Category Archives: Composition

Composition tips for taking photos.

Using Curves to Enhance Composition

[tweetmeme]We’ve been on a roll lately talking about post-processing curves: video tutorials, linear adjustments, and nonlinear adjustments. I have one more in the works, but I wanted to take a little break from all that technical software stuff.

I also wanted to stay on topic with the theme of “curves”, so here’s a slightly different take on it. Curves are also a key component of composition. In this article, you’ll find eleven tips for using curves in composition along with sample photos.


Leading lines are a basic compositional technique, and curves can be used in place of straight lines. Try using natural curves to force the eye of the viewer to a common focal point. In the image below, the main draw is toward the intersection of the curves.

Entering Hyperspace
Creative Commons License photo credit: Éole


Curves can take on many shapes and forms, including circles and spirals. These forms also force a natural point of focus to their center. This particular photo also uses straight lines aimed directly at the center for a stronger effect.

Argento Spiralis
Creative Commons License photo credit: ramyo


Repeating curves tend to make a stronger compositional impact than a single curve. Bonus points if you can get an odd number of them like 3 or 5 — odds tend to be more attractive than evens. This photo shows triple repeating curves with nearly identical shape. The simple color scheme also helps to not distract from the composition.

Green curves
Creative Commons License photo credit: tanakawho


We’re basically nothing but curves. If you have the opportunity to photograph people in a revealing manner, be sure to look for the natural flowing curves. In this photo, the soft curve is accentuated by the lighting, and the placement of the hand interrupts it to provide some amount of tension in an otherwise relaxing shape.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Ozyman


I mentioned this in tip #2, but I’ll mention it again. Combining curves and lines can be a powerful compositional technique. The intersections can create compelling patterns, while the lines and curves provide pathways for the eye to travel. In this photo, there are far more straight lines than curves, but the curved sections draw the eye because they stand out from the rest of the pattern.

Working Late
Creative Commons License photo credit: Thomas Hawk


A plain foreground or background can be good in some instances, but other instances will benefit from a subtle break. Curves can provide that soft break in an otherwise flat foreground or background. In this photo, you can see that the foreground curves provide areas of higher contrast to break up the low contrast midtones of the snow.

snow curve
Creative Commons License photo credit: extranoise


Obviously, the typical camera will capture any scene in 2D. But 3D curves and spirals can change their shape and appearance when flattened. This photo shows spirals and loops of smoke being converted into repeating sinusoidal curves on a 2D plane.

Fading Flower
Creative Commons License photo credit: Dude Crush


Intersecting curves can create a sense of depth and give some extra notion of the 3D layout of the scene. Notice that this image exhibits several levels of intersections — roof structure, shadows, and straight lines. Also notice that the radial curves draw your attention to their center while the sweeping curves and band of sunlight draw your attention to the same location.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Jasmic


This one popped up when I was searching for “curve” photos… I couldn’t resist putting it in here. Rock on.

Rocking the Curve
Creative Commons License photo credit: Marvin Kuo


When you have multiple curves or repeating curves, play on the contrast between them to create a pattern of stripes. This high contrast helps to define the curves as a strong point in the composition. In this photo, you can see the very strong contrast between the steps as they sweep along the buildings.

Curves & Curves
Creative Commons License photo credit: Pieter Musterd


Curves can be presented within the composition at may levels. Small curves, big curves, lazy curves, tight curves, loopy curves, etc. Finding a scene with more than one type of curve can present your viewer with an interesting piece to digest. In this photo, you can see the big curves separating sand from sky, curves separating the foreground, and lots of little curves providing texture.

Diminishing Lines
Creative Commons License photo credit: Appy29 (very busy away)


Natural frames are also a good way to help your composition, so look for any curves that can provide a stronger focus for your subject. Here, you can see that the curve of the bench draws your attention toward the may laying on it and away from the lower left corner.

Creative Commons License photo credit: paul goyette

How else can you use curves to enhance your composition? And be sure to share your own example photos in the comments below!

