Composing Your Everyday Photos - With Any Camera
We all have them in our camera roll on our phone. Those pictures that we took that are just better than the others. They are interesting and flattering and memorable - and not just for the personal sentimental value they hold. But there is just something about those photos that makes you like them more. There are some basic rules of composition when it comes to photography and chances are those photos followed all or some of those rules. Without knowing how or why, you just know those photos are more visually appealing.
Photographing our everyday is where the magic happens! These photos fill our photo albums and create our memories. When they hold special moments and people we love, we cherish the photos no matter how blurry or ordinary they are. The sentimental meaning they hold make them important. But there are tools you can use to compose these everyday photos to make them more interesting and frame-worthy! I’ve got a few tips for you to help you understand why some photos cause you to linger longer to look at.
I pulled some of my favorite everyday photos from my personal albums and I picked them apart to tell you why they work. I’ll tell you why the composition makes it a great photo and tools you can use to compose great photos yourself - no matter what camera you are using! These rules apply to cell phone cameras, fancy expensive digital cameras and even disposable film cameras!
Let’s get started!
This is one of my favorite photos of Maddie. It was taken last summer at the pool in Mainz with my Nikon D750 DSLR camera. She’s exploring the kid’s pool in this photo. I was in the middle of a workshop and this week’s lesson was on perspective which caused me to choose how I composed this photo. Perspective is the first compositional tool we will talk about.
Perspective refers to where you position yourself and the camera in relation to the subject. How you choose to show the scene will determine what is in the frame and the story you are giving the viewer. I chose to take this shot looking down at my subject. This does a couple of things: it isolates my subject from the environment around her (and all the other people) and almost provides a subject’s view of what’s happening. You see what Maddie might be seeing climbing into the pool, she is looking down at the water and so are you. Because of my chosen perspective, it brought other compositional tools into use.
Movement. Movement can be implied or literal. You can express it with motion blur or a freeze in motion. In this example, from this view we are able to see where she is going and what she is doing. While she gains balance with her arms, her legs move into the water and with this perspective, we can see her foot go into the water and how deep the water is. Had I pulled the camera up I would miss that detail.
Leading Lines. Leading lines is a powerful compositional tool that is used a lot. Leading lines are used to draw the viewer’s eyes to the subject of the photo. Using leading lines allows the photographer to determine where the viewer’s eyes go first and what the most important part of the photo is. In effect, it leads the story. Here I use the lines of the pool’s edge to bring you to Maddie. The lines here also break up the frame into sections slicing up the image and determining the focus.
Color. Color also plays a big part in this image. It is monochromatic and makes it more interesting. Had I shot straight on, getting the landscape in the scene, the story wouldn’t be as powerful. The lines slice the image into different shades of blue and really lets her skin pop in the scene. Color also sets the tone of the photo and helps determine the mood. Blue is calming and fresh. You get a feeling of youth and summer freedom. I also like how there is a graduation of light from left to right. It adds to the color but also allows an easy flow of the eyes from left to right as you pick up on the details of the image.
Faceless. The perspective also makes this a faceless portrait. This is a creative tool to bring a more universal feel to the photo. This could be you or your child. A faceless image allows the viewer to inject their own story into the photo and make it a personal experience for them as well. Faceless portraits encourage the use of the viewer’s imagination since there are no facial cues to tell them about the event.
Rule of Thirds. The Rule of Thirds is a very important rule to remember and use. The Rule of Thirds can be applied to any type of photography with any subject and was created to help create more balanced and interesting photos. It is mathematically based and used by Renaissance painters who found that subjects placed on the vertical lines of the ROT grid created a more visually appealing scene. Because we read left to right, it is said that placing your subject on the right vertical line is the strongest placement. But placing your subject on the left line can be just as powerful in your storytelling, especially if your subject is looking or moving to the right of the frame. Placing the eye of your subject along an intersecting point is also a strong compositional tool because the viewer will naturally fall into these points in the image. Balancing your images using the Rule of Thirds allows the viewer to move smoothly around the image stopping naturally at the most visually appealing spots. In landscape images, putting your horizon on one of the horizontal lines will determine which is the most important part of the scene - the sky or the ground. Most cell phone cameras and DSLRs have a grid view in the viewfinder you can use to assist in composing your images according to the ROT.
In my image, the subject is on the left vertical line (click the arrow on the photo to see the image within the ROT grid). I chose this because of her moving leg into the water. Had I put her on the other side of the frame, it would have gotten lost as the viewer moved across the scene. She’s also at the top of the frame giving more negative space and a sense of movement.
