8 Tips for taking better pictures: Composition

In photography, it’s not just what you take a photo of that counts – the way you lay out the scene is important too. The below tips are guidelines for creating powerful and effective compositions, and remember that it doesn’t have to be complicated. Practice these tips, and it will quickly become natural.


In NGO photography in particular, we have to take photos of unpredictable scenes, so you have to be flexible and creative. Here are eight tips to help you succeed:

Tip 1: Simplify and Focus

It’s easy to take a photo that feels cluttered and confusing. The key to great photography is when the photographer is able to simplify the image for the viewer and tell them what to focus on.

First things first, be sure that you know what your subject is. Is it a specific person, an object or action? Focus on this and make it the centre of attention in your picture. Think about using silhouettes, lines or a shallow depth of field to hone in on your subject.

Tip 2: Avoid the Centre

You know how we just suggested that you make your subject the centre of attention? Well, that doesn’t mean it has to be in the centre of the frame, and in fact it usually shouldn’t be (unless you do it on purpose and really work the symmetry angle).

While it’s easy to put your subject in the centre of the photo, it can make for a boring image. One option is to use the Rule of Thirds to divide up your frame horizontally and vertically into a grid, and place your subject on one of the intersecting points. A little simpler is to just move your subject away from the centre and look for another balancing element in the scene.

Tip 3: Horizontal vs. Vertical

Most photographers take horizontal pictures naturally, because this is how we see. Try turning your camera to take a vertical photo, and you will view your subject in a whole new way. Some subjects will fit better in a horizontal frame, while others fit in a vertical frame. Try not to get stuck one way or the other!

Tip 4: Let your Subject fill the frame

Leaving too much empty space in a scene is the biggest mistake a photographer can make. People and other subjects look small, and viewers aren’t sure what to look at. To avoid this, zoom in to fill the frame with your subject, or walk closer to your subject physically!

Tip 5: Lines and diagonals

Leading lines can help a photographer direct the viewer on where to look in the image. Lines also add depth and a three-dimensional quality, sometimes helping the viewer move around the image and feel more a part of the scene. Lines are everywhere, you just have to look. Try using them to lead towards your subject, and just be careful that you don’t have any pesky lines coming out the top of anyone’s head.

Not all lines have to be straight, horizontal or vertical. Lines can also be diagonal or curved, lending to a feeling of drama in your photograph. You can even tilt your camera physically to create diagonal lines, although don’t overdo this technique!

Tip 6: Watch the Background

When photographing, and focusing on, your subject, be sure that you remember to look at the background and see what’s going on there as well. There might be a person or object out of place, or an ugly piece of trash. Moving around your subject ever so slightly will usually do the trick to remove unwanted items from your background, or you can try a shallow depth of field to make the background out of focus.

Tip 7: Colour!

When photographing in colour, think about simplifying the number of colours in your photograph, and how they complement or contrast each other. Scenes with only one colour, or shades of the same colour, can be very beautiful, as well as scenes with two or three brightly contrasting colours (like the houses in Bo Kaap). Just remember that too many random colours will distract from your subject and make your photograph feel messy and unplanned.

Tip 8: Get Creative and Break the Rules

Rules are made to be broken, so once you have a handle on the above tips, see how you can stretch the guidelines. But remember that you have to know the rules and master the techniques, before you can break the rules! Try to focus on one rule at a time, when you decide to get creative and go your own way – remember, keep it simple.

Jenn Warren specialises in photography, communications, Communications for Development (C4D) and graphic design for humanitarian and development clients. Jenn has worked for a wide range of government, donor, UN and NGO clients. Her photography and writing has been published internationally. http://www.jennwarren.net