How to fill your frame? The basics of good composition

Lesson 7 Module 3

What can Leonardo Da Vinci teach you about taking great photos?

Yes, it's true that photography wasn't invented until several hundred years after his death. And even though the Renaissance master never touched a camera shutter button or loaded a memory card, there's still a lot he can teach us about how to fill our frames to make a memorable image.

After all, we're still talking about his images even today, right?

The Rule of Thirds: What Da Vinci can teach you about photography

Imagine a typical family vacation snaphot.

The Grand Canyon is in the background with mom, dad, and the kids filling up the middle of the frame. Nothing too exciting here.

The main reason this photo is so boring (aside from the fact that nothing is really happening) is that the subjects are all in the center of the frame. Once your eye has taken in the middle of the photo, there's really nothing else to explore. You're bored already and you want to look at something else.

Enter Leonardo Da Vinci to spice things up. Even though it's been several hundred years since the Renaissance man painted his masterpieces, the way he constructed the scenes in his paintings can help you take better photos.

Da Vinci (and most other great artists) had an understanding of the 'Rule of Thirds'.


The key to the 'Rule of Thirds' is where you choose to place your subject (the most important thing) in your photo.

Imagine that your camera viewfinder or LCD screen is divided up like a tic-tac-toe grid (actually many cameras today come with this as a feature). Using the intersecting lines as a guide, place the subject of your photo at one of the crossed lines. If your subject is a person, you should start by centering their eyes at the intersection.

The reason this composition technique works is that by placing your subject a bit off center, it can create some visual tension in the frame since the picture is not perfectly 'balanced'.

The Rule of Thirds can also create a sense of motion or movement if you put your subject towards the left side of the frame. Since you're used to reading text from left to right, your eye is already trained to move in this direction. When the subject is on the left side of the frame, there's plenty of space for the subject to 'move' into the right side.

You should also try using the Rule of Thirds on your next landscape photography shoot. By placing the horizon of your photo either at the upper third or lower third of the frame you can emphasize the sky (openness) or bring out the features of the foreground by lining up the horizon on the upper third of the frame. Most people center their horizons and that's why so many landscape photos are just boring.

Choosing your subject: How to draw attention to it

Most bad photos aren't good for one simple reason: the photographer didn't focus the frame on one subject.

If you photo is about everything, then it's really about nothing. Always decide what your photo is 'saying' before you click the button. The difference between a boring snapshot and a great photograph will almost always come down to how the photographer used good composition to draw the viewer's eye towards the subject.

You can even use natural lines like rivers, roads, rows of crops, or the angle of a mountainside to create a visual clue to lead your viewer to the subject.

For example, if you're taking a landscape photo with a winding river in the foreground and a mountain range on the horizon, try placing the river in either the bottom left or bottom right corner. Angle the line of the river towards the mountain range and place the horizon at the upper third of the frame. Your shot will be set up nicely to take the viewer from the foreground to the horizon almost sub-conciously.

The Simplest Advice: Fill the frame

One big reason why it's hard to tell what many photos are about is because the subject is waaaay too small. Even if you use the Rule of Thirds emphasize your subject, if it's so tiny that you can't find it at a glance the photo won't get anyone's attention.

Use your camera's zoom or just walk a bit closer so that you can crop out anything that's distracting or unnecessary. You can also crop your photo in Photoshop or other image editing software, but it's much better if you do most of the cropping before you click the shutter.

What's next?

Now that you've learned the basics of good composition and filling your frame, in the next lesson we're going to take frame filling about as far as it will go: macro photography.

Macro is just a fancy way of saying 'close-up'. If you've ever seen the really close-up, really sharp photos of a flower or a grasshopper, you've seen a macro photo.

Most people don't seem to know that many point-and-shoot's come with a macro function built in to their camera already. You can use the macro feature to bring back amazing detail shots of that perfect Penang curry you ordered in Bangkok or a display of colorful fruit at a local market.

See you in the next lesson and I hope you're enjoying the class so far—we're already halfway done!