How To: Improve Your Composition

By: steve

August 20, 2010

It doesn’t matter what camera you use, you can dramatically improve your pictures by thinking about the composition. This can make your photos more balanced and visually pleasing.

Travel photography often involves taking pictures of some incredible people and things. There is a tendency – especially when looking at one of the great travel icons – to be so blown away by what you are photographing that you completely forget about creativity, just point the camera and click. The result is so often a badly composed picture, with the subject dumped in the middle of the frame, and too much dead space at the top or bottom.

This is exacerbated by the fact that many cameras have a focus sensor that is dead in the middle of the frame, causing you to sub-consciously place the subject in the centre of the photo.

All is not lost though, if you follow these few simple rules, and pause to think a little bit about composition before taking a picture, you can come away with more shots that you’ll be proud of.


"Rule Of Thirds" by Steve Davey

Si Phan Don, Laos



Rule of thirds

Photographic convention says that instead of placing something in the middle of the picture, you should mentally divide the image into thirds, and place the image on one of the third lines. This could mean placing the subject of a portrait one third of the way into the frame from the left or placing the horizon of a landscape a third of the way up a picture, and letting the sky fill the top two thirds.


If you can place the subject on one of the intersections where the third lines meet then your image will be particularly well balanced!


Rule of not centred

Not centred - exaggeration by Steve Davey

Mont Saint Michel, France


The problem with the rule of thirds is that it can be somewhat predictable and repetitive. I prefer to follow the rule of not centred, which says that you can put the subject anywhere, as long as it isn’t in the middle of the picture! This allows you to exaggerate the rule of thirds by placing the subject at the very edge of the frame.


Direct into the frame

You picture will look more balanced if you direct things into and not out of the frame. This might involve having someone facing inwards, or making sure that any movement is directed into the frame by leaving more space in front of a moving subject than behind it.



Direct into frame by Steve Davey

Reef Sharks, French Polynesia



Use diagonals

Strong diagonals can lead the eye of the viewer of your picture into the frame and towards the subject of the picture. Diagonals or even powerful curves occur far more often in real life than you might imagine. The trick is to notice them and then compose the picture in order to accentuate the effect.



Diagonals by Steve Davey

Doges Palace, Venice, Italy



Frame your subjects

By shooting through arches or even windows you can frame your subject in a way that makes the picture more visually exciting. You’ll need to be careful about the exposure as large dark areas can fool the camera exposure meter. The best way around this is to use a spot meter and only meter the lit parts of the image.


You can also frame an image with overhanging foliage or branches. This can be a fantastic way to crop out an overcast and lacklustre sky.


Framing by Steve Davey

Taj Mahal, Agra, India


All photos by Steve Davey. Header image: Tanneries, Fez, Morocco.

Steve is the author of the pre-eminent guide to taking pictures on the road. Footprint Travel Photography has 320 pages covering everything from preparation to post production. More information on

Categories: Our Places