Center Your Subject for Action Shots

Porsche Battle

We hear a lot about things such as the rule of thirds and not centering your subject for better composition. But there are times when you should actually center your subject to ensure that you get the shot. Action shots are typically a one chance situation. This can include sports, racing, performances, etc.

The problem with these action scenarios is that the main subject is usually moving quite fast and you only have one opportunity to capture a given moment. Spend too much time thinking about composition rules will ultimately result in missed shots. Here are a few reasons why you should think about centering your subject (and some tips for action shots):

  • It’s easier for your AF camera to focus on the subject when centered — nothing worse than a sharp background and blurry subject. The caveat to this is if you have your camera set to spot focus somewhere other than the center.
  • Most manual focus screens have additional feedback at the center of the frame — use it!
  • Center your subject and you won’t miss a shot due to over-thinking the composition.
  • Leave a bit of extra room around the main subject so that you can crop for better composition later.
  • Use continuous AF to track the action — especially when the subject is moving toward or away from you.
  • Get the dang shot!

What do you guys think? Good advice? Bad advice? What would you add to this?

8 Tips for Shooting Extremely Wide Angles

Wide angle photography can be fun and challenging at the same time. On one hand, it’s great to pull in so much of a scene with a single shot. On the other hand, it can be difficult to produce a well composed photo at such a wide perspective. So I’ve pulled together a few photos and pieces of advice for shooting with wide angle lenses.

For the purpose of this article, we’ll consider anything at or below 30mm (full frame equiv) to be a wide angle.


Shooting in a portrait orientation with a wide angle lens can produce wonderful images, even landscapes (which are more commonly shot using landscape orientation). Going vertical allows you to pack a lot of information into the frame, basically from your feet to way up in the sky.

Black's Beach Below, by Brian Auer
Photo by Brian Auer
[CC by-nc-nd]

Just In Time, by Andreas Manessinger
Photo by Andreas Manessinger


Though vertical shots are fun, horizontals will sometimes be better suited for the subject. Evaluate the scene and decide which elements you want to be prominent in the photo.

The Watchman, by Brian Auer
Photo by Brian Auer
[CC by-nc-nd]

The Place to Be, by Brian Auer
Photo by Brian Auer
[CC by-nc-nd]


Get low or point the camera down to make your foreground the main subject. Since objects in the foreground are much closer than the background, they will appear quite large in comparison. As you get closer to your subject, this emphasis becomes stronger.

Kelp Me, by Brian Auer
Photo by Brian Auer
[CC by-nc-nd]

The Shell, by Garry
Photo by Garry
[CC by-nc-sa]


If you have some nice cloud formations, don’t forget to point that lens up at the sky. The wide angle can pull in a huge portion of the sky and make for a great scene.

Wide Open, by Brian Auer
Photo by Brian Auer
[CC by-nc-nd]

The Barn and the Sky, by Brian Auer
Photo by Brian Auer
[CC by-nc-nd]


Capturing shapes and geometry with wide angles forces you to look at the world a bit differently. Look for large structures containing strong lines or curves, and move around until you find those shapes.

Bridge Over Still Water, by Andreas Manessinger
Photo by Andreas Manessinger

Hypnosis, by Thomas Hawk
Photo by Thomas Hawk
[CC by-nc]


Wide angle lenses can be used to take portraits, if you’re mindful of the distortions caused by the lens. If you shoot around 30mm (or 20mm for 1.5x crop sensors) and keep your subject near center, the distortion will usually be minimal. On the other hand, you can use very wide angles and get up close to produce a distorted portrait on purpose.

On The Other Side of the Fence, by Brian Auer
Photo by Brian Auer
[CC by-nc-nd]

A cow, by Dave Wild
Photo by Dave Wild
[CC by-nc]


Wide angle lenses allow you to capture a large scene at very close distances. This means that you can shoot from all sorts of different angles that wouldn’t be possible with normal or telephoto lenses.

Jump out of here! by Stefano Corso
Photo by Stefano Corso
[CC by-nc-nd]

Staircase snail, by Éole Wind
Photo by Éole Wind
[CC by-nc-sa]


Wide angle lenses are prone to various distortions at extreme focal lengths. You might encounter things like barrel or pincushion distortion, especially at the edges and corners of your frame. If you want to avoid them, keep things like people or buildings away from these areas. But don’t always try to avoid them — use them to your advantage if the subjects are suited for it.

