Composition techniques for photography – planning pictures

Planning pictures, what a concept. Most people think that all you need to do is take lots of pictures and occasionally get lucky and get a good one. I firmly believe that you need to plan, create, and capture beautiful pictures on a regular basis.

But today we are looking at composition techniques for photography that go beyond the obvious of using leading lines in photography. Last post we talked about cropping your image as much as possible in the camera, the placement of elements using the rule of thirds, horizontal, vertical, diagonals, S curves, and circular composition.

There is more to creating an exciting, great photograph. Elements like balancing shapes, finding patterns, maximizing texture, and properly balancing size and space. Photography is more than a hobby or a profession – it’s a passion. A passion that allows you to see the world in a whole new way. It allows you to be in the present, to create with a purpose, but most importantly – live with purpose.


The shapes in the photograph tend to be noticed first. It helps to set a mood, create a character to the picture.  The secret to creating a great picture using shape is to search for the unconventional or surprise shape in objects.

How do you create shape when you need to? The easiest way is to use backlighting to create a silhouette. Backlighting is basically having the sun or whatever light source you are using is behind or mostly behind the subjects.


Line is a powerful tool that helps you create shape, pattern, depth, and perspective. You can use lines to guide the eyes in and around the image. Improperly used, lines can draw the viewers eyes out of the image. Of course, it is your intent to keep the viewer’s eye in the image so that your story can be told and understood. Lines can take the form of an actual line or an implied line made, by contrast, various colours or balancing spaces.

Lines can be enhanced with dramatic angles, application of the rule of thirds, finding converging lines, repetition, and creating diagonals. Lines can be your friend or your worst enemy, it is only by carefully looking through your viewfinder and being cognizant of all aspects of what you see.


Basically, pattern is the orderly combination of shape, line, or colour in a repeating manner. We can find patterns all around us in both a manmade and natural form. These can make for some very dramatic and creative photographs.

The beauty of pattern is that you can find it anywhere and everywhere. You don’t need any fancy equipment or techniques to use it. The strength lies in consistent geometric formation and regularity of the pattern.


Regular patterns

Irregular patterns

Natural patterns

Man-made patterns

Breaking patterns



Some of the most beautiful photographs are those showing texture. Just like pattern you can find texture everywhere. Texture adds a heightened sense of realism. To capture texture, you would usually have sharp or hard lighting that brings out the texture. To highlight texture, you either set your light on one of the sides of the image or move so that the light source is hitting the subject from the side.

One of the most important elements in photography is to take a 2D object and try to make it look 3D. That is one of the wonderful pleasures of texture photography, its depth. That brings us to our next element – Using light for Depth.

Using light for Depth

Light itself has different values or texture – soft, medium, or hard. Properly using or seeing the light greatly enhances your ability to capture amazing images. As I mentioned earlier photographs are 2D and to be truly outstanding we want the illusion of 3D. After all, we see our world in three dimensions.

Our eyes are drawn to the greatest area of contrast in an image. In a darker picture, it goes to the lightest part of the image. In a lighter image, our eyes go to the darkest part. This natural phenomenon gives us a powerful tool in our storytelling and creating depth in your photograph.

One secret is to place your main subject, which should be the lightest area in one of the four main corners or along the lines of the rule of thirds. By placing it there you create depth and flow. When you add side lighting which further enhances the depth in the image.

Size and space

 Size and shape take on many forms. Basically, they define space and by defining that space we can control how the eyes track around the photograph.

There is two-dimensional shape which is determined by height and width which looks flat and three-dimensional shape which adds the dimension of depth to the other two.

Shape is further defined as organic, which is a shape that is irregular and asymmetrical. Or geometric, which are regular and defined shapes, such as cones, sphere, squares, circles, and rectangles to name a few. To confuse the issue, you can put organic shapes in geometric ones or the other way around.

There is also negative and positive space. Negative space has nothing in it and positive space which is filled space. We often will use this positive and negative space to balance the difference in size of an object to its background. It can also evoke a psychological feeling such a showing a lot of space around your subject causing a lonely or “small” feeling. Reciprocally, by cropping very close to the subject you end up cramming it in or creating a feeling of claustrophobia.


There are two types of contrast that we as photographers use. The first is tonal contrast which refers to the difference between the light and darkest part of a picture. A high contrast image is one that has black or really dark areas opposing light areas in an image – very little in the grey tones or medium tones

The second type of contrast is colour contrast. Here we pit complimentary colours against each other. Blue vs Yellow, or Red vs. Green are a couple of examples. They do not need to be primary colours, they can be secondary or tertiary as well.


Many studies have been performed on people to see how colour affects how they see and feel. Responses vary when the value of the colour changes. Value is the lightness or darkness of the colour. The same is true of the hue of the colour. Hue refers to the pure spectrum of colours. Naturally, there are volumes written on the psychological implications of colour and it has been found that culture has a determining factor in how people feel about colours.

This all sounds like a lot of work -but well worth it. These thoughts are ideas to help you see the possibilities and hopefully increase your enjoyment. The bottom line is to go have fun, take lots of pictures, and think about how the image looks just before you push the shutter release.

All photographs are created by Bob Vanderford and Chuck Groot

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