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Design, Photography, & Fashion

Learn About Photography Composition With Jimmy Chin

Written by MasterClass

Dec 11, 2018 • 9 min read

Composition is one of the most important tools in any type of photography. World-class adventure photographer Jimmy Chin would know—he’s made a career with his incredible (and seemingly impossible) images.

What secret weapon do Jimmy and other photographers call on to get those great shots? Composition. To become a better photographer and hone your visual style, study the art of composition and practice the compositional techniques, below.

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Written by MasterClass

Dec 11, 2018 • 9 min read

What Is Photography Composition?

Jimmy Chin's photograph of a campsite as an example of composition
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In photography, composition is the method in which the photographer arranges the various elements in a photo. A well-composed photo is balanced in an aesthetically pleasing way (which can sometimes mean that it is deliberately—and artfully—off balance).

What Are the Elements of Photography?

Jimmy Chin's photograph of Conrad Anker on a rock wall
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Before you point and shoot your next photo, take time to identify the various elements that might be in your scene by name. The elements of a photo include:

Subject(s)

A subject can be anything from a person or an animal to an inanimate object or flora and fauna. Composition helps determine the subject of the photo by placing emphasis; for example, in a photo with both a dog and its owner, the photographer may choose to apply the focus principle and depth of field rule to blur the owner, thereby making the dog the primary subject.

Background and foreground

The foreground—what’s in the closer field of vision—and the background—what’s in the far field of vision—help frame the photo. They serve to provide contrast, depth, and lines that can dramatically alter your photo, based on your position in relation to each of these elements. For example, in street photography, the backgrounds of buildings provide color and texture, as well as a steady contrast to the human subjects filtering in and out of the scene.

Symmetry

Symmetry creates a striking, interesting effect. Look for matching objects, mirror images, or repetition in shapes and patterns within a single frame. Symmetry also helps balance a photo.

Depth and space

Depending on the position of the camera in relation to the foreground, background, and subject, there are endless ways to demonstrate the feeling of space, depth, and dimension in a photograph. For example, you can take stand head on and photograph straight ahead with straight horizontal lines for a two dimensional effect, or you can take the same photo from an angle, focusing the camera on something in the foreground for a shallower depth of field.

Another technique, called compression, plays with the concept of manipulating space within the frame. Learn more about compression below.

Lines

Both vertical and horizontal lines create a natural frame for your photo. Lines can balance the photo, direct the eye, and create feelings of calm or confusion (try looking at a photo with diagonal lines!).

Texture

Light, specifically the direction of light, impacts texture. Objects with blurred edges or in soft focus feel romantic, while objects in harsh, direct light might show grain or ridges and bumps. Texture impacts the emotional quality of an image; the same subject can display varying textures under different lights.

What Are the Principles of Compositional Technique?

Jimmy Chin's photograph of a mountain peak
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The basic principles of compositional technique form the foundation of most art. Apply the following principles to photography to create more thoughtfully composed images.

  • Unity: the sense that all elements in a single photo belong together.
  • Balance: the feeling that all elements are in the “right” place.
  • Movement: the effect of motion or stillness in a single photo.
  • Focus: the central point of the image, the primary focal point for the viewer’s eye.
  • Contrast: the difference between elements, for example light versus dark in color, or large versus small in shapes.
  • Pattern: the repetition of elements, from colors to lines and subjects.

What Are the Rules of Composition?

Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds places your subject on the left-third or right-third of the frame, creating a pleasing composition. To apply the Rule of Thirds to your photo, divide the image with two horizontal lines and two vertical lines. Place your subject within one side for a balanced photo.

Portraits and Direction of Sight

In portrait photography, it’s common to center the subject in the frame. When you’re shooting portraits of people, unless they’re looking straight at the camera, you typically will want to leave a little bit of room for them to be facing toward the center of the photo. This rule of composition is called Direction of Sight, and it feels very natural because then the person has some room to be looking. But you’ll note that if the person is looking directly at the camera, then it’s totally fine to center the subject in the frame left-to-right:

Leading Lines

Leading Lines bring the viewer’s eye through the frame. The viewer’s eye will travel along the lines as it moves across your photo. They can be anything from a paved road to telephone wires, train tracks to artfully-arranged flowers. Think of leading lines as a guide; they should have a clear beginning (usually somewhere near the bottom of your fram) through to an aesthetically-pleasing end (somewhere in the center of the scene).

Depth of Field

A basic rule of composition: depth. Depth is when you have something in your foreground, and something in your background. Shallow depth of field immediately brings the viewer’s attention to whatever is in focus in the photo.

Negative Space

Negative space simply means that there’s a large area of the photo that’s mostly “empty,” used to balance a photo. Negative space helps draw a viewer’s eye to certain aspects of the photo. The effect negative space has on a photo can be striking or austere. Art Directors on commercial shoots love negative space, because it gives them room to place their text over a photo, without covering up any important details.

Compression

To bring more drama in your photos, you can create scenes that aren’t actually seeable by the human eye. One way to do this is through compression— using a very long lens to make the background appear a lot closer than it actually is. (Remember, wide angle lenses distort space by making the background appear farther away; telephoto lenses do the opposite.)

