Photography Composition Cheat Sheet

One of the first compositional guidelines most photographers learn is the ubiquitous “Rule of Thirds”. This principle suggests that an image should be imagined divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections (Bryan F. Peterson, 2003). 

The effect of placing important elements like the main subject or a horizon line according to this rule creates more visual interest, better flow, and more visual energy than simply centering or placing features haphazardly in a scene. As photographic “rules” go it’s pretty solid and a great place to start with understanding composition. But make no mistake, this isn’t a rule at all, just a guiding principle. It can be modified to suit a given scene, or ignored all together. And it is just one one of many compositional guides that we can use to help assemble and arrange our images.

When I was first re-entering the world of landscape photography I found the abundance of compositional advice a little overwhelming. Leading lines, foregrounds, empty space, natural frames… It’s a lot to remember and can sometime be paralyzing for new photographers when attempting to apply poorly understood guides to new locations. As a way of dealing with the often conflicting or redundant compositional advice out there, I decided to create a table for myself of the most common principles I was encountering. I collapsed anything that seemed to overlap significantly (or noted when guides were related) and applied my own more flexible interpretations to what each of these principles really meant. It helped a lot to stop thinking of them as rules at all, but as guides or best-practices instead. Remember, these are starting points to composition, not edicts. I’m posting the table here for you to use as your own starting point. Please feel free to reinterpret or append as you see fit. And keep in mind, that’s the real lesson here, these are building blocks to composition, they are not absolute, they are not fixed or unmalleable.

Photographing Fog

Fog is a frequent companion on the California coast. While this puts local sunset loving photographers at a distinct disadvantage, for those willing to embrace the damp and drizzle, it can be otherworldly. Fog has a way of transforming the most mundane locations into scenes of deep mystery. Dense fog shortens the visible distance and obliterates the horizon making every hill a cliff at the edge of the world, where every path disappears into the unknown. Into the unknowable.

These are five of my favorite images in which the fog plays not merely a supportive or atmospheric role, but where the image was transformed entirely by fog and mist.

If fog is a common feature of your personal landscape, don’t let it keep you from making great images.

Images from Fog Series #1.

An alternative to full size prints.

“The print is the photograph’s rightful inheritance.”

– Charlie Waite

It’s easy to forget that not all that long ago the only way to enjoy your photography (or anyone else’s) was to see it printed. When I started my photography hobby over three decades ago, it was a somewhat costly and laborious process to take a handful of rolls of B&W film and end up with a print or two from my (bathroom) darkroom. Today I can shoot unrestrained by film costs and share my work widely online. The ease of access afforded by digital cameras, digital ‘darkrooms’, and social media is a big reason why I’ve started taking photography seriously again after being away for many years. Digital just makes it so much easier, but I still feel compelled to print my work whenever I can.

What are the benefits in printing our photos?

Printing is transformative, nothing looks quite like a print. The paper, the ink, even the space and lighting you view it in, all have an effect on the look and feel of the image. If your eyes have been trained to see photos on screen most of the time, seeing them printed is suddenly new. And that feeling of seeing something for the first time tends to slow us down as we view it. Printing an image also changes our relationship to it. Seeing a high quality print elevates its status in our subconscious and invites a different kind of evaluation. Slower and more deliberate.

Having your best work printed and on your walls is a great way to enjoy and share what you’re most proud of. But printing our work is also incredibly instructive. The more time you spend with an image, the more you’ll learn about your own craft. What works and what needs to change.

Photo Books

The difficulty comes from the fact that we only have so much space on our walls (or cash in our wallets) for large framed prints. One solution I’ve found to getting more prints for less money and no wall space is to print high quality photo books. About once a year I compile a set of a couple dozen of my favorite images from the past season. Images that I really like but that may not be ones I want full size and framed. What you end up with is a lot more of your work to thumb through in physical form than if you relied on full size prints alone. And honestly, I spend more time looking at my photo books than I do my framed prints.

There are a number of different options for print on demand books, but you’ll be happiest with a photo book that uses high quality paper. These are not the typical family photo albums available from the drug store. You want your book to feel like a collection of frame worthy photography, without the frames! I’ve had great success using Blurb photo books. They have easy to use design tools and a great selection of papers to choose from. I prefer the look of heavy mat paper for my BW images. I’m not stumping for Blurb here, I have no affiliation with them, and you may be able to find something else that works better for you. If you do, I’d love to hear about!

In the end the important thing is to get more of your work in print, even if it’s in a small photo book. I think the experience of looking over our printed work is invaluable for our growth as photographers. Happy printing!