Speaking of Composition

The one important aspect in photography that separates the outstanding photographers from the others is none other than composition. Even if you have mastered the technical execution to maximize the best output your camera, with all the creativity in post-processing, and having the best possible subject and photography opportunities in the world, but if the composition adopted was not successful to bring out the best potential from the photograph, the image would still fall short from being excellent. Yes, composition is that important, it is either you make it, or break it with the composition you choose to execute in your photography style.

There are so many guidelines and rules available, written again and again by different photographers over the decades on how to compose a subject, and create a photograph. I have read a dozen or so guidelines, and to be honest, I did not quite remember much from what I have digested from my research, and the only one rule that I remember and actively applied all this time is the classic Rule of Thirds, which has proven to never fail in most situations. Interestingly, I have received numerous praises and noteworthy positive comments on my composition techniques of my photography work that I have displayed on this blog, but to be honest, there was never really any composition technique to begin with. I did not have any specific formula to follow, or some strict guidelines to adhere to in composing my shots when I go out and shoot. I do not exactly think that my shots exhibit any unusually creative or out of the ordinary composition, they were mostly pretty straightforward, and nothing special. Nevertheless, from the many feedback I have gathered, it is clear that my composition works for my photography style to a certain extent, and I believe it is more crucial to share what goes on in my mind when I am composing my shots, rather than the non-existent rules or guidelines that I follow. I do have some “to-go-through” list of items to consider while I am composing my subjects, and I shall share those considerations in this blog entry.

All images in this entry were taken with Olympus PEN E-PL1 and Panasonic Lumix 20mm F1.7 pancake lens.

Please be reminded that the composition tips I am sharing here should not be regarded as “must do” strict rules when you go out and shoot. Those are merely my recommendations, or the sharing on what works for me, and what not. My composition techniques may not necessarily suit your shooting style or preferences, and there is actually no absolute right and wrong in this matter. The important thing is to adopt the method that works for you, and only by shooting and shooting and shooting can you discover your own unique style.

I did mention that I do not stick to any rules when I compose my shots. Instead, I follow a few key considerations, as such:

1) Simplicity works. One Subject, One background.

I love to keep my composition as simple as possible. One main subject, and one plain background. If I could find an angle to shoot the subject against something plain, for example a wall, that would be instantly popping the main subject out of the frame, avoiding any clutter or distractions. Know what you want to include, decide what you want to exclude, and arrange your frame accordingly to your own vision. I usually do not incorporate more than one subject in one frame, but sometimes I do have interactions between two or three subjects. If I cannot find a background, the next step is to find a way to throw the background away. The quickest (but not necessarily the most effective) way is to use largest aperture of your lens, and cream the background into the bokeh oblivion. This also instantaneously allowed the subject to jump right out.

2) Pay attention to the background

I seldom neglect my background. When I place my main subject against a background, I usually made sure that the background is supporting what my main subject is trying to tell. It is very crucial to avoid any distracting elements that could draw the attention away from the main subject, and the background chosen or arranged for the main subject should complement it, and further enhance the story of the main subject. Sometimes, instead of going as close as possible to the subject (which is another important tip), it is a good alternative to step back a little, and fit in more background to provide an ambience and atmosphere to your subject, and allow your subject to live in that little world you created for it.

3) Gentle Tilting

I know many photographers, especially those technical freaks would snigger at this, but I like to tilt my images a little. Everyone is asking for perfectly straight photographs, with the horizon fully leveled, which I find very flat and boring. A little tilt on the photograph can add some drama and randomness that many viewers do not expect. This should not be overdone, and overly tilting your images will create uneasiness on your viewers. Do slight rotation to add interest especially in photographs dealing with lines, and always keep everything in balance.

Choon Wee's Leica M9. Awesomeness, right?

4) Direction of light

This probably should not sit in the subject of composition, but I never forget to consider direction of light when I compose my images. This applies mainly for available light photography. You must pay attention on where the source of light is coming from. Usually I would prefer side lighting, and try to avoid back-lighting situations. Moving yourself around the subject, or moving the subject around to the best direction of light will increase the outcome of your images dramatically. A good photographer will never neglect the lighting, and should incorporate it hand in hand with any other composition techniques he is applying.

5) High and Low angles

I seldom shoot just at my own eye level. Usually when I shoot people, I would lower my body down a little bit so that I am on their eye level, producing a more engaging direct eye contact.  Also, do not be afraid to be extreme, go low, shoot from hip up, or ground level upwards. Go to the top, shoot from the top, you will have very interesting coverage from different angles.

6) Get as close as possible

I love doing tight close up shots. I usually go very, very near my subjects, and fill the frame. The closer I get to my subjects, the more detail I can capture (the wrinkles on the old man’s face, or the sparkle on the girl’s eyes). This may sound like it is in contradiction with point no 2, but hey, you do not go so close to your subject In every single shot, right? Now this brings us to the next point: Variety.

