12 Ways to Kick Your Photo Composition Up a Notch (When You Don’t Want to Pose Clients)

Have you ever been so captivated by a photo, not because of the moment or light, but because of the perspective? It felt like, “HOW did they do that?!” as you reflect on your own photos feeling kind of blah? Let’s combat that feeling with some killer composition techniques specifically for us storytelling, documentary photographers.

I’ve noticed, in our community, some photographers are deeply hung up on finding the moment when shooting. Moment, moment, moment. Yes, moment is important. It’s the heart of the photo after all, right? However, being so focused on the moment can cause this moment-tunnel-vision affect, which results in over-clicking and under-thinking about the composition + light. Occasionally, I still fall into this feeling today – especially if I’m in an unfamiliar scenario where I don’t feel confident in my ability to anticipate photo-worthy moments.

Sound familiar? This post will help you work towards creating a harmony between your use of light, composition, and heart of the story with some easy-to-implement composition techniques.

All photos © Marie Masse

Two Commonly Used Photo Compositions:

Centered

Placing your subject in the center of your frame is a classic, go-to composition. This particular photo below works, because I got down on Kendall’s level. There is also some added balance and dimension to the photo, because she was standing in the center of our trail in our backyard. You can see the tiny flowers in the foreground, on the same plane as her, and all the bokeh in the background. And yes, this was a purely documented moment as we were stopped during our walk and she was watching her brother run ahead.

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Rule of Thirds

This composition is widely known, so I won’t spend a ton of time here. If you imagine a grid of 9 squares in your frame (4 lines) and place your subject on the intersections of these lines, as described here on the Digital Photography School blog, this is rule of thirds. This is one of the first compositions photographers learn and keep in their toolbox throughout the years.

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Warning: this post is kinda long. In case you don’t have time to go through it all now or you want to reference these 12 techniques at any time, grab the cheatsheet:

Interesting Perspective Composition:

You can center position or use the rules of thirds to position your subject nicely in your frame in most scenarios. However, to add a feeling of purposeful variety and interesting perspectives to your gallery (especially important when telling a story through a series of images), try some different perspectives to your compositions beyond straight on.

You may not be able to create a photo for each of these compositions in every scene, but use them as options inside of your toolbox of techniques.

Consider those viewing your photo as you’re shooting. What do you want their greatest takeaway from your photo to be? What do you want to remember most? That is your moment, right?

Now, how can you lure your viewer into the photo and navigate them to the heart of the moment using composition? 

 

Bird’s Eye View

Shoot from above. You’ll notice all of these images still implement the rule of thirds or center positioning my subject, but there’s a totally different perspective here.

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Shoot From the Outside In

This is one of my favorite ways to add some serious dimension to the photo and draw the viewer’s eye straight to the subject. Light can get a little tricky here. A little side tip: Typically, when I apply this technique, my subject is in the light and I’m in shooting from the shadows.

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Back up and include the full scene

I have a tendency to love my prints large. My favorite canvas size is a 24×36. When you include an entire scene with your subject in your frame, it’s like stepping into another world when you look at the photo on your wall. This allows you to truly set the mood for your one image or even for the rest of your photo story if shooting a series of images. You can see the perspective of how small we are, especially children, in our big world. You can feel the season. You can almost hear the crickets chirping, for the big country scenes, or feel the quiet moment stolen for the couple alone on the golf course.

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Shoot Tight to the Edges

If you like negative space, this is the composition for you! It’s like extreme rule of thirds (because I’m not great at math and have no idea how to describe what I’m talking about mathematically). You’ll see in some cases, my subject is even cropped (and by cropped, I mean excluded from my view finder, as it’s rare that I actually crop in post-processing to maintain the quality of the photo).