Warp, by Cristian Paul
Photo by Cristian Paul
[CC by-nc-nd]

100: I Need More Sleep, by Josh Hunter
Photo by Josh Hunter
[CC by-nc-nd]

As always, feel free to leave your own tips and/or photos in the comments below. For those of you that shoot wide, what advice do you have for others?

The Lowdown on Getting Down and Low

Hostile Takeover

I felt really bad for not participating in Neil Creek’s last photography project, so I was determined to make it up to him and participate in his current project titled “The View From Below“. I would have liked to participated a lot sooner than right before the deadline, but something is better than nothing I suppose.

The goal for this project is to take a photo from a low perspective (with the camera under 12 inches from the ground). It’s a great exercise because we typically don’t lower our cameras that far. It’s unfortunate because there are a ton of missed opportunities from down there. I took many shots for this project while laying on the ground, but the mushroom shot above came out best.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have taken a photo of some common mushrooms in the grass — but getting down to their level changed the perspective so drastically. The ONLY reason I took this shot was because I was thinking of the project. I wish it didn’t take a project to remind me to get down on the ground every once in a while, but it was a great reminder and lesson in composition and perspective.

So whether you participate in Neil’s project or not, try to remind yourself that standing up or kneeling down aren’t the only ways to take a photo. Glance down at your feet every once in a while and see what’s down there. If you see an interesting scene in front of you, see what it looks like from ground level. And remember that the things you normally look down onto will appear completely different and new when you look up at them.

smirk-240.jpg carving-from-below-240.jpg the-old-man-240.jpg

Pick Your Shot With One Eye

Your camera is basically a single eye — no depth perception other than depth of field. Your images are 2-dimensional. When you look through your own eyes, you see the world in 3-dimensions.

This can cause you to see things slightly different than you would through the camera. Have you ever picked out your subject, taken a shot, then realized that it didn’t look quite the same as you remembered it? Your 3-dimensional vision can cause you to see and focus (mentally) on different things than your camera is capable of picking up.

So to help bring yourself a little closer to your camera’s point of view, close one eye when you think you have a good shot scoped out. Evaluate the colors, tones, shapes, contrasts, etc. THEN evaluate through the camera’s viewfinder for framing and composition. I find myself doing this little exercise even when I don’t have a camera on me.

Focusing on the Unfocused Photos

A sharp focus with crisp detail is generally one of the most sought after features in a photo. How many times have you thrown out a photo because your auto-focus was off a little? How many of us fret over shutter speeds, “sweet spots“, image stabilization, tripods and tripod heads, and image sharpening techniques in Photoshop?

I’m not arguing that sharp photos are are worth the extra effort — but I think unsharp photos are worth more effort than we typically give them. And by “unsharp photos” I don’t mean those accidental blurry shots resulting from your AF picking up on the wrong subject. Intentionally unfocused photos can be quite amazing for certain scenes and subjects.

I spent a bit of time on my last photo shoot working on de-focused, mis-focused, and soft-focused imagery. One of my key learnings is that it’s much harder to pull off than you would think. But before I get to the tips, here are some observations about the nature of these types of photos. I’m finding that they can usually be placed into one of the following categories.


De-focused photos are those that are so incredibly out of focus that it can be hard to tell what’s in the photo. This method can add a very abstract and mysterious feel to a photo. Since there’s nothing for your eyes to focus on, your attention goes to the soft shapes and tonal gradients found throughout the image.


Mis-focused photos are out of focus for the main subject, but some other part of the image (either in the foreground or background) is tack sharp. This type of photo is a treat to contemplate because you’re constantly torn between the out-of-focus main subject and the in-focus secondary subject. Our eyes love to explore the detail in the focused portion of the image, but our minds are drawn to the main subject.


I guess you could call this the “everything else” category, but this type of photo has a unique mood and feel too. The image is just enough out-of-focus to freak out your eyes, but just enough in-focus that your mind knows what the details should look like. The neat thing about soft-focused photos is that they clearly show the photographer’s intent while allowing for ample interpretation by the viewer.


