured when composing a shot.

Shutter speed: This number indicates how long it took to complete the exposure (usually measured in fractions of a second). It determines how precise the moment of capture is, and it’s particularly important when photographing subjects in motion.

Aperture: This number shows how much light the lens let in at the time of exposure (measured by an f-stop). It helps to regulate your depth of field, which determines how much of your scene is sharp or blurry.

ISO: This number displays how sensitive the digital sensor is to light during the time of the exposure. A sensitive ISO rating (determined by a higher number) can produce a properly exposed image more quickly and with less light than a less sensitive rating (determined by a lower number).

You can find this info beneath each photo. To save space, I give you just the numbers — no labels. So when you see “35mm, 1/250 sec., f/11, 320,” you’ll know that I’m referring to the focal length, shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. The specs are always in this order.

All Web addresses appear in monofont.

New terms appear in italic and are closely followed by an easy-to-understand definition.

Bold highlights the action parts of numbered steps and the key words in bulleted lists.

When this book was printed, some Web addresses may have needed to break across two lines of text. If that happened, rest assured that I’ve added no extra characters, such as hyphens, to indicate the break. So when using one of these Web addresses, simply type in exactly what you see in the book as though the line break doesn’t exist.

What You’re Not to Read

If you’re in a hurry to start taking amazing photographs, you may want to skip around this book to areas that most appeal to you. No problem. If you are in a big hurry, here’s a tip: You can skip the sidebars (those gray-shaded boxes) and any text marked with the Technical Stuff icon. The information you find in these places may interest you and add something to your work, but it isn’t necessary for understanding how to compose beautiful photographs.

Foolish Assumptions

Before I could write this book, I had to make some assumptions about you, its reader. For example, I assume that you

Want to get a reaction from the people who view your images

Are familiar with the basic functions of your camera and have some experiences using them

How This Book Is Organized

Photographic composition is all about organization: The way you organize elements in a frame determines how people view the image. Similarly, writing a book requires you to stay organized as well. So, each part in this book gives you valuable information related to a specific topic. Each part works on its own or can be combined with information from another part. The following sections give you an overview of what parts this book contains.

Part I: The Basics of Composition

This part introduces you to photographic composition and explains why it’s a necessary skill in producing interesting and aesthetically pleasing images. It covers the topic of training your eyes to see things from a compositional standpoint and discusses the abilities and equipment you need to consistently create beautiful photographs.

Part II: Elements of Photographic Design

Certain key elements are the building blocks of composition. This part shows you ways to put these elements together when composing an image. I tell you about critical factors like lines, shapes, patterns, and color, and I introduce you to the “rules” that have arisen from the blood, sweat, and tears of photographers who came before you.

Part III: Arranging the Key Elements to Compose a Successful Shot

A well-composed photo has various parts — or elements — that work together to create a cohesive message. I provide you with an overview of these elements in Part II, but in this part, I delve into each in more detail. You find out how to use focus, perspective, background, and lighting to tell your story. I also show you ways to use framing techniques to keep viewers’ eyes on your image. I round out the part with a chapter on the other compositional ideas you can use to make sure your subject headlines the show.

Part IV: Composition in Action

Your subject matter typically determines how you compose an image. For instance, you compose images of people differently from images of architecture or landscapes. Each chapter in this part discusses how to handle a common subject by combining the elements of design and the photographic techniques you find in Parts II and III. And after you’ve taken your photos — whether they’re portraits, still-life images, or abstracts — you can polish them using the postproduction improvements I tell you about in this part.

Part V: The Part of Tens

This part provides three short chapters in which I share important aspects of my experience as a photographer to help better your understanding and execution of interesting photo compositions. You discover ways to give yourself assignments that will enhance your photographic composition skills, find inspiration, and compose one scene in various ways.

Icons Used in This Book

Icons are a beloved tradition in the For Dummies series, so why buck tradition now? I use the following icons to direct your eye to specific types of information within the book:

remember.eps The text that appears next to this icon presents the information that you’ll rely on again and again when photographing. This is the stuff that experienced photographers know cold.

technicalstuff.eps In some instances, I dive a little further into a technical topic to give you greater detail that you may find interesting. You’re welcome to skip these divergences; you won’t miss anything crucial.

tip.eps Whenever I give you information that saves you time, money, or photographic frustration, I mark the text with this icon.

warning_bomb.eps Some practices send your composition into a tailspin that even postproduction editing can’t fix. Whenever I tell you about possible errors or missteps, I highlight the information with this dangerous-looking icon.

Where to Go from Here

As I mention earlier, you don’t have to read this book in any particular order — the way you proceed is totally up to you. You can simply pick a topic that you’re interested in and dig in. For instance, if you’re antsy to start applying your photographic skills to shooting landscapes or another specific subject, flip right to Part IV. If color has you baffled, Chapter 6 has the information you need. Need an introduction to or refresher on camera settings? Head for Chapter 3. And if you’re a beginner, an overachiever, or someone who just can’t stand the thought of missing something, turn the page and keep reading until you hit the index. Whatever you do, don’t delay. Get started on your journey toward successfully composed images.

Part I

The Basics of Composition


In this part . . .

The difference between good photography and mediocre photography is composition. Until you grasp the ideas behind successful compositions, your photography can go only so far. This part alerts you to exactly what composition is, why it’s so critical for making images, and what skills and equipment you need to begin creating knockout compositions.