The longer your lens, the more compression you can get. At 200mm, you can get some compression, but at 400mm you’ll be able to create arresting images because you’re making an image that we can’t really see with our own eyes. Suddenly the background will look so close to your main subject that it starts to look a bit fantastic.

4 Examples of Composition in Photography

Jimmy Chin's photograph of a mountain range as an example of leading lines
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Jimmy Chin is adept at photographing in extreme conditions because he has to be. The following images are Jimmy’s examples of how an ingrained understanding of composition can lead to incredible photos.

1) Leading Lines and Rule of Thirds

Jimmy Chin's photograph of the Bugaboos as an example of rule of thirds and leading lines
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Jimmy shot this photo in the Bugaboos in Eastern British Columbia, popular with mountain climbers because of their beauty and variety of climbing routes. He used basic tools of good composition to bring balance and interest to the scene.

Note how there is a continuous line of the ridge, which leads your eye to the summit. This is a “leading line.” The line is further emphasized because it divides the bright, sun-lit area from the darker, shadow-filled side of the mountain.

The main subject is certainly the peak in the upper right, but the leading line of the ridge which leads to the peak is equally important in bringing visual interest and balance to the photo. The photo also uses the Rule of Thirds, where the main subject is positioned along the right vertical-third line.

2) Negative Space

Jimmy Chin's photograph of a cloudy mountain range as an example of negative space
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In this photo, the white snowy/ cloudy areas are the negative space, balancing the warm rock and colorful climber on the left.

3) Isolate the Subject

Jimmy Chin's photograph of a climber and example of isolating the subject and rule of thirds
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In this photo, Jimmy isolates his subject in two different ways: color and brightness levels. The subject stands out because of his bright red coat, and also because Jimmy positioned himself so that there was a relatively bright, white area behind the subject. Both of these choices help make the subject pop against the background.

4) Depth of Field

In this case, Jimmy gets close to the rock, which is the foreground, and has his main subject, Conrad, in the background. The photo has another layer of depth because of the Tetons in the
distance.

6 Exercises to Practice Composition in Photography

Jimmy Chin's photograph of the Howser Towers in the Bugaboos and an example of composition
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Want to shoot photos like Jimmy? Get started with understanding the basic rules of composition by practicing the following exercises.

Photograph near and far.

To bring more depth to your images, take a photo of something in the distance using a somewhat wide lens (35mm or wider). Now take a photo of the same thing, but put something else in the foreground. (If you have a friend with you, you can have your friend stand far away at first, and then much closer to the camera.)

Compare the two photos; do you notice how much deeper the second photo feels? Your eye travels back and forth between the foreground and background, giving the photo a deeper sense of space.

Shoot against the sky.

Practice shooting with negative space by selecting a subject that stands out against the sky (like a statue, a tree, or a single tall building). Start by taking photos where the subject is vertically centered, then take variations of the photo where it gets progressively lower in the frame.

How low can you go? You might be surprised at how striking an image you can create by purposely leaving most of the image “empty.”

Make your subject pop.

Practice isolating your subject from the background to make it pop out. Have a friend wear all dark colors, and then shoot him/her against lighter-colored backgrounds. Figure out the best position so that your friend has a clean silhouette, without any encumbrances. You can also have your friend wear a single, strong color and the shoot so that the color pops out in the scene.

Shift positions.

Practice taking photos using the Rule of Thirds. Take multiple photos of the same subject, putting it on the different third-lines. Then photograph the subject dead center in the frame. Shoot a lot of photos. Later, take a look at the images and decide which ones you like best. Then show them to a photography mentor or friend you trust, asking them which ones they like best and why.

Look out for leading lines.

Keep on the lookout for ways you can add Leading Lines to your images. Is there a street or a fence that you can include in the photo to help draw your eye toward the main subject? And if it’s not a literal line that draws the eye, is there something else, like a person’s shadow, that you can use as a leading line?

Break the Rules.

Once you’ve mastered some of the basic rules of composition you can begin to break them for dramatic effect. A great photo doesn’t have to follow the basic rules of composition, but it’s still critical to learn and internalize these rules so that it’s clear you’re breaking them not out of ignorance, but for stylistic reasons.

The Howser Towers: A Mountain Portrait Jimmy took this photo of the Howser Towers, which are the tallest peaks in the Bugaboos, reaching 3,412 m (11,194 ft). In this photo, Jimmy didn’t follow the traditional rules of composition; instead, he centered the main subject, which is typically frowned upon for a landscape shot.

But in this case it works because the mountain has such presence. In fact, Jimmy refers to it as a “mountain portrait.” In portrait photography, it’s common to center the subject in the frame, and that’s probably what was subconsciously going through Jimmy’s mind when he shot this photo. He even put the peaks of the mountain in the upper third of the frame, which is where you typically place the eyes of a person if you’re making a portrait.

Like all rules of composition, you can break them if you want to, but you should have a good reason to do so. Even if that reason is just to see what might happen, because photography is about combining experience with experimentation, after all.

Jimmy Chin

Teaches Adventure Photography: Push the limits of your photography

Jimmy Chin has built his career taking photos at the top of the world, earning him the cover of National Geographic and multiple awards. Now he’s taking you on location to teach you techniques for capturing breathtaking shots. Learn his different creative approaches for commercial shoots, editorial spreads, and passion projects. Gather the gear—and the perspective—to bring your photography to new heights.

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