I’ve been frequently asked to help take pictures (with a cell phone) simply because I’m a “photographer” and therefore MUST make “better” pictures than those coming from an “average joe.” Probably not always true, but I feel that there are some elements to know that could help everyone take better pictures… even with a phone.
As a disclaimer, I shall say that this is NOT A RECIPE. When I shoot for myself, I shoot out of love. I choose and design my images based off feeling — what is evoked when I come across an image and how it jumps out to me personally. These are some elements that work for me. Hopefully, you’ll be able to see several elements combined in the pictures scattered along here.
How you choose to compose/design your images is up to you and your approach as a creative artist. Hopefully these elements can help you build confidence in what you create and capture. If you’re shooting for someone else… hopefully they have a soul and have come to you because your vision speaks to them too.
With all visual art, there are design and compositional elements that can help you create powerful imagery. Through my short-lived formal education in graphic design, I’ve learned these elements and have adapted and merged them to my photography. From everyday snapshots to formal edits in portraiture, these elements have benefitted me when I have needed a starting point for a shoot or when I have needed additional ideas.
Please note – there may be terms that you might not understand.
Feel free to comment and ask what I mean!
There are many different types of lines, but photography tends to really focus on vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines rather than contour, implied and other lines. All three of the main lines can be used to convey different moods. Vertical lines help show majesty and greatness in height, horizontal helps show stability and calmness, and diagonal lines help show movement and direction.
Look for lines from that lead to your subject. In most cases, you can use walls, corners, fences and/or stairs as lines to lead across the frame and toward your point of focus. The lines don’t always have to be straight; contoured curves from roads or pathways can also help shape the image’s flow and create something dynamically interesting. Sometimes a slant is all that’s needed to make a “boring” picture feel more “edgy.” Feel it out.
It’s also important to pay attention to lines to avoid a composition that has an awkward flow or feels boxy. For instance, try not to have a bunch of lines leading through someone’s head, unless you intend to/can’t avoid including it or are just going to edit it out. Be aware of some unwanted lines… like power-lines.
When I think about contrast, my mind automatically goes to black and white portraits. I feel that B&W photos rely heavily on the principle of contrast to create shape. If you study some old black and white film photographers, you’ll find some great examples of contrast as a design element.
Contrast is the total difference between light and dark areas. The greater the difference, the more your eyes are attracted to the area! Think about your whites and your blacks, how they’re balanced and where they’re placed. Plan out where you want shadows to fall in relation to the light that is hitting your subject.
Lighting can be of great help to add contrast and to create/accentuate shape in a portrait so study lighting patterns! When I shoot portraits, the Rembrandt lighting pattern is one that I often try first just because the way the shadows fall defines the shape of the face and creates drama.
Now go a step further and think about color and the values that you can use to create light and dark areas. Wardrobe can be another huge help in adding contrast, so plan your shoots well! Try bright yellows on some dark blues or purples… get creative!
If you’ve checked out my work, you’ll see that I’m a big fan of blondes in black and white—totally my fave, and I really enjoy shooting with chiaroscuro in mind to display contrast.
This can be a whole separate topic, and if it’s requested, I can probably dive deep into it. Color can be powerful. Color can enforce a meaning and a mood and is something that can be combined with other elements to really make something impactful. Think about some warm, vibrant photos taken during the Golden Hour in California, or happy photos. Now think about edgy-dramatic-killer-cool-photos or um, depressed photos. (It’s really funny, try searching “depressed photography”. You’ll see.)
You can change the feeling of the photo by a simple change in color temperature in Adobe Camera RAW. You can also draw attention by placement of certain colors, or subjects wearing colors that pop against other colors in the background. To improve your theory in this area, look up color harmonies and study the color wheel! If you’re feeling more advanced, try using multiple lights with different colored gels on them.
Oh, besides wardrobe and what colors you want people to wear, think about makeup colors, because that can add some color in an interesting way as well.
I love space. Not the kind space that I’ve heard girls tell their boyfriends they need, but the white space or negative space that is left empty in a captured frame—a widely known application of space. But the element of space is much more than just “negative space.” It involves the capture or creation of depth, framing and many other elements of composition—which I also love.
Space can be achieved and displayed in numerous ways — the easiest being through framing and the hardest through depth of field. For framing, try backing up and making your subject rather small on a big blank wall. With depth of field, let’s say you’ve found a detailed hallway; you could experiment with different aperture settings to show or not show the details of the hallway. You could also try shooting wide so you can crop in afterward and experiment with how much space you would allow around your subject. Also, the Rule of Thirds can be a useful quickhand to guide your use of space.
The only practical advice I want to give is this (which is specifically to all you new business/corporate portrait photographers, so listen up): leave some headroom. I only mention that because I’ve personally received a really horrid crop of a formal corporate picture. I’d say at least a good 13% enjoy seeing their hair along with their foreheads. That may or may not be a made up statistic, but my point still stands.
Someone once explained tension in the graphic design world as a conversation between the different compositional elements—or subjects, including the viewer. The conversation can be loud and crazy, or whisper quiet. They can be close together or really far from each other. A subject could even have a conversation with the edge of the frame!
The viewer can feel tension if the imagery and/or subjects provoke feelings or expectations, or display personal points of view or even past experiences. Quite the twist on things wouldn’t you say?
I’m a pretty big fan of using this for my more “artsy” pictures and street portraits. My main use of tension is typically seen in the imbalance and asymmetry caused by the placement of the subject or subjects to each other or an edge. This kind of tension is typically increased depending on how asymmetrical everything is.
In summary and in truncated/simplified instructions:
- Lines – Lead toward your focus point. Watch out for power-lines.
- Shape/Contrast – Make use of bright areas and dark areas.
- Color – Spin the Color Wheel and study it… while it spins. Make good wardrobe/color choices.
- Space – Don’t cut off heads. Show depth – or don’t show depth.
- Tension – Create imbalance. Create feeling.
One of my former teachers told me that good design incorporates at least 3 elements (from this list and many more out there). I couldn’t name all the elements that teacher helped me learn, but I do know that the elements listed above have stuck with me because they really do mesh and work well together.
The more compositional elements you’re able give thought to, the more powerful, rewarding and attractive your work will become. You will become more expressive as a photographer and you will grow much more in your skills. Plus, your cool factor will go up when you can actually explain your process and why you took a shot the way you did.
Oh yeah, if you’re bored, try using each element as an exercise for creativity—especially when you’re in a rut.
Images used in this article were shot by me, Mykii Liu . If you’re wanting to see more examples of my work, go to my portfolio or follow me on Instagram. Other articles written by me may be found here!
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