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Norway's Jotunheimen Mountains framed by the windows of a rustic hut. (Photograph by Dan Westergren)
TravelTraveler Magazine

The Simple Truth About Good Composition

Reader Question: What is meant by good composition and how do I achieve it?

My Answer: Tip No. 1: Don’t constantly put subjects in the middle of the frame. Whether it is the horizon in a landscape or a person in a portrait, dead center is rarely the best place to put them in a picture because it often feels static.

It’s easy to default to a centered composition because our cameras tend to have their focus aids in the middle. Learn to focus and then reframe.

The easiest way to accomplish this is by pointing the focus indicator at the most important part of the scene, depress the shutter release half way down and hold it there. The focus will stay at that distance, you can then reframe the photo, pressing the shutter release the rest of the way when the moment is right.

Many photographers like to follow what is called the “rule of thirds.” Imagine the frame divided into thirds both horizontally and vertically. The points where these dividing lines intersect is usually a good place to put one of the main subjects of your picture. This keeps you from having a static, centered composition.

Another trick you can use to make photos that have more depth is by framing the scene with some object you are looking through. For example, include some tree branches in the top of a landscape photo. This framing directs the viewer. Framing scenes is a tried-and-true way of adding depth and focusing attention.

The photo above was taken at the end of a long, strenuous day of hiking in the Jotunheimen mountains of Norway. I was photographing a story about a network of mountain huts, and had collapsed, exhausted into a well-placed chair. After a brief nap, I opened my eyes in surprise to this scene, a photographic gift from the mountains.

Here was the perfect picture for the story, a composition combining the backcountry hut and the mountains. Without leaving the chair, I reached down into my camera bag, snapped the photo, then drifted back to sleep.

Final thought: Sometimes making a photo with good composition just requires recognizing a good scene when you see it.

Dan Westergren is director of photography for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @dwestergren and on Instagram @danwestergren.

Do you have something you want to ask Dan about travel photography? He’ll be answering reader questions periodically on the blog, so be sure to leave a comment.