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GTM Photo Tips: #1 Composition


DSLR cameras have made photography much easier than in the days of loading cameras and fumbling with film. But what I see happening is an onslaught of budding photographers setting their cameras to automatic and skipping past the fundamentals. Things like cranking up ISO levels to pixelated disproportions. And including the entire kitchen sink in the frame, in lieu of a focused subject. There’s nothing wrong with creative experimentation for sure, and there is always more to learn. But in hopes of filling in some of those gaps, I’m creating my first series on photo tips and tricks as a dedicated section of If you find it helpful, or would like to contribute, please come back often.

Now, let’s talk composition. What are the most important things to remember when composing a photo? Essentially, they can be nailed down to five things.

Make sure there’s a subject in every shot you take. Even with a wide angle lens.

1. Keep it simple. Don’t over-complicated the photo by including distractions from your subject. When I first started shooting, my favorite lens was a Tamron 10-24mm wide angle lens which can fit half of the planet into one shot. It also creates a sense of photojournalistic style, with slightly distorted images in the foreground and on the sides. I love this lens because I don’t like to capture images “exactly” as they look in reality. I want my photos to look “better” or at least more dramatic. But now, rather than capture the whole kitchen sink, I’ve shifted my focus to a singular subject in the photo. Mind you, I still look for breathtaking landscapes to include as a backdrop, but I always have a singular subject in the foreground, even if it’s a last-minute leaf, crab or rock. Remember, less is always more.

Play with balance, perspective and look for leading lines.

2. Look for leading lines that direct your eye to your subject. Your eyes are pretty smart and easily take cues. If you stand in the right place, you can create an angle on a handrail driving the eye from left to right, pointing to your subject leaning against it. To get a sense of lines, composition and perspective, try shooting people from above ground, say, going across a crosswalk, or traveling up and down stairs. Make sure you only include enough information necessary in the shot without any clutter. It’s also wise to never center your subject in the middle as it makes for a less interesting composition.

Compose your shot to create angles driving to your subject. Much of my first attempt at this shot was cropped out in camera to simplify it to this composition.

3. Look for interesting patterns for backgrounds and contrasting colors for foregrounds. Eyes are comfortable with patterns and consistency. Things like patterned flower dresses, the repetition of bricks in a brick wall, and bright colors of graffiti all make for great backgrounds. Position a repetitious pattern behind a contrasting color and texture of your subject and you’re halfway home to creating a great shot. I spotted the guy above in bright yellow taking a smoking break on his balcony. The combination of contrasting colors, diagonal lines and great lighting simply begged for me to get the shot.

Background lines and texture looked nice…. until a large foot stepped in.

4. Watch your corners of the frame. Don’t let unnecessary images creep in. It’s easy enough to get so focused on your subject you forget to watch your corners. Did someone just walk into your background? Is there a trash can in the background you didn’t notice at first? Sometimes you can crop your shot later, but too often there’s a pole, power line, or other random object that’s just enough to blow your whole picture. Remember, corners are pixels too.

My little guy caught making those armpit farting noises : )

5. Get the shot. Moments don’t last forever. Most often, I prefer to shoot in AV priority mode to control depth of field for portraits (F5) and landscapes (F22). And TV priority mode to control shutter speed for action shots (fast), water streams (slow) and fireworks (bulb). That said, a huge part of photography is simply being present in the moment and staying connected to the subject you’re shooting. Don’t miss the moment by fumbling with settings. Be prepared to quickly switch to Program mode (P), which is the same as automatic but with control over your ISO, flash and white balance. Have your program mode set with proper ISO (100 ISO if outside in bright light; 400 ISO and up for indoors. Take a test shot with the ISO high enough so it’s not blurry) Because more important than taking the PERFECT photograph, is simply GETTING the shot.

This was shot in Program mode with an ISO set at 400, using a panning technique.

What are your favorite tips or tricks for composing a great shot? Please share them with us below. Got a great shot to share? Post your best photos on our facebook page here.  Happy shooting!

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  • Hi Maureen, Great tips. I am actually just getting in to taking pictures and want to upgrade from my phone to a good point and shoot. Any good camera’s out there that you like?

  • Elizabeth Reitsch
    August 24, 2012 11:04 am

    Thanks for the great tips. I’m going to work on getting the shot for now and maybe next you can help us with selecting the right editing program or what to look for, given there are so many choices. These are great tips, going to have to try AV priority mode.

    • My pleasure. Try using Program Mode (P) rather than auto. Photos are usually better without that pop-up/built-in flash. Shoot for as low of an ISO (100) as possible as it makes for higher resolution, thus ability to enlarge. When it’s darker or indoors, instead of a flash, shift the ISO up until the image isn’t blurry but still looks good. For your kids, try Sports mode to hold ’em still. Or of course, tie ’em down. As for photo editing programs, I’m really impressed with Photoshop Elements. It’s a simpler version of Photoshop and also offers pure adjustment options if shooting RAW to enhance the photo rather than change it.

  • Great article! I am guilty of all these infractions. You know what would really make it clear as mud for camera-dummies like me? I call it The Three Bears approach…you shot the same photograph for all your examples, thus clarifying the mistake in each tip, while enhancing the point of your tip by ending with the PERFECT shot! You keep writing, and I’ll keep reading!

    • Brilliant idea, Cay. Thanks! I’ll even update this post with more pictures that illustrate a more step by step process. Typical writer using words in excess rather than pictures. : )

  • Wow! I have no idea what the heck you’re talking about since I have no photographic knowledge at all, but I simply LOVE YOUR PICTURES! I think the look on the little guy’s face is my favorite. I can’t believe how talented your are.

    • You’re too funny Karen. For you, I recommend sticking to a point and shoot. : ) Glad you like the photos! Keep reading and thanks for the comments and support xo