Travel Photography: Composition

Cai Rang floating 
Cantho, Vietman

Good composition is a key element in creating striking photographs. 

Every time you expose a piece of film you’ll have made a series of decisions resulting in a composition. You’ll have selected a lens with a particular focal length, or zoomed in and out, decided where to take the photo from, included some elements and excluded others, and made a decision to take the photo vertically or horizontally. By considering these interrelated variables (which all defy automation) before you press the shutter, ~ you can put your own interpretation on the subject.

For any given subject or scene there’s never one correct composition and it’s often worth taking several different compositions. Photographers regularly work the subject, exploring the different possibilities, all the time taking photos. Even at famous tourist sights where there’s a certain place to stand to take ‘the’ photo, it’s amazing how different people’s photos can be.

Aim to have the main point of interest positioned away from the center of the frame and avoid elements that conflict with the main subject.

As you work through the options keep in mind the rule that has traditionally been the starting point for successful composition:

The ‘rule of thirds’ teaches that the main elements of a composition are placed at points one-third of the way from the sides of the frame.

As you look through your viewfinder, imagine two vertical and two horizontal lines spaced evenly creating a grid of nine rectangular boxes. Try placing the main elements, such as the horizon in a landscape or the eyes in a portrait, on or near the points where the lines intersect. Avoid placing the main element right in the center of the frame – this can result in a very static image.


Getty Museum, Los Angeles
This building is framed by another building. The framing device is relevant to the main subject, because it’s part of it. It doesn’t overpower the subject, but rather, leads the viewer’s eyes into the composition.


Framing subjects is a common practice, but if not executed well it can weaken a composition. The framing device must have some relevance to the subject. Very often it’s just something at the edges of the picture that distracts the viewer’s attention.

The frame shouldn’t be so overpowering in color or shape that it competes with the subject.


Once you’ve decided what you want to photograph try to fill the frame with it.

A common mistake is to leave the subject too small and insignificant, in turn leaving the viewer wondering what the photograph is supposed to be of. Often just taking a few steps towards your subject will make an enormous difference.


Don’t assume that your eye level or the first place you see your subject from is the best viewpoint.

A few steps left or right, going down on one knee or standing on a step, can make a lot of difference. Varying your viewpoint will also add variety to your overall collection.


What you leave out of the frame is just as important as what you leave in.

Do you really want power lines running through the sky at the top of your picture? It’s fine if you do, but not if you didn’t see them in the first place. Get used to scanning the frame before pressing the shutter release, looking for distractions and unnecessary elements. Use the depth of field button (if you have one) to bring the background into focus, which will help you spot distractions behind the subject.

Woman from Trinidad, Cuba
By taking a couple of steps towards the woman and framing vertically, the context is not only retained but also enhanced. The vertical bars and window frame are emphasized and the viewer is drawn to the expression on the woman’s face.


Horizontal or vertical? It feels much more natural to hold the camera horizontally, so it’s not surprising that people forget to frame vertically. Start by framing vertical subjects vertically.

Consider the option of camera orientation as another tool for filling the frame and minimizing wasted space around the subject.


Take care when focusing.

If something other than the main subject is the sharpest part of the composition the viewer’s eye will rest in the wrong place.

There are five reasons why unsharp images are so common:

  • The lens is not focused accurately, particularly at wide apertures.

  • The lens is focused on the wrong part of the composition.

  • Shutter speed is too slow for hand-holding and camera shake results.

  • The subject moves.

  • The operator jabs the shutter release wobbling the camera. Press the shutter release gently.

One of the traps with the rule of thirds for auto-focus cameras is if the subject is not in the middle of the frame, the main subject may not be in focus. Most auto-focus cameras have a focus lock facility, which you should be confident using. This allows you to lock the focus on the main subject then recompose without the camera automatically refocusing.


Statues at the Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand
Not everyone takes this shot. To find a new angle on an old subject is one of the great challenges for the travel photographer. A change of lens and new camera angle is a quick and efficient way to create a completely new image from frequently photographed subject.

Lens choice determines the angle or field of view, image size, perspective and depth of field potential.


The focal length determines the angle of view and refers to the image area that the lens provides. On a 35mm camera a standard 50mm lens covers an angle of 46°, which gives about the same angle of view and image size as the human eye. Wide-angle lenses provide a wider angle of view and smaller image size than a standard lens. Telephoto lenses have a narrower angle of view and a larger image size than standard lenses.


Perspective refers to the relative size and depth of subjects within a picture. When the angle of view is wide (with wide-angle lenses), the perspective becomes more apparent as it’s stretched. Near objects appear much larger than those in the background. With a narrower angle of view (with longer focal lengths), the perspective is foreshortened and becomes less apparent – far objects look like they’re directly behind closer ones.


The wider the angle of the lens, the greater its depth of field potential. The longer the focal length of the lens the more its depth of field potential is reduced.

Excerpted from Travel Photography: A Guide to Taking Better Pictures
(Reprinted with permission)

by Richard I’Anson

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.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.