I still have a lot to learn about unfocused photography techniques and methods, but I’ve learned a few things through experimentation.

  • Lens Choice
    Your shorter focal lengths will be more difficult to defocus, especially if you want to anchor your shot with an in-focus element. Macro lenses, fast lenses, and telephoto lenses will give you the most flexibility and the widest range of unfocusability.
  • Manual Focus
    Your camera won’t know how much of a soft-focus you’re going for, so your auto-focus is almost useless. AF can come in handy if you’re using it to mis-focus on some other element in the frame, but otherwise manual focus is best.
  • F-Number Setting
    Lower f-numbers will give you lots of anti-focus, higher f-numbers will give you less. If you’re going for abstract, open it up. If you’re going for soft, stop it down.
  • Your LCD is a Liar
    Your images will look much sharper on that little LCD on the back of your camera. The ones you think were soft-focused will be completely de-focused and unrecognizable. And if you’re shooting for a light soft-focus, it will almost look sharp on the LCD.
  • Focus Bracketing
    If you’re unsure about your de-focus abilities, just shoot a few at various amounts of clarity. You could even do this in rapid-fire mode if you’re using the manual focus and if you’re shooting at a fast enough shutter speed.
  • Shoot People
    People make great subjects for out-of-focus photos. We know they’re people, but we’re quite curious about who they are and what they might look like. The human form is easy for us to recognize, so it adds context to the photo quite rapidly even though the image is blurry.
  • Focus, Focus, Focus
    Focus on unfocusing. Try it out — just go out with your camera on manual focus and start shooting unfocused photos. You’ll be surprised at how different the world can appear when you remove all the details.

Anybody else have anything to add to the list? And if you’ve taken any unfocused photos that you’re particularly fond of, leave a link in the comments — I’d love to check them out.

Shoot From The Hip


As photographers, we’re so often bound by the rules of the game. Hold your camera correctly, keep your horizon straight, check your histograms, remember the rule of thirds, close your mouth when you chew, etc. Don’t you ever just feel like breaking ALL of the rules… even for a little while?

Pacific Sunset

One of the things I do that I find to be really invigorating is shooting from the hip. It’s not hard to do — you just pick up your camera, go somewhere, and take a picture without looking through the viewfinder. It doesn’t have to actually be from your hip, but it can be if you’d like. See something that looks interesting? Just click! Another thing I like to do is take pictures while I’m walking with my camera in my hand at my side. It looks like I’m just walking along, but I’m really taking snapshots of points of interest. That’s how I got this silhouette shot.

Drive-By Shooting

I’m always surprised at the results that I get from doing this sort of thing. Most turn out really crappy, but some actually turn out better than they would have if you were trying to get the shot. There’s a lot that you can teach yourself by analyzing the composition and lighting of your “Hip Shots”. Why? Because you’re outside the box and you’re getting shots you would normally never allow yourself to take.

One last note: wide angle lenses are great for this type of thing — all 3 of the shots above were taken with my 10-20mm zoom. The DOF is awesome, you don’t have to be dead-on with your aim, and it’s a lot of fun to do a drive-by on your Dad 12 inches from his face while he’s trying to drink a beer.

Quick Tip: Pay Attention To Your Background

When you bring that camera up to your eye and line up that perfect shot in your frame… STOP! Take an extra look at the rest of your scene and make sure the background isn’t going to ruin the photo. It’s easy to pay close attention to the main subject, but everything else in that composition plays an important part in making a great photo. If the background is too distracting, it becomes the main subject — in a bad way. If the background is too empty, it can make the photo feel empty too.

I’ve ruined enough of my own photos in the past that it’s become a habit of mine to double check my background and every edge of the frame. Our eyes are naturally drawn to the center of the scene, and it’s quite easy to miss things along the edges or off in the distance. Don’t let your photos get mucked up by unintentional background items — You’re the photographer; you’re in control.

