Grab The Eye: Composition Techniques For Your Travel Images

Do you come home with ho-hum travel pictures? Do your friends avoid your slide shows like they would the purple plague? Are you at the bottom of your camera club’s “presenters” list? If you can expose film correctly, produce a sharp image, and keep your horizons level, perhaps it’s your artistic eye that needs tuning.“Cropping in the camera” and luring the viewer’s eye into your image are the two most difficult aspects of good photography.

What’s the answer?On your next trip around the corner or around the world, chase “magic hour” light, eliminate everything in your viewfinder that isn’t important, and use one or more of the following ideas for each image:


Place your subject in one of the viewfinder’s “intersection of thirds.” That’s where the eye naturally goes when you’re looking into a frame. Large subjects can be placed in the upper or lower third of the frame or in the left/right third. Remember to keep subjects with eyes looking into the frame. Avoid the center of the frame, except for exactly symmetrical compositions.

This shot of the famous Bass Harbor Light, on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, illustrates the use of “intersection of thirds” composition. The hillside on which the lighthouse sits forms the horizon of the picture, and the lighthouse is breaking the horizon. The pale orange rocks in the foreground contrast nicely against the complimentary blue of the sky. This should be a morning shot, but we arrived in the late afternoon, so some very careful exposure was necessary to obtain detail in the backlit lighthouse!


Try to put a “frame” (not a square frame!) around your subject. An arch in a building, the curve of a palm frond, the window in a sail, the frame of a window … the frame should relate to what is being framed in location, subject, history, or color.

This is a good example of framing, where the Spanish style of architecture relates to the sport of riding. Shot at “Rancho de la Osa” in Arizona, we first found the arch, then went looking for a rider! In this image, (almost a “frame within a frame within a frame”) the walkway between the two arches forms a nice leading line to the rider. The rider is positioned just a tad above the lower third of the frame.


Watch for any opportunity to use a “leading line” (S-shaped roads or fences are ideal) that draws the viewer’s eye into the picture, toward your subject.Your subject may be placed anywhere along the leading line, the start of the line often being the most effective.

This entire image constitutes a leading line, with only the stack of cannon balls to break the pattern! The cannonballs relate to the cannons, and the gunners. If a wide-angle lens is used for scenics, such as was done here at Fortress Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, you need something very large in the foreground to draw the eye, or the entire image becomes background.


An unusual application of the leading line technique is the use of a strong “v-shape” in the foreground, particularly when you’re using a wide-angle lens to photograph scenics. A fence is the most common tool, but the corner of a table or anything else that’s square or rectangular may work. Use the “v” as a frame for your subject.

This image, made in Wilmington, Vt., illustrates the use of a strong foreground “vee”, to create leading lines. This image also uses repetitive shapes, in the form of the roofline of the house, and the crotches of the tree branches. The house and the trees break the horizon, and the orange leaves contrast nicely with the complimentary blue sky. Compositionally, it doesn’t get much better than this!


Straight lines that parallel your frame should be avoided. If you photograph people, church steeples, flagpoles, or boat masts so that they “break the horizon,” your photographs will be more dynamic. Remember that the horizon might be the crest of a hill, the roofline of a building, or some other straight or long horizontal line in your composition. If you can’t avoid them, use them to your advantage. Since you must place yourself down lower to situate subjects against the horizon, this technique is often combined with that of the “worm’s eye view.”

The horizon is well and truly “broken” in this image, shot on Kew Beach in Toronto in the spring, late one afternoon. Look how the sweatshirt picks up the colors of the signs on the sterns of the boats! The boats form a leading line, and the figure is at the beginning of the line. Three composition techniques for the price of one.


Most photographs are made at eye level, so images of the same location often look the same. A fresh approach often yields completely different pictures. So, get down on your stomach, and see how the world looks from there!

“Get down on your belly”, instructed my artist wife, Allison, “…and shoot up the lines of the bridge!”. So I did as instructed, as a good husband should, and used this worm’s eye view to photograph the Marshal Point Light on the coast of Maine. The horizon is broken, there’s no shortage of leading lines, and the great depth of field of a 24mm lens made it all sharp!


A “bird’s eye view” can be just as effective in producing unusual images. Climb up on a chair, the roof of a building, or even a hill. Taking the high ground can be visually rewarding. Shoot down on the umbrellas, the restaurant tables, or the heads in a crowd. This technique often results in great “pattern” shots.

The “Metropolitan All District All Star Band” entertains the strollers on Lynn Beach, in the late afternoon. Made up of high school students from across the Boston area, the band assembles each summer to play in the communities along the Boston Shore, in Massachusetts. I had to climb up on top of a nearby roof for this “bird’s eye shot”, and use my 24mm lens to fit it all in.


Watch for repeating shapes in your compositions that you can use to fill the frame. Umbrellas, flowers, boats in a fleet–the list is endless. You need only train your eye to see the opportunities.

