Green Heron © Michael Snow

Take 5: The Subtle Art of Composition

The 2021 Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest is now open! We’ll be accepting submissions until September 30 of photos that highlight people in nature, capture the beauty of Massachusetts wildlife, and celebrate our stunning landscapes and habitats.

To get you inspired to hone your photography craft, we created a photography composition cheat sheet to go with our tips for taking a winning photograph. To help you visualize the different techniques photographers use to create a balanced, impactful shot, here are five photo contest winners that exemplify different compositional principles.

But remember, photography is a creative art, not a science—that means experimenting is strongly encouraged and rules are meant to be broken!

Rule of Thirds

To achieve a balanced-looking shot, try to imagine that the frame is divided into a three-by-three grid and place your subjects along the dividing lines and intersection points.

Coyote, Winner: Mammals, 18 and over © Jason Gilbody
Coyote, 2020 Winner: Mammals, 18 and over © Jason Gilbody


You can offset the “visual weight” of your subject by counter-balancing it with another focal point of lesser importance in the same frame. Here, the hummingbird is balanced by the jewelweed flowers it has its eye on.

Hummingbird © Bernard Creswick
Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 2017 Grand Prize Winner, Birds © Bernard Creswick

Leading Lines

Use naturally occurring visual lines to draw the viewer’s eye toward a specific point in the distance.

Grand Prize/Landscapes 18 and Over Winner © Evan Guarino
2018 Grand Prize Winner: Landscapes © Evan Guarino


The human eye instinctively gravitates toward symmetry and regular patterns—try focusing on the shape and texture of the subject to best capture this.

2014 Grand Prize Winner © Arindam Ghosh
Mallard, 2014 Grand Prize Winner, Birds © Arindam Ghosh

Tell a Story

As they say, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” It’s amazing the complexity of stories and emotions you can capture in a single fraction of a second!

Green Heron © Michael Snow
Green Heron, 2019 Grand Prize Winner, Birds © Michael Snow

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About Ryan D.

Where: Mass Audubon Headquarters, Lincoln | Who: A Vermont ex-pat, lifelong skier, musician, photographer, motorcycle enthusiast, budding native plant gardener, and pun master | Favorite part of the job: Working with wonderful colleagues to make nature accessible to everyone