Understanding Composition

If you were to ask a hundred professional photographers what the key is to taking a good photograph, I’m sure at least ninety of them would say the same thing: “Composition.” I am a firm believer that without good composition, no matter how much money you do (or don’t) spend on camera gear, you simply will not take a good photograph. It’s because of this that the most common question that I ask my guests on Backcountry Journeys trips is “How’s your composition?” (“Anyone need a bathroom break?” is a close second.) I want to ensure that each and every one of my guests is able to walk away from our tours with a better grasp on the intentionality of their composition. I often tell guests that the best composition is one that can communicate effectively that every single piece of your photograph is in the frame for a reason. If there’s no reason for it to be there, get it out of there! If you’re capable of composing your shot so that your subject is in a spot that shows you thought through your composition, you will already be taking better photos. By thinking ahead and planning the positioning of a subject and its context, the photographer is able to create much more compelling images that are likely to be more well received and considered to be “better” overall. It’s my belief that, with decent light and good composition, you could take a photo of a pile of crap and it would still look good (see exhibit A).

Exhibit A: A well composed pile of crap.

As photographers, we know that a lot of what constitutes a good photo is subjective. What one person likes may not necessarily be what another likes. It’s often about what is most appealing to the viewer, and as photographers, we are the first “viewer” of a photo, and thus should be the harshest critic of what is considered pleasing. I’ll often hear guests tell themselves that a composition is just “good enough” or that they aren’t sure what they don’t like about a photo, so hopefully I can explain a few basic principles that lead to a more pleasing or engaging photo.

There are three main concepts to recognize when composing your photo. If you’ve read the first article in this “How To:” series, “Welcome to Photography”, you already know one of the primary concepts, the rule of thirds. We’ll discuss it further here, along with two other very important composition concepts, leading lines and contrast. You’ll often hear these three things referred to as “rules” of composition. I dislike the term, as I believe there are times when you should break the rules of composition, and when done so intentionally, you can still create very compelling images.

The Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is quite possibly the most commonly discussed aspect of composition. It’s often one of the first things someone tells a new photographer and is used in nearly every type of photography. From landscapes to portraits to commercial photography, the rule of thirds is what separates a true photographer from just another tourist with an iPhone. The rule of thirds is all about balance. By weighting your photo heavily to one side, it sets your subject apart from the rest of the photo, thus providing context and intentionality. Have you ever seen a photo of someone where they are just off center from the frame? It looks unnatural. The background is unbalanced and your brain doesn’t know where to train your eye. By placing the subject on one of the thirds lines, the eye is naturally drawn to a specific portion of the image first, and then, if the subject is interesting enough, the eye will begin to pull the brain further into the image, resulting in complexity and intrigue that is generally more likely to invoke an emotional reaction and be considered a “pleasing” or “quality” image.

An isolated skier placed on the lower left power point tells a powerful tale, even in black and white

Within the rule of thirds are four points commonly referred to as “power points”. These are the four points where the left and right thirds lines intersect with the top and bottom thirds lines. In an otherwise quiet image, a photographer may place their subject directly on the power point to invoke a more powerful emotion. The key here is to do this when needing to increase the subject isolation. By doing so, you can take a colorless, textureless background and add a bold, engaging subject that can tell the entire story on its own, resulting in very emotional photography. Typically, you may find that by simply placing your subject on one of the thirds lines you will create a moderately appealing image, but we’re not in the business of moderately appealing imagery. We want to take engaging photos that are capable of evoking emotion while communicating a powerful story. If a picture really is worth a thousand words, most of those words are written on the thirds lines, but the real stories are told on the power points.

A great example of using a background to add to the foreground story with a midground for transition

Another less commonly referenced variation of the rule of thirds is in the use of foreground, midground and backgrounds. These are generally comprised of the separation between the lower, middle and upper thirds within the photo. By framing your image so that there is a discernible foreground to catch the viewer’s attention, you’ll ensure the image is noticed among the plethora of potentially similar images out there. Once you have a foreground that you like, with perhaps a quality subject or intriguing splash of color, you should then work to compose your image so that there is a visible midground behind the foreground. By doing so, you give yourself the opportunity to use the potentially dead space between the foreground and background as a transition zone to naturally draw the eye further into the frame towards the background. The background is used to provide context to the foreground. An abrupt foreground/background separation can result in an image that is harsh or otherwise difficult to engage the viewer with. By utilizing a well thought out midground, the photographer eases this transition and creates an overall more pleasing scene. While this technique is usually more beneficial to landscape photographers, some of the most compelling wildlife photography out there uses this same technique to tell a story with the image, rather than simply providing an up close portrait of an animal.

