PHOTOGRAPHIC COMPOSITION: Specific Guidelines to improve your photography.

PHOTOGRAPHIC COMPOSITION: Specific Guidelines to improve your photography.

“[…] composition rests on point and counterpoint, that is, on many counterbalancing elements. But these antagonistic forces are not contradictory or conflicting. They do not create ambiguity. Ambiguity confuses the artistic statement because it leaves the observer hovering between two or more assertions that do not add to a whole. As a rule, pictorial counterpoint is hierarchic, that is, it sets a dominant force against a subservient one. Each relation is unbalanced in itself; together they all balance one another in the structure of the whole work.”

Rudolf Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception, The Balance. 

Window cleaner in the Roy Thomson Hall (the Opera of Toronto) facade, Ontario, Canada.
The human figure is always recognizable, and is VERY useful to photograph it against non organic structures.

Published on 2015/10/20 - Text and Pictures by Alberto Mateo, Travel Photographer for The Last Footprint.

Composition is more about trying to balance the shapes of the subjects and objects you have in front of you at the moment of pressing the shutter than about trying to set your most important objects in a specific ‘sweet points’ of the frame… let’s see some ideas to take your composition to the next level…

If you think that Mr. Arnheim is a bit too abstract, I will give you five (more usable and specific) “tools” you can use on your everyday photography:

Fast Guide to Photographic Composition by Alberto Mateo, Travel Photographer

SET THE SCALE (with built-in indicators)

GET YOUR FIGURES/SUBJECTS WELL DEFINED (avoid convergence of lines)


Overlapping of shapes

Gradient of shapes

Aerial Perspective

SUGGEST MOVEMENT (whenever possible).

ESTABLISH A HIERARCHY (what subject/action is more important), usually WITH SELECTIVE FOCUS and/or setting your subject/action in a specific POSITION in the frame.

Have to say that, although don’t deny RULE OF THIRDS, I’m not a big fan of using it. In my honest opinion it is an oversimplification; ok, it sometimes works, but I wouldn’t rely all my work on it. In fact, in this series of posts about composition I will try to look for some examples in my photography file of pictures that don’t rely on the rule of thirds and will try to analyze why, at least in my honest opinion, are well composed.

I’m not a big fan of using the denominated 'RULE OF THIRDS'. In my honest opinion it is an oversimplification; ok, it sometimes works, but I wouldn’t rely all my work on it.

Composition is about something more, not about placing some objects or subjects in a specific place in the frame. I prefer the definition of Rudolf Arnheim you see above:

Composition is about making a statement, a hierarchical statement.

Composition is about balance.

Composition is about being clear about your statement.

If you read Rudolf Arnheim’s book “Art and Visual Perception”, a classic on all visual Arts Universities written in the fifties and reedited dozens of times, you’ll see on chapter One, ‘The Balance’ how he defines the “psychological forces” and composition as a way to create forces that are unbalanced locally in different parts of the picture, but get balanced in the picture as a whole. He states ­that our brain assigns “visual weights” to different subjects on any picture: a human object has more visual weight than a non-human one, a head has more visual weight than a hand. Composing is about balancing these visual weights.

Composing is about balancing visual weights.

In the picture I have posted you can see a window cleaner, a small figure in a sea of steel beams and glass sheets, a very small figure in the frame who is able to counterpoint a huge lattice of steel and glass. Why? Because our brain assign organic shapes more weight than a non-organic one.

Composition Analysis – Window Cleaner, Opera of Toronto, Canada.

The composition is divided in three planes that are compressed due to the moderate telephoto (a 50mm which is a 75mm on a DX Sensor). The lower half of the image (The Opera of Toronto) talks to me about diagonal lines. The upper left part about horizontal lines and the upper right corner (a clear sky) about the emptiness, about nature (yes, we can still find traces of Nature in big cities!!!) There are two urban-artificial patterns against a natural one and a small human figure hanging among the steel beams.

Now, I’ll try to analyze one by one how I have used the “Five rules to improve you compositions” in this picture:

SET THE SCALE (with built-in indicators)

The scale indicator is the window cleaner. A human figure is always the best scale indicator we can use in our photographs. Hide him with you fingertip and the image falls in total abstraction. It could be anything.

GET YOUR FIGURES/SUBJECTS WELL DEFINED (avoid convergence of lines)

I have tried to set the three parts of the picture so that they cut the frame in halves or thirds parts. My composition is CLEAR (or I hope so!)

In addition I have photographed the window cleaner in a position that clearly defines his shape and makes him easily recognizable as human.


Due to the nature of this picture, I can say I haven’t used this statement. It had no sense in a composition like this where all planes are vertical. We don’t have to always use ALL of the rules for all photographs!

SUGGEST MOVEMENT (whenever possible).

The position of the man clearly defines the action he is performing. I have chosen to freeze his movement in a position that clarifies what he is doing.

ESTABLISH A HIERARCHY (what subject/action is more important).

The hierarchy comes from a counterpoint of the man performing an action against the nonorganic shapes in the background.

Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto, Canada. Source: Google Maps.

On a conceptual or symbolic level this picture talks me about the smallness of human beings in the cities of today. I believe that all architects and urban city planners in cities like NY and Toronto have succeeded in their attempt to make feel small to human beings against all that skyscraper concentration.

The act of composition is too complex to be resumed in five lines or rules (complete books are written every year about it), but these simple five ideas will help you to improve your compositions.

Try them and tell me. Do you use the same principles I suggest?
Do you think the composition I have upload in this post is correct? Or could it be improved?
If so, how would you do it?



There was plenty of light in this early spring summer in Toronto. I needed at least 1/80 to ensure that my picture would not be blurred, but closed a point more to be sure.


A medium aperture was enough to get good depth of field in the two planes of the picture. One is the plane where the window-cleaner and the diagonal structure are located, and the other is where the building on the left is located. The third one, the sky, has no detail, so it is not important in terms of depth of field.

ISO: 100

Did not want to get a noisy picture, so kept the ISO as low as possible.

MODE: A - Aperture Priority

A is usually the easiest option for street photography (but it is a matter of personal taste): Set the aperture you need and see where your speed falls. If it is fast enough, go on. If it is not, change your parameters and take another reading.

LENS USED: Nikon 50mm f1.8AF (a 75mm on a DX Sensor)

I tried first a composition with the tele-photo Nikon 80-200 2.8 AF but did not give me a good composition. The key to this picture is THE RELATION OF SIZES of the man and the steel and glass structures. This picture needs as much building structure as possible, so I opened until other interfering objects like trees or other buildings began to appear at the sides of the frame. These objects did not add anything to the message I wanted to convey, they made the composition more complex, so got rid of them closing the frame with my 50mm 1.8.


As my subject was not moving fast I had time to think about my settings and try some compositions. I love it when I can think about how the picture is going to be taken, when I can create the composition!

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