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Create immediacy (2 planes) by placing something in the foreground

I’ve heard photographers sometimes refer to this as layering. Essentially, you are using multiple planes to create dimension inside of your image. Here, there are 2 layers of depth and an excellent starting point if you are just starting out with working on dimension. Typically, there is one focal point and a very obvious second layer to the image with an out-of-focus foreground object. Technically speaking, there is a background to layers making a third plane. Below, you’ll see this is usually a wall. However, it’s the first two planes (like the sweet boy and his toy snakes or my two cousins with the restaurant’s table items – ketchup and napkins – that are the important elements of the story).

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Add even more dimension with multiple definitive planes (layers)

This is one of my favorite techniques to make your viewer feel like they are really a part of the photo itself. With all of the pieces of the photo, there are often sub-stories to your main story here. My secret to making this work is to position yourself so there is balance in the photo – you’ll watch for diamonds (four points), lines, or triangles. It may sound hard, but with practice, you’ll start to gravitate to your composition without really thinking about it… kind of like driving somewhere and then not recalling the drive (ever done that?).

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Use the environment to creatively frame your subject

This is probably not the type of composition you’d see in classic documentary photography, but whatever. I love the idea of mixing artistry and different genres if it enhances YOUR unique voice as a photographer. Much like using multiple planes or shooting from the outside in, you’re doing essentially the same thing to create dimension. Create a frame around the subject that covers most of your image (like shooting through the hole on the back of our mailbox to photograph Kendall) or just a part of the image (like the tree in the last photo in this section). You can use this technique to eliminate any kind of scene noise (unwanted things in your photo that likely would distract your viewer from the heart of the moment) or to add something unexpected to your gallery.

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Get close and fill your viewfinder

As I talked about before with details, a detail can be an object (a thing), a person, an emotion, or something sensory. Getting close can be an excellent way to draw that detail out in your photo.

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Master an intuitive in-camera crop of your subject(s)

Does it feel weird to chop off body parts in your photos? This technique can only work if you are applying it in harmony with killer light and moment and/or dimension (layers).

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Use leading lines and diagonals

I think when some photographers hear the term “leading lines” they take it quite literally. If you have awesome literal lines in your scene, that’s awesome. However, you can use lines from the environment and your subject to create a line. Take this first image below, there is a diagonal line from the top left corner to the bottom right using the tree branches and my subject (mom’s face) below. Then, the photo of my parents and Kendall walking down the street. The position of my parents and the line of the road creates a line of depth.

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Shoot through objects to add detail and uniqueness to the image

Super similar to framing and adding multiple layers to a photo, here you an object that is not really important to the story in the photo. It does not have to frame your subject entirely. It can be a subtle addition or maybe very obvious, but regardless, it doesn’t distract the viewer. In the first photo below, I was shooting into a small mirror in a bridal suite. In the last photo in this section, I used a tree to add a little something in the foreground, which caused the green spots on the left side of my frame – this helped to eliminate the black truck in the background.

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Show off YOUR perspective

You can do this in two ways: put a part of your body in the frame or make the focal point be a part of your body as if you’re looking at yourself.

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Whew! That was a long one.

For a quick reference, pin this post: 

 

Start working these techniques into your shooting. Download this cheatsheet and pick one technique to work on each week over the next 12 weeks. 

What are your thoughts? What questions do you have? Comment below!

Author: MarieMasse
I help client documentary photographers fine-tune their workflow + marketing game, so their work is filled with sessions that represent their voice + client values while earning a living. I shoot undirected, off-beat stories that aren’t preserved often enough (like the story of couples before starting a fam or becoming empty-nesters – a dream project of mine), so my clients’ old box of photos is a meaningful, visual diary of their life + legacy to leave behind.

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  • Your photos are stunning. Thank you for sharing.

    Tomorrow, I do my first professional shoot for a colleague of mine and her family. I have a strong graphic design background, but photography has been a hobby of mine for a couple of years.

    This post really helped refresh my understanding of composition, light, etc. I’m basically geeking out over your amazing composition because I feel it’s the most important factor in any visual piece (photo, painting, drawing). So amazing!

    Again, thank you!

  • I loved these photos! They were candid and thought-provoking! Your tips were spot-on, and I will definitely keep them in mind with my own photography. Thank you!