Jim Mathis
10851 Mastin Suite 130
Overland Park, KS 66210
913 269-6709





One handy rule to get started is the rule of thirds. Imagine that the frame is divided by thirds vertically and horizontally like a tic-tac-toe game. The most important part of the picture is along the one-third lines, or where they cross. When in doubt about how to compose your picture, try to put the most important thing along these lines. The most important thing might be a person’s eyes, the horizon, or the central subject. Avoid the bulls-eye syndrome; you don’t want the subject to look like a target.

Another rule has to do with people. Generally speaking, you do not want the subject looking off the edge of the frame. It is more comfortable when they are looking into the frame. This also applies to a layout on a page. If a person is looking off the edge of the page or into the crack between the pages it can be very disturbing. If you place the subject at the edge of the frame looking away from the center of the photo, be sure you know why you are doing it. This is a good technique to make an alarming photo or to get the viewer’s attention. It is generally not a pleasing composition.

Avoid a lot of empty space. An old adage says, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you are not close enough.” This obviously is not always true, but moving in closer or zooming in tighter will almost always give the picture more impact.

S-curves are nice. If there is something in the photo that suggests an “S” such as a winding road, a river, or some other curvy subject, lay it out like a big “S” on the page and it will almost always be a good composition. The “S” should lead the viewer into the photo. Conversely, an “S” or other form that directs the subject away from the picture can be disturbing or even subconsciously offensive to the viewer.

Light and dark space. The eye is naturally drawn to the brightest spot in the picture. This can be used to an advantage or it can be a distraction. If there is a bright spot in the photo, it should be a significant part of the composition. Make use of light and dark areas to direct the viewer to the important part of the picture.

Composition is a learned skill. Go to art galleries, look at paintings, and look at great photographs in magazines. You will see thirds, you will see “S” curves, and you will see all kinds of things. You might even see things that have not been seen before. That is the great thing about creativity. We can learn from others and add our own experiences to make images that reflect our own way of seeing.


to return to Jim Mathis School of Photography

To Jim's Blog