Have you ever wondered what makes a good picture? Why some photo will only live on your phone and be forgotten, while others you will remember for the rest of your life?

That’s composition for you.

Obviously subject matter is important as well, but composition is the reason why only you will look back at the pictures of your kids, while “Migrant mother” is a masterpiece.

And no, the answer is DEFINITELY NOT “follow the rule of thirds”!

Today we will talk about 10 things you can do to improve your composition. And we’ll see that what we’ve been thought in terms of composition from time immemorial from books and magazines is often completely wrong and misleading. Are you tired of shooting boring pictures? Then tag along, and be sure to read up to the end for a killer bonus tip. You will thank me for this one in a few years!

The rule of thirds is a scam

When I was a beginner I used to buy almost exclusively what most manufacturers call an E screen, the ones for architectural photography that have a grid resembling the rule of thirds. My most boring pictures ever have been shot that way. The rule of third is like a walking harness for a toddler: you might think it’ll help your kid walk early and better, but in reality it does nothing and could even be detrimental. So if you are a total beginner you might be tempted to follow a rule, any rule, just to have something to grasp while you learn to walk with your own legs. But you will be better off learning how to develop a feeling for proper framing.

Forget Instagram

Also known as “Stop obsessing over mediocre Instagram images”. By the way, they are not mediocre because they are on Instagram (where you CAN find great work). They are mediocre because they are following a trend, so copying someone else. And even if they are actually good NO ONE can keep posting every- single-day masterpieces, not even a reborn Ansel Adams or (IMO the greatest photographer ever lived) W. Eugene Smith. If you manage to find exceptional images, don’t just go “wow” and pass over, but THINK what you would have been doing differently to make the image even stronger.

Sometime the image will be so strong that you won’t be able to think to anything that could have made it better, but still this little exercise will make you a better photographer.

Compose without a camera

A 365 pictures project works wonderfully, not because you will get 365 masterpieces — you won’t, they will be mostly bad pictures — but because it forces you to develop and stretch your vision. Constantly look for pictures wherever and whenever. You don’t have to carry a camera or even just to take a snapshot with your phone if you don’t feel to. But the mere act of recognizing potential compositions will help you become an immensely better photographer.

The time you actually will have a camera with you you’ll find much easier to spot a great scene.

A few shots from my 1st 365 project

Follow your gut

Blindly following the rule of third or copying some Insta-trend won’t make you any favors instead.
My suggestion, instead of any kind of grid, is: follow your gut.

Yes, most of your pictures, especially at the beginning, will look terrible, but at least some of them won’t and you will immediately start understanding what is it that you like and to develop your own style.

Learn what you like

Make peace with the fact that not everyone will like your pictures. It’s not just you, it happens even to the masters, from time immemorial.

Think about it: their contemporaries managed to not understand at first Caravaggio, Van Gogh or Georgia O’Keef. And I can pretty much guarantee that we are making the same mistake with some other artist at the moment. Not everyone likes the same style and composition. You have to take pictures FOR YOURSELF, meaning that the photo you take have to be appreciated first and foremost BY YOU.

So, if you don’t have to follow specific grids or guides how do you get better at composing your pictures?

Study the masters of photography

Well, first of all you should start studying the masters of photography. You’ll see that they very rarely rely on standardized and strict compositional grids. Yes, if you insist you can apply, in retrospect, this or that other grid to some of the images. But it is not the way they compose, look and think.

Indeed, most of them, when asked about, will answer that they shot a particular image that way “because it felt right” or something alongside those lines. If you go around thinking what grid should you use you’ll miss on action (the “decisive moment”), color, or intention. For example, do you want the image to feel unbalanced, purposely? Do you want to emphasize or hide that red sign in the background? Do you need to wait for that guy to stop? And so on and so forth.

Study master painters

Study paintings, not just pictures. Not only because our vision has been shaped more from centuries of paintings than from a couple hundred years of photography.

But also because, in a sense, painters have it easy. They don’t have to rely on reality lining up with their expectations, so their compositions can actually be much stronger.

Listen to music

Think to an image like it was a musical score; a gentle rhythm and a general harmony will lull the viewer into a relaxed state. Sudden ruptures and pauses will jolt him. A mono-tone image will be…well…monotone and boring (unless you are really intentional about that, for example for a specific project).

Think: books or walls?

Composition criteria differs wildly among mediums, especially when we take into consideration picture size. Photos that look great on Instagram when seen on the relatively tiny screen of your smartphone might look positively horrible if you print them large, and vice versa.

It is not just a matter of small defects, for example an image not perfectly sharp, becoming more and more evident the larger you print that picture. This is also a factor, don’t get me wrong.
But really is a matter of different composition criteria and, up to a point, different subject matter.

More, some pictures work in combination with each other, as a project, do they express better themselves in a book. While others stand on their own and work best as single, independent, images.

Accept that nobody likes the same things

I, for example, like very much atmospheric pictures, strong color contrast with bold blocked shadows, really dark and almost dreamlike black and white, sometimes even pastel color reminding me of the ‘70s. Others will love the flatter rendering of digital or the more delicate touch of negative film stocks like Portra. The same is true for composition. What appeals to me might not be of your liking.

So the best piece of advice I can give you is: SHOOT FOR YOURSELF.

As long as YOU like the pictures you’ve taken, than SOMEONE ELSE will like them as well. Maybe you won’t find your audience straight away, maybe it will be an extremely small audience, but I can guarantee you it’ll be out there, somewhere.

Don’t delete your pictures, ever

No, not even the ones a little bit blurry or out of focus. As I said, you will thank me for this in a few years.

Revisit your Capture One or Lightroom catalogues, periodically. What looked like a mediocre or even a bad picture might turn out to be a keeper. I can guarantee that your taste will change. It will get more and more refined the longer you take and study pictures.

Besides, you will become better at editing, and even the software you use will become better at recovering mistakes. So an image that was, for many reasons, a goner might at some point become one of the strongest in your portfolio.

Don’t obsess over grids, lines, triangles. Try to enjoy photography and do develop a feeling for what feels just right for that particular image and for the intention you, as the photographer, had it when you shot it.



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