I snapped this image with my iPhone while we were on vacation in Madrid. The kids had already been sent to bed but I could still hear them talking. It was the first time they shared a room without mom or dad there too and they were really enjoying the extra play time! I had my phone with me and when I saw that Henry was reading to Maddie, I decided to snap a photo. I love using my cell phone for moments like this because it is easy and quick and I can get the photo before the moment has passed. I converted it to black and white in VSCO and now it’s one of my favorites from the trip! So what makes it good?
Leading Lines. There are the leading lines again! The beams on the ceiling make a very natural and lucky leading lines to my subject. I made sure to hold my phone so that they photographed at the angle I wanted to frame them.
Framing. Framing is another way to use lines to isolate your subject. The ceiling beams, the desk light, the bed frame and the door frame all create a framing effect around the kids. The position of the light shining on them strengthens the framing effect as does the shadows on the right of the frame. Framing can be more obvious, like in a window or archway, or more abstract like in this image where elements just come together to create the frame.
Perspective. I wanted this to have a candid feel, as if i was an outsider looking in. I also didn’t want to throw myself into the environment and mess up the story I wanted to tell with my presence. I brought the camera down to about chest level so that it was higher up than the kids but not at their eye level - I wanted it somewhere in between. Then I used the door frame to create the effect that I was outside of the scene - it also blocked the closet and bags on the floor that weren’t important to the story. I kept them on the left side of the frame so that the viewer could see the other bed that was left to engage in the activity. Nothing was staged here, I just chose where to point my camera to make it look like I wanted it to.
Black and White. Just like color sets the tone in a photo, so does black and white. I edited this photo in both color and black and white but the monochrome worked better for me. I liked how it removes the distractions from the environment - the bright pajamas, the purple backpack, the bedspreads and even the color of the floor. It forces the viewer to feel more than see. There are no other visual cues to the mood of the photo - you have to look to the story!
This was one of those happy accidents. It was an after thought - and also the reason I don’t put my camera away at a session until I’m in the car! You never know what you’re going to get when you’re not trying. We were headed back to the car at this point and she ran ahead. I love the simplicity and stillness of the image. (Taken with my Sony a7iii mirrorless camera)
Negative Space. Negative space is a compositional technique which isolates the subject. Negative space is the empty space in your frame which creates simplicity, intensity and drama. Negative space creates an almost minimalist approach to the composition in that it gives you nothing but the subject. I used the sky to create the negative space in this image and it adds a sense of peacefulness and feels quiet. There is also a sense of adventure and mystery as you know there is more on the other side of the hill and Maddie is headed to it. What lies over the horizon? What will she find? To create the negative space, I crouched down to where I was almost sitting on the ground then I tilted my camera up. I placed Maddie on the left vertical line of the ROT grid (click the arrow to see) and put the horizon on the bottom third of the grid. I made sure my subject was in focus and because of my chosen depth of field it allowed the horizon in line with her to be in focus as well. That made the facing point of the path slightly blurred and which added to the story.
Leading Lines. By now you know all about leading lines and you can spot them for yourself here! The road draws our eyes to the subject and the horizon which is part of the narrative here. The horizon also creates a leading line and the color of the grass creates a subtle framing effect.
Rule of Thirds. I mentioned it already but the ROT this also in play here. The placement on the left vertical line works here because of her implied movement to the right and the drooping of the flowers in her right hand - these elements keep our eyes moving across the frame - from left to right - and allow us to stay invested in the narrative.
Faceless. Once again this is a faceless portrait. Facial expressions give us no clues to the mood of the scene and we use other environmental clues to convey the story. (To be honest, a lot of my personal photos are faceless just because they are always running away from me!)
This happens to be one of my all time favorite photos - and I took it with my iPhone! What’s uniquely special about this photo is the perspective. In my quest to never stop learning new things, I read a tutorial by Dana Walton on Clickin’ Moms that talked about how to take artistic selfies. Her technique was simple - change the view to make an ordinary scene extraordinary! Her solution was a phone ceiling shelf to get a bird’s eye view. The change in perspective changed everything!
Perspective. This is the compositional technique that has the biggest impact on this image. It changes the entire story and it makes it more interesting than a photo shot from eye level. You should read her article and make a phone shelf of your own. It really is a lot of fun and a different way to get in the frame yourself. I like to use it during bath time so that I can be in the frame and in action with the kids. I’ve only had the shelf fall on me once and it was because I used old tape, so use new tape each time and you should be ok!
