Photography: Composition Tips for Amateur Travel Photographers

Taking pictures isn’t inherently difficult.

If you’re like a lot of people, you’ve taken thousands of photos that are sitting on your phone with no formal training or casual understanding of why a few stand out as good photos.

A great photograph often follows one of these rules. These composition tips aren’t hard and fast requirements. For instance, a photo that isn’t shot with the rule of thirds in mind can still be a great photo. You are also only limited by your creativity when it comes to playing around with these rules.

Focal Point

Historic illuminated windmills at the Dutch UNESCO World Heritage Site Kinderdijk with reflection in the water of the canal under a Blue Hour sky at dusk, right after sunset in the beginning of the night in the Netherlands.

Your photo should have a point at which draws the viewers gaze. Think of how you’d describe the photograph before you take it. Make the sentences subject the focal point.

“It was a photo of a woman dressed in red surrounded in a crowd of people wearing gray.”

“Here’s a photo of a sailboat resting on the water at sunset.”

“I saw this beautiful windmill next to the water during a beautiful sunset.”

Can you picture those photos? Finding the focal point to work with is as easy as a sentence.

However, not all photographs have focal points. One of the most expensive photographs ever sold, Rhein II, by Andreas Gursky lacks a focal point entirely.

The Rhine II 1999 Andreas Gursky born 1955 Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 2000

Rule of Thirds

Example of the Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is probably the easiest composition tool in your arsenal. Simply imagine a tic-tac-toe board over the photograph. For landscapes align the horizon with one of the horizontal lines. For portraits, align the subject along one of the horizontal lines. By aligning the subjects along a line, you create an attractive amount of negative space, in front or above, especially in the case of a portrait, if you blur the field of vision. Generally, in single person portraits, you’d have the person face towards the area of negative space and not the closest edge of the photograph.

Here are some ways to play with the rule of thirds. Don’t align anything along the lines instead place the subjects between them and at different distances. Maybe frame nine different objects within the nine boxes. Find a reason to have the subject not face the negative space.

Many DSLR’s have a feature to superimpose the Rule of Thirds grid over the viewfinder to help you. But eventually, using these tricks just become second nature.

The Middle Line

Unlike the Rule of Thirds. The middle line splits the photo straight down the middle. And you place the subject right down the middle. I’ve seen a lot of people put the Mona Lisa against the Rule of Thirds Grid, but it seems to me, that DaVinci’s painting far better fits the Middle Line. As do many other famous Photographs.

Golden Ratio

Notice your eye is drawn around the the shell to the center of the Nautilus shell.

I find this rule to be infuriating. To be honest, I think nine times out of ten the golden ratio is simply arbitrarily plopped on a photo after the fact to show that it works whether-or-not it was the photographer’s intention. The Golden Ratio is the shape of a bisected seashell place over the image. Portions of the scene should fit within each section, with the spiraling lines leading towards the focal point. I think my favorite example of this is Justin Bieber being punched in a night club (Google it. It’s Brilliant). The problem with using the Golden Ratio is photo’s occasionally need to be taken at a moment’s notice, and it’s way easier to crop the image later to align with the Golden Ratio than to stop and have the thought of which way you should place the imaginary seashell over the image. Another similar ratio applied to photography composition that is ultimately confusing is the Diamond Ratio. So, I guess, thank Ancient Greece for those tips? Half the time I see it applied to a photo I’m not sure if the person is serious or not. There is actually an AI that spits random images with the golden ratio randomly superimposed on it to mock how ridiculous the practice is and how often it’s misapplied.


A BALANCED Christmas family dinner table photo.

Imagine taking a photo of two children on a seesaw. One goes up; the other goes down. This photo would also work with both the Rule of thirds and middle line method. Balance is often used in architecture and Cuisine photography. Western Culture has been placing our dinner dishes, cups and silverware in the same spot for centuries. Somebody put thought into that a long time ago, and the result was balance. When taking food pics, ensure you get the balance of the silver and glassware. If there was a better way to do it, countless chefs, critical of the most minor details, would be debating it like politics over social media, but it’s pretty much universally agreed on.

Use different angles

Changing perspective by getting lower or higher are more interesting because honestly, when was the last time you laid down on railroad tracks and looked down the line.

Next time you go to a location with dozens of people snapping photos of the same waterfall. Sit there and watch them. They stand. They raise their camera to their eye. And they take the photo. The result of that photo is millions of the same picture of the same waterfall taken in the same exact spot, give or take a foot or so in height.

The best way to fix that is to get dirty. Climb a tree, lay down, get under the waterfall or on top of it. Shoot through a bush or a fence. Photography is an art, and art is hard.

Time of Day

See how the leading lines / middle line/ also rule of thirds work in this photo? Did you squint a little when you looked at the sun in the photo? I did.

Photography is capturing light. I’ll go into more detail about this in a future article. The shutter speed, the F-stop, the ISO are all used by the camera to control the amount of light that enters the lens to create the image. By understanding and playing with this you can do amazing things. If you don’t, do the next best thing and shoot during Golden Hour and Blue hour. During Sunrise and Sunset, there is an hour give or take of setting sun that first floods the sky with reds and oranges, slowly changing to greens, blues and purples. Those colors can be intensified afterwards in various software to give the image a more dramatic and colorful pop.

Leading Lines

Leading lines are like arrows pointing to your focal point. They guide the viewers eyes in the direction of the subject. A Lighthouse at the end of a jetty. A country road pointing towards a snowy peak. Yellow road lines leading directly to the subject of the photo.

Want to have some fun with leading lines. Find ways to incorporate leading lines that aren’t straight into your photo.


Fairly simple idea. A person standing in a doorway. An owl sitting in a barn window. A family portrait standing on an old covered bridge. Have fun with it. How could you frame this person or object in a creative way? Have them sit at the bottom, hang from a rafter or lie down, or lean against the frame. It’s an easy shot, just take a bit of background awareness.

Be Malleable.

You wake up in the middle of the night. You drive two hours through the darkness to get to the best place to take a picture of the sunrise. The weatherman said clear skies, but it’s overcast. Or the weather is fine and they pics just aren’t working out like you thought they would in your head. Be flexible, change your game plan. Recently, I wandered around Whistler and Blackcomb’s grassy ski slope’s early in the morning hoping to get some photos of a black bear. I didn’t see a single bear. I took some amazing photos of flowers. Went into the hotel to grab breakfast and overhead people talking about the photographer taking picture of flowers completely unaware of the bear crossing the slopes twenty feet behind him. 

Pay ATTENTION to the background!

You’re not going to notice everything, all the time, but get used to scanning the viewfinder around the subject. Make sure litter isn’t in the corner of your landscape. Check to make sure your subject is being photo bombed by a random passerby. Most importantly check to make sure a pole isn’t sticking out of Marilyn Monroe’s head (Google image search it. It’s there) Also, you should look behind you from time to time because BEARS.


What do you think?


Written by Corey Dembeck

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