An abstract use of leading lines to draw the eye further into the unknown. Taken on our Glacier Hiker Tour

Leading Lines

Now that we know better where in your frame to place your subject, let’s talk about some of the other things in the frame that will make for great photos. You know it’s not all about the subject, right? Another great way to add intrigue to an image is through the use of leading lines. Leading lines are exactly what they sound like. By utilizing nature or other components of your surroundings to act as lines within your photo to draw the eye further into the frame, you add depth and help pull the eye deeper into the photo. The longer you can train the eye to linger within your photo, the more a viewer will see, and thus be more engaged. By utilizing leading lines, you can ensure an image is extra engaging, especially when compared to a simple subject within a photo. A few great uses of leading lines in landscape photography are sunbeams, river banks, or plants. If you’ve ever seen a peaceful photo of a dock stretching out into the water, the entire appeal of a photo like that is due to the use of leading lines. Try to utilize semi parallel lines that start broadly and travel toward your subject in a gradually narrowing manner.

Along with leading lines, you can also utilize natural framing to help isolate your subject. By framing your subject between two trees of similar height, along the banks of a body of water, or perhaps even in between the gaps in tree branches or cat tails, you can help to provide a natural frame that helps with the intentionality of your photograph, while providing a natural barrier for the eye to stop at, keeping it within the frame and engaged for a longer period of time.

Here you can see the natural framing of the lakeshore used to create depth along with a discernable foreground, midground and background


Another key component of composition is contrast. Now, I’m not referring to the contrast slider that you see in lightroom or photoshop, but rather the contrasting textures within the photograph, separating different components of your image. The main contrasting components of an image are between dark and light, rigid and smooth, soft and hard, or by utilizing hard right angles in your leading lines. In the skier photograph above, you’ll not only notice the subject is centered on the power point, but also that there is a stark contrast between the darkness of the snowy shadowed foreground, and the lighter colored sky in the background. This harsh contrast is a great way to grab attention and engage a viewer on a more powerful level. One of my favorite contrasts to use is the contrast between something rigid and bold, like a rock, and something soft and delicate, like a flower.

By placing this flower in the foreground, it provides contrast to the stark rocky midground, before drawing your eye back to the soft, smooth silkiness of the waterfall.

Be on the lookout for areas of contrast when composing your photo and you’ll find that the initial appeal of your photo will increase, encouraging people to engage with your photo longer, and thus resulting in wider appeal and a generally “better” photo.

When to Break the Rules?

Now there must certainly be some of you out there reading this that are starting to think, “Aren’t rules meant to be broken?” and to that I’ve often said, “Only if you can make it look intentional.” The rule of thirds, the use of leading lines, and the utilization of stark contrasts are great general guidelines when composing a photo, but by no means does every photo have to have those three components. In fact, the longer you invest your time and energy into photography, the more you’ll realize that there is no one set formula for creating a compelling photograph. The better you know the rules, the better you know when to break them. As a general guideline when moving out of the traditional composition rules, I like to think that if you’re going to break one rule, do so in a way that emphasizes another one very heavily. If you’re going to disregard the rule of thirds and put your subject smack dab in the middle of your frame, make sure it’s because there is such a stark contrast that the subject is highlighted exclusively and there’s no longer a need for a background or leading lines. Great examples of this are macro photography or very detailed portraits. If you’re able to paint your subject in such a majestic light that it no longer needs to communicate to the viewer anything other than the sheer beauty/power/elegance of that subject, there’s no need for a leading line or foreground/background balance.

But that’s just me. Like I mentioned at the beginning, it’s all subjective. Composition is one of those things that photographers can fight over til they’re blue in the face. You’ll always have someone critique your favorite images, and it’s all too easy to find someone with something negative to say about your work. So, with that in mind, I say to, above all else, be intentional. If you are able to compose an image in such a manner that you can defend every single aspect of the image, it won’t matter what someone else thinks, so long as you like your image. Be able to explain why you opted to center your subject, or why you chose such a stark background, or why you opted for black and white. And at the end of the day, no matter how much time, effort, money and love you’ve put into your images, it’s your opinion of them that matters first, and your opinion that will allow you to sleep at night. So until next time, go out, take some photos, bend the rules, and most importantly, have fun. Happy shooting!


Chris Gheen









Chris grew up exploring the mountains of North Carolina, originally with his family on weekend camping trips and later as a self taught rock climber and backpacker, leading him ultimately to a degree in Recreation Management from Appalachian State University with a focus in Outdoor Experiential Education. Immediately after graduating, Chris drove west, knowing the mountains and opportunities for adventure were much bigger. Since then, he has worked in a variety of guiding applications, from small leadership non-profits, to adolescent wilderness therapy, to commercial hiking and tourism guiding in California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, always with a camera in hand. Chris loves teaching and sharing his passions and experience with others and is sure to provide careful insight and education whenever the opportunity arises. Chris currently resides in Bozeman, Montana where easy access to Yellowstone National Park allows him frequent trips into the park to photograph wildlife and the unique geologic features of the area. When not behind the lens, he spends his time backcountry skiing, ice climbing, and mountain biking, always on the lookout for a new unique perspective to photograph. The mountains have always been a point of inspiration for Chris and he is excited to capture the beauty of the natural world in an effort to share the space he is so privileged to work in with those around him. For a look at some of Chris’ work, visit his website www.chrisgheenphoto.com


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