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The Ultimate Guide to Finding Great Photo Composition

The Ultimate Guide to Finding Great Photo Composition

In the first of our series on what goes into making a great stock photo, we’re looking at the magical organizational power of photo composition.

Trying to put your finger on why you simply can’t look away from an image? It’s likely composition is at work. It’s the hidden secret for transforming so-so images into magnetic photographs.

Learn the must-know tricks and techniques behind selecting photos with superb compositions in order to stun your audience and capture their attention. Plus, we’ll show you the composition styles that are trending in advertising and marketing. 

Clockwise, from top left: License these images via everst, ABB Photo, Ruslan Ivantsov, nickxjones, and nazarovsergey.

What Is Photo Composition?

Photo composition simply describes how elements in an image are arranged and composed. Improving the composition of a photograph makes it feel more absorbing and interesting.

Composition also acts as an organizational tool for making photos appear polished and tidy.  

Many professional photographers have an innate sense of how to create a great composition. There are also a range of different guidelines to help photographers frame their images when shooting, or edit them afterwards to improve their composition. 

Photo composition simply describes how elements in an image are arranged and composed.

The rules of photo composition include, among others, leading lines, depth, balance, and the rule of thirds. All of these work in different ways to draw in the viewer’s eye and keep it engaged for longer.

In this article, we’ll cover some of these composition guidelines, including:

  1. Leading Lines
  2. Depth
  3. Viewpoint
  4. Balance
  5. Rule of Thirds
  6. Background
  7. Framing

Once you can identify these composition guidelines at work, you’ll find the process of editing and selecting great stock photos much easier. Your resulting designs will be far more powerful visually.

License this image via everst.

Caravan of camel merchant traveling through the Sahara Desert

License this image via MintImages.

1. Leading Lines

Leading lines are elements that draw the viewer’s eye towards a particular focal point in an image. While not always explicitly linear in format, images that follow this guidance feature some kind of line or flow, such as a road, mountain range, or outstretched hands.

Ever wonder why those Follow Me images of people on vacation went viral? These images of people out of shot being led by the person in front follow the principle of leading lines, with the hand and arm creating a visual line towards the travel destination.  

Woman giving her friend a high five with rocks and coast in the background
Leading lines create a visual pathway, leading the viewer towards a destination in the stock photo. License this image via everst.

In terms of composition, leading lines are useful for building a sense of depth, space, and movement, and can even create a sense of narrative by hinting at a potential destination.

You can spot the leading lines composition rule in action. Simply imagine lines drawn over the top of more prominent elements in a stock photo. If there is one clear line leading from one point to another, particularly from a close point to a far-off element, you can see how this photography technique brings more dimension and dynamism to an image. 

Clockwise, from left: License these images via Ali Mehaoudi, Nelepl, and Keri Delaney.

2. Depth

Photography compresses three-dimensional reality into flat, 2D images. It’s important that photos communicate a sense of dimension by building depth into their visuals.

This can be done by playing with the scale of elements in a photo, maximizing the contrast between elements in the foreground and background.

Man and woman sitting together above sea on cliff
License this image via everst.

This is a trending photo composition style for website design and immersive poster photos. It builds depth into images and gives them a cinematic feel that mimics the eye-popping style of action blockbusters and virtual reality. 

License these images via kamira and everst.

3. Viewpoint

The angle from which you view the subject in a stock photo can make all the difference!

Closeup wide angle underwater photo of a dog swimming
License this image via digitizesc.

Imagine looking out to the Savannah and seeing a herd of wildebeest. From this angle, you can only see the animals towards the front of the group.

So, if we wanted to show a better impression of the sheer number of animals in the herd, we could choose a photo angle with an isometric or aerial view.

Focusing on the viewpoint in a photo composition helps people see the same subject very differently

License these images via Lena Andersen and Tao Jiang.

Switching up the viewpoint of a photograph also allows us to step into someone’s (or something’s) shoes and see the world from their perspective.

For example, when looking at a photo that faces upwards towards a high-up focal point, we get a sense of awe or smallness, even claustrophobia. By switching the angle downwards, from a bird’s-eye view, photos can feel more ethereal or vast.

This is a particularly popular photo composition rule for showcasing epic landscapes or architecture. 

Aerial view of Golden Gate Bridge in foggy visibility during evening time

Clockwise, from top: License these images via GaudiLab, Matthew Troke, and DCrane.