Repetition. Repetition is another compositional technique that is used to create movement, symmetry, and interest. In this photo the repetition of the circle shape through the frame adds a cohesive feel and creates a path of movement for the eye to follow. It paves the way through the narrative and leads you through the entire scene. For me I am drawn to start at the bottom with the head closest to the camera. My arms reach towards the top of the frame and the next subject. We all stand in a line which is another repeating shape: us, the counter and the bowls all make vertical lines. There are also repeating squares & rectangles in the floor tile, rug, sink and the stool. The repeating sets of shapes are all divided by the two dominating lines: the people and the counter edge.
Orientation. About 90% of my photos are oriented landscape (long-ways). If you want to challenge yourself or just create different looking photos, turn your camera the other way! The default for phone cameras is portrait, I feel. It’s how we typically hold the phone. But I challenge you to turn that camera the other way. See how different the scene looks and how it changes the narrative. Does it tell the same story? Do your compositional techniques work in the same way? How does it feel different? I played around with the orientation of this image and rotated to see how I liked it since landscape is my go-to. But it wasn’t the same. It didn’t flow the same. So I kept it portrait orientation and it works! When you’re going through your photos, try flipping and rotating them before tossing them out. It might make all the difference!
Leading Lines. In this instance the leading lines are a bit more abstract and I almost called it “eye direction”. The concept is the same. As we move from bottom to top along the counter to see what is happening we reach Maddie who is gazing back at Henry. Both myself and Maddie have our heads looking at Henry - this “leading” element draws you to the main topic of the story - making dinner.
What you need to know is that I didn’t necessarily intend for all of this to happen. I didn’t stage the bowls or the dishes in the sink. I saw an opportunity for a photo and set it up without changing the environment. This is purely documentary in that I didn’t manipulate the scene. I took about 20 photos and I chose this one to keep because of all the reasons listed above. It’s the one that worked the best! Somethings I did have control over: where I put the camera and how I oriented the image. I controlled the crop and I did rotate it to straighten the photo out. I also edited it to lift some shadows, brighten the vibrance of the colors and add contrast to the exposure. I had more control over the technicalities of the photo than I did the narrative. This makes the moment authentic and the story honest.
It’s the first day of kindergarten for Henry! But Maddie managed to make it her day as well. By now you are picking up on these compositional tools and you can already spot the ones I used! But I have two new ones for you to consider here! (Nikon D750)
Color. Yes we talked about color before but now I want you to consider color theory. It isn’t difficult, you learned the basics in elementary school. And instinct already tells you what colors look good together and which ones just don’t. Leonardo DiVinci mentions color theory in his journals but Sir Isaac Newton developed the first color wheel in his experiments with light as it passes through a prism. We have the three primary colors which blend to make a full spectrum of color light. Newton viewed color as a closed system, or wheel. In the 18th century color started to be noticed for its psychological and sensory effects. Color can effect mood, appetite and even blood pressure. It can sway thinking, change actions or cause reactions. In photography, you can use color to create a mood and infuse it into the story. Using colors can also make photos more interesting and visually appealing. In this photo I have the kids wearing complimentary colors - colors that fall opposite of each other on the color wheel. Complementary colors are pleasing and feel comfortable and natural. (Pro tip: when dressing your family for a photo session, use the color wheel to plan outfits!) The color of the wall at school was a happy accident and I directed them to stand there! Blue can have a calming effect and symbolize freshness and new beginnings. The Red is full of energy and excitement!
Center composition. Until now we have talked a lot about the Rule of Thirds and how placing subjects according to this rule is technically stronger. But rules are meant to be broken! Don’t discount a good ol’ center composition. Put your subject in the middle and see what happens! I find this works best in two extreme situations: the subjects are naturally isolated with negative space or when they are surround by lots of background activity and the center composition is what isolates them from the rest of the environment. Here I used the negative space and the brown spots on the wall to isolate the kids in the center of the frame. (Note: had I placed the kids on either side of those brown spots it would have thrown the whole thing off balance or I would have had to edit them out. That part of the background became part of the subject.) Also since you are a pro already, you will notice that the blue section is positioned with the ROT to break up the space. Well done!
