Monday, February 20, 2012

Photo Composition - by Tyra Baumler

When I was 16, I had the choice of spending all my money on an old car or on a good camera. I chose the camera. Then I went off to college to study graphic design and realized I managed to choose a school with no photography classes.

I’d get to the technical stuff later, but the composition skills I learned in a 2-dimensional design course my freshman year are probably what have served me the best as a photographer. The teacher was a bit of a close talker and could have used an Altoid from time to time, but these three little bits of brilliance have served me well:

1. Odds versus evens.
2. The Rule of Thirds (goes hand in hand with the first one — you’ll see).
3. Making negatives a positive.

1. My first rule of composition thumb – or shutter finger – is that odd numbers of subjects are generally better than even. It’s become second nature that I tend to look for subjects that I can compose in groupings of three. My “Just Peachy” photo is a great example of this. The focal point is the pyramid of peaches, but there are also three blue baskets of fruit in a row with one peach in the foreground. Triangles are much more dynamic than rectangles.

2. The next suggestion is perhaps most obvious with landscapes. Be careful where the lines in your subject matter are intersecting your overall image. It is better to have a horizontal line positioned one third from the bottom of your image rather than exactly across the middle. Conversely, it is not usually a good idea to have the edge of a building running exactly down the middle of your frame — unless you are purposely doing that for a good reason or effect. In the “Sailboats” photo you can see that the horizon is slightly below center and the baseline of the boats is about one third from the bottom.

3. Lastly, the spaces BETWEEN the objects in your photos are as important as the objects. This is why it is so easy to take a photo of two people with a big awkward gap between them. I find that I pay extra attention to the negative space in floral photos. The colors and shapes are so great, but the room between the petals and foliage can create lots of holes in your image. I took this “Market Lilies” photo in Raleigh and took my time composing the shot to avoid that dark gap you can see just above the yellow lily because I didn't want to see the floor through the flowers.

A lot of these things can be accomplished with good cropping, but I am something of a purist and take pride in presenting the photos that I capture as closely as possible to what I originally saw in my viewfinder. 

I hope that these examples have shed a little light on the art of composition. I did go on to get a degree in graphic design and own my own company now. And I purposely drive an old car because I'd still rather keep getting new camera equipment. Some things never change. Happy composing!
This was written by Tyra Baumler and published on her behalf. To see more of her work visit her here:
The photographs published here are all owned by Tyra Baumler and were published with her consent, they are not to be copies, saved or reproduced in any way without permission.


  1. This is really helpful. Inspires me to get out and take more pictures!

  2. Good thoughts! So - do you consciously apply these guidelines... or is it mostly second nature/instinct now? I think I shall now recall the image of a summer sausage-breath (bleh) close-talker whenever I look at a piece i'm working on and something feels off... just to remind me to see if one of these rules might apply!

  3. It gives me hope that even with a point and shoot I could do a better job of getting a good photo.