10 point checklist for perfect photo composition

1. What are you shooting to begin?

‘Junk in, junk out’ goes the old computer programming adage, and it’s the same with photography. If your subject is dull and uninspiring to begin with, even flawless composition won’t much much difference.

A garage door is a garage door. Unless you are deliberately trying to be minimalist or ironic, and it’s a particularly beautiful garage door…

2. Are you distilling the essence of a scene?

A massive sweeping vista can be hard to capture, particularly if you don’t have an ultra wide lens. So rather than trying to capture the whole of a magnificent coastline, look for a few elements that encapsulate its beauty, and balance well.

The swell of waves around rocks, a low-down vista of attractive beach pebbles with cliffs behind, a particularly beautiful sun setting on the sea – you get the picture.

3. Are you using a tripod (or at least some kind of support)?

Good composition is all about mindfulness – thinking carefully about why you are shooting this particular subject and what you are including in the frame.

So consider using a tripod, particularly for landscapes or flora shots, as it will slow you down and encourage you to take more time deciding which elements you are going to include, and in what order.

4. Can you see patterns and graphic shapes?

Attractive patterns and shapes are all around us, and play an essential role in many different photographic genres, from landscapes to architecture to still life.

See if you can locate some interesting patterns in the landscape, or the lines of buildings, or even people’s faces or clothes. Even sports photographers try to get nice graphic shapes in their images, created by the body movement of player(s).

5. Do you know the rules before breaking them?

The rule of thirds may sound like a real old chestnut, but just like in sport, you can only transcend the classic rules of technique once you know what they are. Otherwise, you are winging it, and have a weak foundation to begin with.

So while you shouldn’t obsessively use the rule of thirds or leading lines all the time, don’t disregard them for the sake of it. For a particular image they could work well. Rather than rules, think of them as tools in your compositional toolbox.

6. Is the camera is straight?

Now let’s get onto image capture. The first thing to check is that you are holding the camera straight, or that it’s level on the tripod. This may sound obvious, but wonky shots are common if you have a split second to get a shot or aren’t being careful.

Sure, you can crop or straighten in software, but you might end up losing some important parts of the image. Check everything is level and turn on the grid lines on the LCD to help you if necessary.

7. Have you checked the background?

Finding a great subject is only part of the battle. You then need to ask yourself if you are shooting it against the best possible background.

Be vigilant of distracting street furniture, like bins or parked vans, or ugly foliage or twigs that distract from a beautiful dragonfly, for instance.

Just moving a few feet left or right could give you a much cleaner background. If you can’t do much about the background, shoot at a wide aperture or use a long lens so at least the background distractions are blurred out. Sports photographers use this technique a lot.

8. Have you scanned all four corners of the frame?

This is another classic pro tip. Before pressing the shutter button, quickly scan all four corners of the frame you see in the viewfinder.

If you notice stuff in there that has no right to be there, and could distract the viewer, try to remove them or move yourself.

If an annoying waiter keeps appearing in your shots of the couple at a wedding, for example, ask them politely to keep out of the way for a second.

9. Are there any distractions on the subject?

Staying with our wedding couple, check they are looking at their best before you take the shot.

Are there any wonky ties or stray hairs? Are they standing in an awkward or tense way? Is the bride’s nose breaking the line of her face, and making it look bigger than necessary?

These questions can also be applied to travel and documentary photography, but exercise common sense here: if you are photographing a homeless person, they are inevitably going to look a bit dishevelled, and this is an essential part of the truth of the image.

10. Are you relying too much on cropping?

Cropping is a good friend but a dangerous enemy when it comes to composition. Certainly there are times in street or documentary photography, for example, where you can’t always control the background and some cropping may be necessary.

But relying on cropping all the time will make you lazy. If you have to crop, make sure the elements in the frame still balance, and don’t crop too tight.

Leave space for a moving object, like a car or bird, to move into in the frame, for example. Remember that some great photojournalists, such as Mary Ellen Mark, never cropped at all.