How to Use Compositional Templates to Create Perfect Travel Photos

Perhaps one of the most crucial aspects to creating a beautiful photo is composition. Understanding composition can be difficult at first. That’s where photography templates come in.

Photography templates are visual examples that provide us with a standard composition we can use as a reference when photographing.

When I say photography template I mean well-known, effective, and tested photographic compositions that have been used since the beginning of the photographic process. The compositions of these templates are still used by professional photographers today, and utilizing them can improve your photos dramatically.

Understanding your style and how it fits with various photography templates can help you nail the shot when you don't have a lot of time. This is often the case with travel photography, where your window of opportunity to capture the perfect shot is limited. Using photography templates like the ones below will allow you to capture shots more quickly and efficiently. If you memorize them, you'll be able to see the perfect shot before you even raise your camera to your eye.

Let's start with a few basic compositional techniques.

Basic Compositional Techniques

Rule of Thirds

Rule of thirds is perhaps the most basic compositional template that one can utilize. The Rule of Thirds states that if a photo is divided into 9 parts, the points where lines intersect are areas of interest. Placing our subject in these areas is often more visually appealing than placing our subject in the middle of the frame. This figure provides a visual example:

Notice that the main subject (the mother), it situated in the left third of the frame. Her son, behind her, balances the frame without distracting too much from the main subject.

There are a few variations as to how rule of thirds can be used. Check these out:

With Clean Background
Using a clean background with the rule of thirds allows our eyes to stay focused on the subject, as there is nothing in the background that might distract our eyes. “Clean backgrounds” can range from extremely simple, such as a plain wall, to an mostly empty sky. Identifying a background with interesting colors that compliment your subject also helps create a more dynamic image

Hikers rest on during the treachurous ascent of Huashan, China.

Hikers rest on during the treachurous ascent of Huashan, China.

A man sells photos of his beloved King Rama IX on the streets of Bangkok, Thailand.

A man sells photos of his beloved King Rama IX on the streets of Bangkok, Thailand.

With Balanced Background
If a clean background is too plain for you, try finding a background that has a bit more going on. This is helpful if you are looking to tell a story in your image, as showing the setting is important for this. Try incorporating other objects in your frame to balance your main subject, and make sure your frame doesn’t get too heavy on one side.

A woman sells fresh fish on the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam.

A woman walks through a street market on a cold morning in Kobe, Japan.

With Crowded Foreground
A crowded foreground can be used to add a feeling of action and dynamism to your photos, and can also be used to frame your subject. If your background is too messy, placing something in the foreground might also help distract from it.

Wishes scribed on wood panels at a shrine in Kobe, Japan.

Wishes scribed on wood panels at a shrine in Kobe, Japan.

A beer case sits in the alley outside of a traditional Japanese Izakaya in Osaka, Japan.

Dynamic Diagonal Lines

Diagonal lines, also called “lines of interest” add a dynamic effect that allows you to establish interest in multiple parts of your photograph. Diagonal lines guide your viewer’s eyes across the frame, or to a specific object that might be your main subject, or something in the distance. Diagonal lines are easy to look at, and are often easy to find. You can also create your own diagonal lines by twisting your camera, or shooting your subject from a different angle.

A young couple navigates a staircase. Chongqing, China.

Sumiyoshi Station. Kobe, Japan.

Leading Lines

Leading lines are similar to diagonal lines of interest, but they serve a slightly bigger purpose. Leading lines are used to guide the eye to your main subject, off into the distance, or just a different part of the frame. On the left, the road acts as a leading line as it takes our eyes back into the distance. On the right, the great wall leads us up to the tower, and finally into the background.

Early evening in Hong Kong.

Early evening in Hong Kong.

Jiankou, Great Wall of China.

Jiankou, Great Wall of China.

The Natural Frame

A frame within a frame. Using objects to frame is an efficient and classic way to keep your viewers’ attention on your subject. Look for natural frames such as trees, doorways, or arches. You can also use humans as your frame. Try picking up an object and holding it in front of your camera to create an out of focus frame in the foreground. Get creative with it, the possibilities are endless!  

A man rides his bike through a quiet market in Kobe, Japan.

A man rides his bike through a quiet market in Kobe, Japan.

A barista brews coffee for a customer on a chilly evening in Kobe, Japan.

Symmetry and Patterns

You can find symmetry and patterns everywhere you look, both man-made and natural. They can make for stunning and simple compositions, especially when they are not expected. You can also try to break the symmetry or pattern in some way, adding a bit of tension or abstractness to your scene.

A traditional Chinese courtyard. Pingyao, China.

A traditional Chinese courtyard. Pingyao, China.

Man-made rice terraces create a seemingly natural pattern. Longsheng, China.

Man-made rice terraces create a seemingly natural pattern. Longsheng, China.

Rule of Tenths

By principle, the rule of tenths is similar to the rule of thirds. However, in this case, your subject only takes up 1/10 of the frame, instead of 1/3 . This composition emphasizes the expansive environment around your subject, often conveying feelings of isolation or emptiness.

A lonesome windmill watches a setting sun.

A climber looks across the Canadian landscape as the sun sets.

A climber looks across the Canadian landscape as the sun sets.

The Triangle

Using a triangle to frame three different subjects allows your viewers eyes to easily move from one subject to the other, while maintaining a balanced frame. Notice how in the left photo, our eyes start in the middle, and work their way around to the men standing on either side of the frame. The same goes with the photo on the right, except the third subject is the playground, not another person.

A man prepares for his night of entertainment on the streets of Bangkok, Thailand.

Two young boys hangout next to the Mekong River. Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Middle Placement

Placing your subjects in the middle of the frame with a symmetrical background creates a balanced frame that appeals to serene and peaceful situations. This effect can be easily achieved, and is often used.

A young girl crosses the street in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Two men chat while enjoying the view of the bay. Kobe, Japan.

These photographic templates ARE helpful, but they can also hinder your creativity.

These templates are only a guide to what you might look for when you are out shooting. Just because they are known to work, doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways to create beautiful compositions. You are drawn to photography because you enjoy the creative process, and it’s important to let that side out of you. Use these templates as a guide, but don't confine yourself to them. Try new things and branch out, and always adapt to your situation or environment!

If you feel yourself stagnating, take a look at your portfolio and look for any repeating compositions. Next time you go out to shoot, try to avoid those compositions and try new things, you’ll be surprised at what you come up with.

Interested in how I captured any of the shots above? Check out my gear page here.

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PS : I am interested to hear what your favorite compositional technique is. Post one of your photos below and discuss the technique you are using!