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Photography Tips : Composition and ‘The Rule of Thirds’

Updated: Apr 1, 2021

Tips Week 02. By Ken Finegan

This week I want to cover some basic composition and perspective techniques in both portraiture and landscape. This is an area in which quite a lot of people make simple errors that can be remedied very quickly.

Remember, rules are used to guide us, if we learn to use them properly then we can break them when we know what we are doing.

The most common error is usually made when people are making portraits. Can you guess what it is? Yes, the head of the person is usually centered with loads of empty space to the top of the picture or worse still the subject ends up with the top of his or her head cut off!!!

So, how do we remedy this? Firstly let’s work with the DSLR. If I’m making portraits I usually position my focus point at the top of the frame. This makes me position the subject’s head in the correct place and works for both landscape shape and portrait shape.

Landscape shape is

and portrait shape is

With the camera phone I think the best way is to slow down slightly and think about your image. As per last week’s tips position the head of your subject at the top of the frame, watching not to go too close and cut some of the subject’s head off and tap on the face of your subject on the phone to focus.

The camera phone has advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantage in this case is that we tend to hold the phone away from us and this leads to ‘shake’ or movement. This can blur the image slightly and with movement we might crop too tightly on our subject. Just initially slow down and keep the face/head in the correct position.

When you send your images for printing it is always good to know that printers tend to crop in slightly into your image to get a finished print. So I would not go too close to the subject in case they lose part of their head during the printing process.

Now, let’s consider backgrounds. Most people will stand their subject directly against a wall or Granny’s floral curtains, but I tend to disagree with this. By doing this we tend to make the background as important as the subject, which is not what we want to do.

By taking the subject away from the background we emphasise the subject and not the background. We also tend to ‘blur’ the background slightly and create shapes in the background which can be increased or decreased by our settings. If we look at the picture of Sean Geeney, you can see how the background is blurred emphasising the subject. I will deal with these settings at a later date. Some of the new camera phones have this setting included and can blur the background in varying degrees.

Another thing to watch out for as well with camera phones is perspective. The lenses on phones tend to be wide angle. These lenses distort, especially if they are used too close to the subject or at an angle either looking down on a person or looking up at a person.

If you look down on a person from a height, such as a child you make the head of the subject larger than the body and if you go too close this distorts the features. So, not the best look in the world.

The best way is to try and keep the phone as near vertical as possible to avoid distorting the image and not go too close. Some of the newer camera phone have a zoom option which helps with this.

Remember a point from the last tip: if you are making portraits always make 3-4 images to ensure you get a good image (no tongues out or eyes closed!!)

The beauty of the DSLR camera is that they usually come with a kit lens (17-55mm) with an optical zoom feature. This allows you to zoom closer to your subject and blur the background without any distortion. But the same applies, do not make a portrait too close with the wider setting, such as 17mm, as this will distort the features of your subject.


The best time to make landscape images is of course during the ‘Golden Hour’. Either at sunrise or sunset.

This gives beautiful warn tones and long shadows and possibilities of silhouettes. Every time you make an image, even in the same place you can achieve a different spectacular image each time. At a later stage I will go into some of the more technical issues when you get used to your DSLR.

The rule that most artists and landscape photographers use is ‘The Rule of Thirds’. This means that we divide our image into three horizontal parts and three vertical parts. Where the lines intersect, we call them power points or points of interest. These are good positions to place something of interest, something important in the image. It doesn’t mean you have to put something of interest in each point but some.

This tends to make our images better, avoids splitting the centre of the picture with the horizon line (keep the horizon line either on the lower third or the upper third) and makes our images more aesthetically pleasing. Of course all rules can be broken, but let’s get used to using the rule correctly first.

The images of Carlingford Lough are good illustrations of the rule of thirds but not only that but of perspective as well.

These two images were made from the exact same spot within seconds of each other. I literally just changed the perspective. In the first image I tilted the camera down slightly and captured more foreground and in the second I tilted the camera up to capture more of the beautiful sky. This creates two wonderful images from the same position.

I hope this gets the artistic juices flowing. So until next week, ‘keep safe’ and enjoy your camera.

Check out our Landscape images available to purchase online.

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