Symmetrical photo with boat centered in water

License this image via nickxjones.

4. Balance

There is a long history of composition in art. It stems from the Italian Renaissance when artists like Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo looked to perfect linear perspective and triangular composition (in which figures were arranged into a triangular or pyramid composition).

The composition rules surrounding balance were formulated long ago, and artists and photographers still use these important balance guidelines today.

Octagon shaped building inner court demonstration balance in composition
License this image via SharonPhoto.

There are four main types of balance used in photographic composition today—symmetrical, asymmetrical, radial, and crystallographic (mosaic) balance

Symmetrical Balance

Symmetrical balance looks to promote symmetry in a stock photo, which creates a calm and pleasant image to look at. This type of balance can lend images a sense of quaint tidiness, similar to the style of the images of Accidentally Wes Anderson

Clockwise, from left: License these images via nickxjones, Ellos, and everst.

Asymmetrical Balance

Asymmetrical images hold more interest and tension than symmetrical images, due to the photographer being more playful with visual weight.

The ‘weight’ of two subjects is held in balance by adjusting the height and size, creating a tense but dynamic result. 

The two modern ballet dancers
License this image via Master1305.

Radial Balance

Radial balance is a form of composition that’s naturally found in the environment, in the spiral of seashells, ripples, and whirlpools.

Photos that use radial composition have a mesmerizing effect. They lead the eye gradually around a spiral towards the center of the image.

License these images via Rafael Gonzales and SharonPhoto.

Crystallographic Balance

A way of bringing balance to a large number of subjects in one image, crystallographic balance aims to allow multiple elements to be read as one image, through repetition of similar colors, forms, or patterns.

Crystallographic balance is becoming an increasingly popular style for stock photography, because it creates versatile background images that bring color and interest to websites or social media banners.

License these images via nazarovsergey and ABB Photo.

5. Rule of Thirds

One of the long-held secrets to composition in art is the rule of thirds, which was first written down by English painter John Thomas Smith in 1797.

Example of the rule of thirds using a photo of a black crow
License this image via TrueNaturePhotography.

When you’re selecting photos, keep the rule of thirds in mind. It’s a simple and effective way of making images appear instantly more interesting, by creating tension in the photo.

Imagine dividing an image into nine equal parts, and place the key elements of the image at the lines or intersections of the thirds that this grid creates.

Clockwise, from top left: License these images via alan payne, everst, Phillip Gwin, and Hunter Bliss Images.

Pink peony flowers on dark background

License this image via Anna Arabska.

6. Background

The secret to what makes a good photo is often much simpler than you think. Busy backgrounds distract the eye and pull the focus away from the subject, so an easy composition rule is to simply strip back the background in images.

Look for photos whose subjects are against plain backgrounds—which can be edited to include bold color, an effective technique for immersive portrait photos.

Student in casual style clothes posing isolated on dark green studio background in pink neon light
License this image via Master1305.

Alternatively, look for photos that use minimal backgrounds that nonetheless have interesting forms or details.

Modern architecture or uniform textures, such as brick or concrete walls, can make for tactile and clean backdrops that bring an on-trend, grunge style to images. 

License these images via Alexander Gold and Yuricazac.

7. Framing

The final composition secret to what makes a good photo? Simply cropping a photo can make more difference to the image’s impact than almost any other technique! 

Portrait of young blonde woman with blue eyes and freckles
License this image via Tania Peresadko.

Reframe an image by doing a super close-up crop of a portrait. Or, cut out excess background to better promote the rule of thirds.

You can also enhance the symmetry of an image, or direct the focus to an entirely different part of the image, through this simple framing technique. 

License these images via Kitreel, peck of pickles, and lentil.

Conclusion: You Can Count on Composition!

What makes a good photo? While lighting, staging, and equipment all contribute towards making a great stock photo, the results simply won’t cut the mustard if composition isn’t taken into consideration.

Photo composition rules are varied and numerous, but well worth learning about when choosing more impactful photography.

When selecting stock images, look out for some of these core composition rules in action—you’ll start to notice how really great stock photos make use of one or more of these guidelines.   

Need beautiful photography to form the foundation of your next project? We’ve got you covered.

With Shutterstock Flex, you’ll have all-in-one access to our massive library, plus the FLEXibility you need to select the perfect mix of assets every time.

License this cover image via everst.

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