Gah I just love a good black and white! Ok I’m not going to talk about the ROT or leading lines because you can already spot them and you know how I used them. Here I am going to talk about movement and texture. (Sony a7iii mirrorless)
Movement. Movement is a tool used to tell a story. You use it to show an action, a direction and to give the viewer something to anticipate. Movement can be captured through motion blur or by freezing the subject mid-action. In this case, I used motion blur to show Maddie twirling on the bed. This effect is best achieved with a DSLR or mirrorless camera where you can put it in manual mode and control the shutter speed. Shutter speed determines how long your shutter stays open. Think of your eye like the shutter. If you blink slowly, there is more time for light to enter your eye. If you blink quickly, there is less time for light to enter. You can use shutter speed this way to control the exposure of your image. The slower the shutter speed, the more light that can enter - and vice versa. Shutter speed can also be used as a creative component to your photography. The slower shutter speed allows the shutter to stay open for longer and therefor capture more movement from the subject. A fast shutter speed freezes the subject in the frame. In this photo I slowed the shutter speed way down to 1/40 sec . When you slow your shutter you also need to compensate the exposure by closing down your aperture. In this photo my aperture was at f/6.3. When your shutter speed is this slow, you can also get camera shake in your photo, which you don’t want. It’s best to use a tripod or rest the camera on a steady surface. You can also steady yourself by leaning on a wall and bringing your arms close into your body. When I use a shutter this slow, I also hold my breath!
Texture. Texture is another really interesting and beautiful tool to use in your photos. It is also something to think about when dressing for your photo sessions! Texture and layers add movement and interest to portraits. It can also help set the mood. Soft, oversized sweaters give a cozy and comforting feel. I love flowing dresses with a bit of sheer to them which allows the light to shine through! Jewelry, hats and other accessories add dimension and personality to portraits. Texture and movement can go hand in hand and compliment each other really well in photographs. Highlight texture with natural light and movement. Have your subject swing their clothes around, jump up and down, run or even bury their face in a long skirt. In this photo, even with no color and a blurred subject, the texture tells you she is in a princess dress and the sheer nature of the fabric keeps her feeling light and youthful!
Ok last one! Once again I turned my camera to portrait orientation which is out of my norm. We were in the Globus Baumarkt shopping for my new kitchen sink faucet and of course I had my camera with me. There are two new elements that I’m going to show you that are present in this photo. (Sony a7iii)
Split frame. The center composition in this photo also created a split frame. That is where the frame is split into two or more distinct chunks. You see this a lot in underwater photography where half the frame is underwater and the other half shows the outside of the pool. Here I created a busy right side showing all the sink faucets and the negative space that my husband is standing in. Sometimes the subject is placed all the way in one side of the split frame but in this case I stuck him smack dab in the middle. This kind of puts him in “both worlds”. He’s part of the selection process and also part of the family. The light from the skylight shines right down on him isolating him amongst the business of the scene.
Use you imagination for a second. Using the picture with the sink faucets above, imagine if I was standing behind Henry. What would it look like and how would it change the story? If might feel a little like this one with him and the paint samples. You lose the sense of space and size. You can’t tell how big the store is and how he fits into it. The image would flatten - meaning that I lose the layering of the story - even if I managed to get the same number of people in the frame. Imagine even if the frame wasn’t split in two halves - that that Seth was cut out and the frame was turned horizontal. More sinks, the space element is still present, maybe Maddie is too - but the story changes with the chosen perspective of the photographer.
There is a philosophical debate you can have about whether or not photographs “lie”. Even if there isn’t any Photoshopping a photograph cannot be the truth because it doesn’t tell the WHOLE story. There is always “editing” because the photographer decides what goes in the frame and what doesn’t and even what split second of time gets captured and what doesn’t. I don’t think photographs lie, I think that they tell a specific truth. Photographers are intentional about the stories the capture and ultimately tell. And even then, the viewer decides for himself what he sees and feels. But everyone has their own opinions on that too!
Layering. Layering is a technique used a lot in documentary photography as it really helps to tell a story. Layering refers to the many literal layers of subjects within the frame. Typically there is one layer or subject that is in focus and the main subject and the other layers play a secondary role in the storytelling. In this photo, Maddie is a layer in the foreground participating in the sink touching just because big brother is doing it too. And there is Seth in the background doing actual product comparison to select the right faucet to purchase. These are layers in the story. We insert secondary characters to tell more about what is going on and how the main subject fits into the bigger picture. The layers provide information and make the story more interesting.
*Side note: we ended up picking that spiral faucet right above Henry’s head and it is amazing!
Now you know why you love those certain photos of yours just a little bit more than the others. Why, even beyond the personal sentimental value of the image, those photos are just so much better! You are also now armed with the knowledge of why they work and how to compose your photos like a pro! Composition is part of the creative side of photography. Nailing the technical part is the other. My next tutorial post will be about how to nail exposure and get those technically sounds photos!
If you want to see more of my personal work, head to my portfolio. But for now, I’d love to see those photos of yours that you love! Post your favorite below and use what you learned above to tell me why it works!