One of the main things on everyone’s packing list is a camera. It doesn’t matter if it’s a phone camera, a point-and-shoot, or a DSLR with interchangeable lenses – what makes a great photo memory of a holiday is how you take the picture, not what you take the picture with. Advanced technology and post processing/editing is great, but if you don’t have the foundations of what makes up a good picture, then all the technology in the world can’t help it.
It all starts with composition, which is simply how the picture is created in your viewfinder – deciding exactly what you are taking a picture of. Sure, you want to get that picture of Billy and Susie in front of the Eiffel Tower, but if you want a good picture of Billy and Susie then you want to think about composition before you click the shutter button. Consider what you see through the viewfinder at the moment before you click the shutter button as your canvas – and just like a painter, you decide what is going to go on the canvas and where it is placed. You can control this by moving your body around to various viewpoints, moving closer, moving away, laying down, standing on something, or turning in circles if you want!
For your next trip, I’ve compiled a list of composition photography tips you can use with any camera and come back with pictures you are proud to share. Just remember – these are all things you need to do BEFORE you click the shutter button.
1. Do Not Center
This is my one tip I try to tell every person taking a picture – don’t put your subject in the center of the picture. It is the simplest thing you can do to change a picture from ok to great. The concept in art terms is called Rule of Thirds:
“An image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections. It is believed that by aligning a subject with these points creates more tension, energy and interest in the composition than simply centering the subject would.”
This basically means that instead of placing Billy and Susie, or the Eiffel Tower in the center of the photo, you place is in one of the thirds of the photo. Our brain comprehends this as more pleasing. If this is the only thing that you pick up from this whole article – I consider it a success – it’s just that important.
You can see the difference for yourself.
Centering the subject:
Utilizing the Rule of Thirds:
Sacre Coeur Cathedral Paris, France
Boy in Mongolia
Man in Tokyo walking past vending machines
There is one exception to the Rule of Thirds – and that’s when you are composing a shot to be symmetrical. A shot where everything is exactly symmetrical in the frame can also have a powerful effect. It adds stability to photographs and can give your compositions a sense of calm, peace, and “rightness.”
Symmetry at the Shaker Village in Kentucky
2. Lines and Curves
The 2nd easiest thing you can do to improve your photography is ensuring you compose a shot for leading lines. The use of lines can be used to direct the viewers attention to the subject of your photograph. When you first glimpse at a photo, our brain automatically starts to decipher the picture trying to figure out what the picture is of. Without us being aware of it, our brain looks for lines that lead us to the subject of the picture. These lines can be straight, diagonal, wavy, or any other creative variation. They can be roads, fences, shadows, mountain landscapes, the even the curve of a hat. To be most effective, you should try to create your overall composition so that the lines appear to be moving in or out of a corner(s).
Brooklyn Bridge in New York City.
Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal. The prayer flags provide lines in the picture.
The clouds form lines leading into the focal point of the ship in Antarctica.
The camels form a line/curve that leads you into the image. Sahara Desert, Morocco.
This is a pretty simple concept because we all know what a frame is – it is something that goes around a picture. Framing in composition is something that frames your main subject to call even more attention to it. This is probably one of the easier composition techniques in photography. Framing brings more depth to the picture and a better focus on what the main subject is. Plus – it’s a great way to highlight something that is always photographed, it brings a new perspective and interest to the subject.
Taj Mahal in a traditional photo without framing.
Taj Mahal seen through a window of a building.
Framing the Girona Cathedral in Spain.
A boy leads cows across a river in India.
4. Scan for Distractions
Before you click the shutter button, take one last look around your frame; especially the corners. Look for pesky power lines and other distractions like people or signs. There’s nothing worse than trying to get a great shot of the simplicity of village life in remote areas and there are power lines running through your shot! If power lines are in your frame, then go to another vantage point (squat down or stand on something) so you can get a nice clean shot. Right before I shoot I move my eye around the perimeter of my frame to make sure it’s clear – then take the shot. Yes, you can remove these with editing software after the fact, but I can guarantee that it takes much less time to simply move a few steps then removing/editing it after the fact.
5. Go Wide
I know everyone likes to have these super zoom cameras, but the more powerful photos are the ones where you can see the people relate to their environment. Good pictures tell a story. A wide angle shot will include people and how they are interacting to their environment. People in a wide angle shot also provide a way to show perspective of something. If you use a DSLR, use a wide angle lens for a day and see how your photography improves!
A close up is a lovely picture:
But a wide angle shot tells a story:
A 5 day old baby naps while the mother drinks soup to recover, In Laos.
6. Get Up Close and Ask Permission
If you are taking photos of people, don’t simply zoom in and ‘steal’ pictures of them while they are not looking. If you are really interested in people photography then the first step is to form a relationship with the person. By not relying on the crutch of a zoom lens, it will force you to get up closer to your subject and interact. The first interaction should be to ask them if you can take their picture. The worst they can say is “no” and you move on. Getting permission is key, as in some cultures taking a photo of someone has very negative connotations. Plus – by asking this means that you’ll interact more with your subject and that ALWAYS makes a better picture. Interaction causes them to look at you and the lens – when people look at the lens, it creates a powerful image. A candid shot of the subject looking directly into the lens is the ‘money’ shot!
This is the same child in Nepal, which one creates the more powerful picture?
Children in Mountain village in Nepal.
Women at a temple near Udaipur India sing and dance.
A mother carries her son in Nepal.
If you don’t want to stand out as you are taking photos, then try to blend into the crowd more. I do this by crouching down/squatting and taking photos from a lower viewpoint. This way I don’t stand out as much (I normally travel in Asia where I seem to tower over everyone!). If you are photographing children, then crouching is a must to get to their level and interact with them. It helps put them at ease. Plus crouching has added benefits – it normally offers a more unique and pleasing perspective.
Standing vs. Crouching – which picture do you prefer?
8. Share the Photo!
Finally – when you are taking photos of people who you’ve received permission from and formed a relationship with, remember to always offer to share the photo with them. Show them what you shot – people always love to see photos of themself! Plus – in some countries seeing your own photo can be quite a novelty. You can even offer to take their address or email and send them the image to really go full circle and give back.
Sharing a photo with a family in Mongolia.
A young boy in Morocco looks at a photo of himself for the first time.
These are just a few composition tips that you can digest for your next trip. But the best advice I can give you is to practice and ask for honest feedback. Show the photos to others and ask for advice I guarantee you will come back with better pictures! Plus – learn how to critique a photo yourself as the more we learn to say what is good or bad about a photo’s composition, the better we become. Here’s a good list of photo critique sites.
Now get out there and start shooting!
About: Sherry Ott has taken thousands and thousands of photos with all types of cameras. She has carried cameras and lenses to heights of 18,000 ft, to below sea level, to all 7 continents, and to over 60 countries. Sherry is a refugee from corporate IT who is now a long term traveler, blogger and photographer. She has been blogging about her travels on Ottsworld: Travel and Life Experiences of a Corporate America Runaway since 2006. She’s a co-founder of Meet, Plan, Go!, a website and national event offering career break or sabbatical travel inspiration and advice to mid career professionals. You can see more of her photography portfolio here.