This photograph, made in Halifax NS during the Tall Ships Week of 2000, uses repetitive pattern as the primary technique of composition. In addition, all straight lines are diagonals, as I tilted the camera while making the image. Lots of “lines” in the shot, but I’m not sure any of them are “leading”!


If a pattern is symmetrical, it becomes your background, and you must then “break the pattern” with a related shape that’s different. Watch for a yellow tulip in a bed of red ones, a cow with its head up in a herd of browsers, or a red tractor in a field of freshly mown hay or corn.


Diagonal lines in compositions make dynamic photographs. Look for strips of different-colored crops in a field, piled bolts of colored fabric, or hats in a stack. Avoid straight lines that parallel the frame by tilting the camera. The results will shake up your audience!


“Selective focus” is a technique often seen on television shows in which two people, at different distances from the camera, are talking together. Only the person speaking is in focus, and the focus changes to the other person when the conversation shifts. You can draw attention to your subject in the same way, by using an open aperture (low f-stop number). Confusing and busy backgrounds can be eliminated from your composition. The wonderful colors of autumn can become a soft sweep of pastel hues.

This photograph, made on Assateague Island in Virginia’s barrier islands, illustrates the technique of using limited “depth of field” to emphasize a main subject. The biker is in sharp focus, while the background is soft. The far edge of the bike path is the “horizon” in this picture, and the biker is breaking that horizon. This shot also shows the advantage of using back lighting, and the good luck that photographers sometimes enjoy – I didn’t use flash fill, and still got a good exposure.


Using reflections in your pictures can be an effective trick of composition. Often, you can use only the reflection, which makes your photograph more interesting. Sherman Hines, a well-known Canadian photographer, has been known to literally carry a puddle in his camera bag.He watches for situations where there is a pool of water in front of a building he wants to photograph. He gets down to the water-surface level (worm’s eye view), and captures the entire building reflected in the water. Another great shot–at the cost of muddy knees.

You’ve got it – it’s the Toronto skyline, shot at dusk from the Polson Street vantage point, a favourite for local shutterbugs. When I made this shot, the parking lot at the end of the street was empty of cars, and full of water, after a thunderstorm had passed. I was literally lying in the water, peering through the viewfinder, with my tripod as low as it could go. Sherman Hines was right – the entire skyline was reflected in the puddle!


Silhouettes are always effective. These are most easily accomplished at sunset or sunrise, but can also be done on bright days with backlit subjects (at the beach or on a ski slope). Try underexposing by a stop or so to remove detail.

I photographed this “remuda” early one misty morning in Glacier National Park, in Montana. It was a real grab shot, as I just happened to turn around as the horses came over my skyline. No need to ‘break the horizon’ here … the subject was on top of it! It’s perhaps my best silhouette shot ever. In the days before Photoshop, I put the color in the sky by sandwiching the original with some red and yellow film. I even won a “millennium photo contest” with it, calling it “Y2K-Compatible Public Transportation”.


You can often fill the frame with your subject alone, eliminating extraneous detail. (This gimmick is often combined with the bird’s eye view.) Use of wide-angle lenses or telephoto lenses makes it easy. Get closer, then, get closer still.

Contrary to popular opinion, I found this collapsed old bucket as is, and did not fill it with lobster floats. Photographed in Seal Cove on New Brunswick’s Grand Manan Island, it filled my frame nicely, using a 24mm lens. The curving lines of the outer perimeter of the bucket make a nice frame around the floats, lending the composition to the use of a wide- angle lens. A fish-eye lens, used here, would have yielded a very special image.


Imaginative use of color often results in good compositions.Watch for chances to use complimentary colors, such as a red canoe against a background of green forest, or an orange maple tree against a solid blue sky.Then, explore the idea of repetitive colors, where the hatband and t-shirt of a pretty girl’s summer outfit might match the color of the boat she’s rowing. A soccer player’s team sweater might pick up the color of the fall trees in the background, or his teammate’s sweater as he stands out-of-focus behind him.Remember that good photographers make images.If you find the girl, and you know where a similarly hued boat might be, combine those picture elements. In Victoria, on Vancouver Island, Allison once borrowed an orange t-shirt from a clothing store for ten minutes, so we could make a photograph using this technique. We sent some of the resulting slides to the store, as promised, and they were used in an advertising brochure.

This image, made at the Kenney Lodge in Ontario’s Rideau Waterway, uses the colors of autumn, reflected in the water, as a background for the chairs in the foreground.The reds and yellows in the background are picked up by the red and yellow chairs on the dock. This very subtle use of color in composition requires a very observant eye, an easy job for any lady accustomed to picking out accents for her ensemble. My only claim to fame for this image was to choose a telephoto lens for the job, Allison explaining to me very carefully exactly how she wished me to make the image.


To study these ideas, look at photographic books and visit art galleries. For each picture that captures your eye, try to analyze exactly why that image works. What technique(s) of composition were used?Use of these techniques of composition, particularly in combination, will greatly enhance your photographs. Eventually, you’ll be able to throw away this list, once your eye is trained to take advantage of each opportunity.

by Michael and Allison Goldstein

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All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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