Quick Tip: Using Photoshop to Add Vignette

Vignette (pronounced vin-‘yet) is a sort of framing element that you’ll sometimes see in photos (particularly older photos or Lomo shots), in which the image fades out toward the corners. It’s most commonly seen as a fade out to black, but white is also used sometimes. The vignette can be a powerful element of the photo because it has a natural tendency to draw the eye toward the center of the photo.

Comparison of vignette versus no vignette

Vignette can be produced naturally if you’re using a lens intended for a smaller medium (like using a dSLR lens on a film SLR), because parts of the lens actually block out some of the light from hitting the sensor or film. There are a few other methods of getting the vignette effect, but the simplest of them is with Photoshop. Also, using Photoshop will allow you a wider range of control since it can be adjusted many times without destroying pixels.

The following Photoshop techniques are non-destructive (destroying pixels is a bad thing, and it’s downright mean) and easy to adjust. Now listen closely, and do as I do:

  2. Create a new empty layer on top of the stack. Ctrl + Alt + Shift + N
  3. Fill the layer with pure white. Shift + Backspace
  4. Set the blend mode to “Multiply”. Alt + Shift + M
  5. Apply the vignette filter to the new layer.
    Filter >> Distort >> Lens Correction…
  6. Mess with the “Amount” and “Midpoint” sliders in the “Vignette” section.
  7. Press “OK”, and now you have art!

You’ve officially added vignette to the photo in a non-destructive manner using Photoshop. If you decide to come back to the photo at a later time and you want to change the vignette, just refill the top layer with white and repeat lens correction. This isn’t the only way to do this (and I apologize to those who don’t use Photoshop), but its the easiest and safest way that I know of.

Create Dramatic Images by Shooting for the Sky

When shooting outdoors, the sky is often part of the picture. Most of the time, though, it’s a secondary (or tertiary) subject within the frame. What a shame.

Sunset Flames

The sky can be the extraordinary centerpiece of a photo — sometimes you just have to make it happen. Deep blues, white clouds, orange and red sunsets, stormy weather… and no two skies are the same. It’s an ever changing landscape waiting to be captured in all it’s glory. Here are a few tips for making the most of those skies.

The Barn and The Sky


Sometimes the stuff in the sky is more interesting than the stuff on the ground. If this is the case, make the sky the main subject. Use the ground or overhanging trees to frame it and place it at the center of attention. Set your exposure for the sky and allow everything else to be darker — this will help to de-emphasize the other elements of the photo. Typically the sky gets blown out when shooting other subjects, so this method is a nice way to shake things up.


There’s no easier way to make the sky your main subject than to fill the frame with it. You’ll want to leave something else in the photo to help ground it, so don’t fill the entire frame with sky — more on this topic in a moment.

Painted Desert Sun Rays


One good way to fill the frame with sky is to use a wide angle lens. The wide angles help to add a large-scale feeling to things. With some wide angle lenses (such as my 10-20mm), you can actually capture well over 90 degrees of view. That means that you can grab a slice of ground while shooting directly overhead. The other thing I’ve noticed about wide angle shots of the sky is that the colors tend to be much more saturated and darker than at longer focal lengths. When I shoot at 10mm, the sky almost has the appearance you’d expect from a polarizing filter


A polarizer is a great way to add some drama to the sky. They add contrast and can really richen the colors. I’m guilty of not having one, but it’s on the top of my “to-buy” list. I’ve seen some really amazing “with and without” shots that show the true advantage to using a polarizer. For more information on polarizers, read Andrew Ferguson’s guest article at the Photocritic titled “How a Polarizer Filter Works.”



I alluded to this earlier, but when taking photos of the sky you have to remember to anchor your shot. Nothing but sky isn’t very attractive because it’s hard to tell exactly what we’re looking at. An anchor can be anything other than sky that gives a sense of orientation and scale — it grounds the photo. Pay attention to what you use as an anchor, though, because it will often become the secondary subject in the frame.


Shooting for the sky can be a fun photo shooting experiment, but don’t forget to mix it up a bit. I only offer these tips as things to think about when you’re out shooting something else. Because sometimes, we just forget to look up.

What other tips do you have for shooting the sky?