7) Variety and Moving Around

I do not chain myself down to just a few options to compose and arrange my shots. I open up myself to different varieties. When I shoot people, I will consider half body shots, full body shots or plain headshots (which is my favorite). Incorporate different angles, shooting from the top, or from the side, or try to attack your subject head-on front. Mix and match between these techniques, and it will appear as if you are moving all over the place. Look at it from this point of view: you are watching a movie, and a single scene would have had 3-4 cameras positioned from different angles, alternating with each angles and positions to provide you a more cinematic and grand feel of the event. What if they only use ONE position, and stick to one video camera throughout the whole movie? Would that not be dull and flat? Same thing applies to photography. I move myself around my subjects, and not just appear from one angle or position all the time.

8) Throw your subjects off center

Many composition techniques written guides would tell you to put the center point of your subject in certain parts of the photographs, for example, the famous Rule of Thirds would have you place it either one third or two thirds into the frame. Such guidelines rarely ask you to place your subject in the center of the frame, and for good reasons: when you put your subject dead on center of the frame, it does not allow the eyes of the viewer to explore the rest of the photograph. When you throw it off center, the eyes will immediately follow the subject and at the same time it roams around and inspects other elements in the photograph which could have been more interesting. Having your subject off the center also throws the whole photograph off balance, and the eye will automatically search for other elements to balance it off. The longer you engage your viewer, the more powerful your photograph is.

Choon Wee's other camera, Nikon D700. Full Frame !!!

David and his own machine: Canon 5D mk2

Does size matter? Olympus E-PL1 vs Canon 5D mk2 vs Nikon D700
This image was taken with Nokia C6-01.

I believe to have a strong photograph, even before you compose your shots, you should know what you want to tell in that photograph. You need to choose your subject content, and your subject content should be strong enough to gather the viewer’s interest. Once you already have a good subject to work with, then you use the composition techniques to bring out the best from your subject. Your composition should work well for your intended subject, and only you can decide what works best for that particular photography circumstance.

I also think that photography is a lot to do with the photographer’s quick decision on what he wanted to do and not do on the spot while he is clicking the shutter button. It all comes down to your own instinct and quick judgment on how to frame your subjects. You may have read all the techniques and know all the theories, but if you cannot decide what to use for your chosen photography subject, then all your prior knowledge would not come to fruitation, because they do not support your practical execution. It is important to trust your own eye, and decide for yourself what you want to do with your own photograph, how you want your own composition to be, how you want your photograph to speak to your audience, more so than just strictly following guidelines. When you show your photographs to your friends, would you tell them “Oh I compose this photograph based on the techniques I read on that book by that author”, or “I decided I want to lower my angle to bring up the details in the sky, and gently tilt it to the left to create a heavier left side of the frame, and I did so because I thought it worked well for this photograph”. Is it not more satisfying to show the work that you decided based on your own call?

I hope some of you would find my sharing useful. At the end of the day, it is still up to the photographer to compose his own shots, based on his photography vision.


  1. Another beautiful set of photos. I love the cat image. :)

  2. Robin, thank for the tip about composition. Another nice album you have here.

  3. Thanks Kelvin, glad you find it useful !

  4. Another great post, Robin.
    I, like many I suppose, sometimes get obsessed with trying to straighten the horizon, but you've made a great point about slight tilting. I'll have to give it a try and not be too worried about the results!

    I currently own an EPL1 and the main lens I use on it is the Oly 17mm. I'm considering another lens and I notice that again you're using the Panasonic 20mm.

    Would you recommend the Panasonic 20mm 1.7 above the Olympus 45mm 1.8, or do you think the Oly 45mm would be a better purchase? Both lenses are similarly priced here in England.

  5. hello Ben,
    thank you so much for your kind comment !!
    I do think that the 20mm f1.7 and 45mm F1.8 are two very different lenses. However, since the 17mm focal length is very close to 20mm, and the fact that the 20mm has wider aperture of F1.7 against the F2.8 on the 17mm, I do think that the 20mm can replace the 17mm and you do not need to have both.

    45mm allows you medium telephoto range, and this can be quite useful in many situations. I would get both 20mm and 45mm, if my fund permits.

  6. hello Robin,

    I just bought a new Panasonic leica 25mm f1.4 . Should I use the UV filter ? Do you use any UV filters for your lenses instead of lens hood ? Please advise. tq.

    From : Simone

  7. hello Simone,
    All my Olympus lenses (DSLR 4/3 lenses) come with hood. I use both hood and UV filter. Hood is to prevent flare and ghosting when shooting against strong source of light, and UV filter is to protect the lens, prevent from finger touching the front element, scratches, etc.

  8. What brand do you recommend for m.zuiko 45mm and panasonic 25mm? Or what brand do you usually use ? Tq

    From : simone

  9. Simone,
    I usually use Hoya filters. not that other filters are not good, its just that hoya is readily available here in Malaysia and the price is quite reasonable.

  10. Is it will produce filter flare?

  11. Thanks for your reply Robin. Hardly find the 37mm UV filters . For 46mm is ok .

    From : Simone