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8 Tips to Help Find the Subject for Your Composition

Do you find it difficult to take photos which hold people’s attention? In our digital societies where image sharing is prolific, it is challenging to have people really take time to look at your prized photos. Image composition is key here.

So I want to give you eight tips on how to create pictures that will grab hold your viewer’s attention. People will want to stop and look rather than keep scrolling past your images.

Mask at a Chiang Mai Market - 8 Tips to Help Find the Subject for Your Composition

A good composition should have a clear main subject. It might be as plain as a landscape or a person’s face, or it might be something very small in the frame. If the composition is good the main subject will stand out like a sore thumb.

We all have a unique view of the world. Each of us takes in the world around us in different ways. If you have ever been on a group photo walk and taken part in a shared image review afterward, you will know this. Each photographer will have walked the same street, and the number of photographers that participated, there will be that same variety of pictures.

girl with Kayan Neck Rings - 8 Tips to Help Find the Subject for Your Composition

1. Choose a subject you can relate to

What catches your eye? Why does it appeal to you? You should be asking yourself these things when you are taking pictures. If you choose subjects that you feel a connection with you will create more interesting photos. This is simply because you are interested in the subject yourself.

So your initial choice of subject should be something that you can connect with. My subject of the portrait below is a woman my wife and I chat with at the local market. We connect with her. I wrote about

her and her late husband in a recent article

.

Because I have this lovely friendship with her it is easier for me to make lovely pictures of her. I know she will happily pose for me. I also know I will get a more interesting photo of her when she is that bit more relaxed and not looking directly at me. In this photo, she was chatting with my wife who was standing beside me.

Sticky Rice Vendor - 8 Tips to Help Find the Subject for Your Composition

2. Isolate the subject

About the most obvious way to have your main subject stand out in your photos is to isolate it.

My favorite two ways to isolate my subject is to use a

narrow depth of field or a dark background

. By using either of these techniques your main subject will be unmistakable.

Choosing a wide enough aperture and having your subject far enough from the background will allow you to have your background blurred and your subject sharp. If you are using a camera with a small sensor or a smartphone with only one lens, this may not be possible.

When you have a dark background your subject will stand out, especially when there is more light on the subject than the background. To achieve this look find a spot where the background is in the shade and your subject has more light on it/them.

Kayaw portrait - composition

3. Choose your lens carefully

Your choice of lens can affect how you compose the image and how your main subject will be seen. Sometimes a wide-angle lens is better than a telephoto. Other times you will need a longer lens.

Getting

close to your subject with a wide lens

has a different effect than if you use a long lens and position yourself further away. If you are not sure about how this works the best way to learn is to experiment.

Try taking a series of photos of the same subject with various lenses or zoom settings and see in which photos your main subject looks the best.

Chaing Mai Fresh Market Vendor - composition

4. Frame your subject

Set up your subject how you want to see them. Move around your subject and study them from different angles. Watch closely how the background changes in relation to what’s behind them. Find an angle where your subject looks best.

Limit what you include in your frame. Fill your frame only with what is relevant to the photo you are making. If you can see anything in the frame which does not balance with or enhance your subject keep making changes until you can no longer see those things.

5. Exploit the foreground

Make use of something in the foreground of your composition to draw the viewer’s eye to your subject. This technique will add depth to your composition.

Use an object which is

in front of your main subject

, either in focus or out of focus. This can help bring the viewer’s eye to concentrate more on your subject.

Kayaw Ethnic Minority Girl by Kevin Landwer-Johan

6. Use leading lines and diagonals

Composing your photo so there are strong lines leading to your main subject will enhance it. The viewer’s eye will be lead along the lines to rest on your chosen subject. This is a very simple, very effective technique.

Diagonal lines used well in a composition can also be used to draw the viewer’s eye to the main subject.

7. Time it well

Choosing the right time to take your photo can help to bring attention to your main subject. When you are photographing in a busy location good timing is imperative. Having someone walk in front or behind your main subject just as you take your photo would detract from your main subject.

Watch carefully. When I am in a busy place I usually have both eyes open, rather than closing one. This way I can see more of what is happening around me and my subject and it helps me time my photos better.

Bust Chiang Mai Market by Kevin Landwer-Johan

8. Crop imaginatively

Don’t always stick to the rules of composition. Stepping outside the box can help highlight your main subject in unusual ways.

In this photo of the gold elephant statue against the gold wall of the chedi, everything tended to blend together. The harsh light was not helpful. Cropping tight to the elephant and only including half of it draws your attention there. The negative space balances the composition.

Temple Gold Elephant by Kevin Landwer-Johan

Conclusion

Try these tips sometimes. Be mindful of your main subject and whatever else is in your frame. If there are distractions, use one or more of these techniques to draw attention to your main subject and have it tell the story you want.

Having your primary subject stand out will make your photo easy for people to look at and relate to. But more than just having your subject stand out, you need to frame it so that it lets viewers see the subject and scene how you see it.

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