How I Approach Photography Composition

SPECIAL OFFERS – Up to 60% Off

Take your nature photography to the next level these awesome tutorials!

For A Limited Time Only


When I first ventured into the world of photography, I ran into lots of information about rules of composition. But much to my chagrin, I discovered that these so called rules of composition don’t always work. What gives? Isn’t following these rules supposed to create a photograph that makes us go “WOW”? If they don’t work, how is a photographer to create with his or her images? Why do I need to know the rules of composition if they don’t work?

As time passed I discovered that composition is lot more than just following the rules. Rules of composition form the foundation for creating impact in your images, but you have to go much further than that to capture stunning images that makes your viewers go “WOW! I wish I had taken that.

Let suppose that you are off on a grand landscape adventure on the Big Island of Hawaii and you happen to stumble upon a scene like the following one. At first you’ll likely be overwhelmed by everything that is going on. The sight, the sound, the smell, and all the other senses will compete for your brain’s attention. At this point, you have to take a step back and reflect on what you want to photograph and define your subject matter. In this case, it was clearly the lava flow.

My first attempt to compose a photo for flowing lava.

Subject Matter: Lava flow – Horizon too close to the top; dark rocks create dead space.

Your first thought likely is to use the rules of composition to improve this composition; place the horizon at the rule of the thirds. If you did, you may end up with something like this:

Big Island, Hawaii (HI), USA

Using Rule of Thirds – Horizon placed near upper third, image broken up into three layers

While the sky and horizon line in this image give a more pleasing appearance, they also create other problems. The subject matter now occupies a tiny portion of your frame and starts to compete with the gorgeous light in the sky. The foreground to the right of the frame is out of focus. And you’ve introduced more dead space such as dark rocks and ocean that, although it provides a sense of place, does little to enhance your subject matter.

In the end, this image is no more effective at highlighting your subject then the first one. The question is how to create an image with an impact that highlights your subject?

The answer is actually pretty simple. When I approach composition, I start out by defining my subject and then I build a photo around it. Once I define my subject, I used the elements of composition such as light, textures, contrast, and the rules of composition to draw the viewers attention to my subject. But I don’t stop there. I work within the limitations of my equipment and I select the correct camera setting to add to the subject. I also make sure to avoid distracting elements and dead space so that the subject clearly stands out in my photos. And sometimes I have to break the rules of composition to accomplish that.

  • Hawaii, USA

    Hawaii, USA

  • Hawaii, USA

    Hawaii, USA

Using this approach, I was able to create an image that really makes my subject (the lava flow) clearly stand out. Here are few decisions I made that helped me choose the right composition to create this stunning image:

  • I decided to build a image around a single subject: The Lava Flow. I chose to simplify my photos and NOT photograph the sunset, as it was competing with the lava flows.
  • I selected the lava flow that was close enough to reach with a 200mm zoom lens and that would be able to fill the frame. By zooming in on a closer subject, I was able to minimize the dead space.
  • Once I decided on what to photograph, I waited for the sun to set so that the smoke and water were lit up by the lava light. This created a strong tonal contrast that drew my viewers attention to the subject matter that I was trying to photograph. It also allowed me to slow my shutter speed to create lines pointing to the lava flows.

This process of building your photograph around your subject is what our Creating Impact Course is all about. We go beyond the basics by helping you understand how to use different elements of composition (colors, contrast, textures, negative space, and more) and camera settings to capture photos with visual impact. Our Creating Impact Course was filmed entirely in Iceland and includes in-depth case studies that demonstrate how to build your photograph around your subject matter.

Furthermore, we’ve partnered with professional photographer Anne McKinnell to bring you Lightroom tutorials for the Creating Impact Course case studies. Anne demonstrates how she uses her streamlined Lightroom workflow to process the images from our Creating Impact Course.
One can argue that I got lucky with finding a lava flow that I was able to reach with my 200mm lens. What if you can’t reach your subject due to equipment limitation?

To be continued… How to build a photo around your subject

Check out the following tutorials on Visual Wilderness:

About Author Jay Patel

I could startoff like this – “Seeds of Jay Patel’s appreciation for beautiful places were planted early in his childhood….” but it would get boring really fast. I will just sum it up and say that I am a Landscape and Wilderness Photographer who loves to capture dramatic light. My photographs have been published in various magazines, calendars and advertising materials throughout the world.
Patience is a virtue...unless you are chasing your dreams