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Composition basics for photojournalism


In this lesson, students will learn basic composition techniques (rule of thirds, framing, leading lines, strong subject, angles, repetition, selective focus) as well as common composition errors. After that, students will work with partners to take a sample photo of each of the seven composition rules, and the class will discuss and critique photos together. Students will then write a short reflection about what they have learned during this lesson. They will also look at sample photo stories to determine how to tell an effective story through photography.


  • Students will learn basic composition rules and errors.
  • Students will practice identifying composition rules in photos.
  • Students will take photos using composition rules.
  • Students will learn about photo stories and how to tell an effective story through photography.

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9–10 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.4 Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task.


Four 45-minute lessons


Slideshow: Composition rules

Class set: Composition rules handout

Slideshow: Works in progress

Class set: Communication: Journalism Education Today article “Show & Tell” –  Spring 2009 issue, pages 22-25 “Original”

Class set: Communication: Journalism Education Today Article “Show & Tell” – Spring 2009 issue, pages 22-25 “No feedback”

Lesson step-by-step

Day 1

1. Composition basics — 15 minutes

Pass out composition notes handout and go through presentation together.

2. Show examples — 15 minutes

Using a projector, find a photo-heavy website (I like to Google something like “2013 Photos of the Year” and find a website that has dozens in one place). Show one photo at a time and give students 20 seconds per photo to discuss what composition rule they see. Discuss any disagreements as a class.

3. Slideshow — 10 minutes

Go through the Works in Progress slideshow together. For each photo, ask students to consider: regardless of the good photo composition technique used, what composition errors make these photos less than ideal?  Also, see if students can identify ways in which the photographer could have improved the overall effect of each photo.

4. Assignment — 5 minutes

Pass out instructions and details about the Photo Essay Assignment. (These details are given in the lesson titled “Photo Essay Design”).

Day 2

Photo project — all period

Send students out of the classroom in pairs or groups of three with the task of taking at least one photo using each of the seven composition rules that they learned yesterday in class. Give students 30 minutes to take the photos and then about 15 minutes to get the photos uploaded (or emailed, if they took photos on their camera phones) to a central location.

Day 3

1. Presentation — 35 minutes

Have students come to the front of the classroom in the same groups from yesterday, show their photos to the class, and discuss why they took them and how they think the photos fit the composition rules. Allow discussion among the class members. Praise students’ efforts in taking the photos and gently critique any misconceptions about photo composition.

2. Reflection — last 10 minutes

Ask students to write a short reflection paragraph in which they examine what they learned through this experience, what challenges they had, and what they think they did well.

Day 4

1. Discussion — 5 minutes

Discuss: let’s think back to earlier this week when we learned about photo composition rules. What did we say was even more important than the rules that we follow? (Students should say “telling a story.”) What does any good story have? (A beginning, middle and end).

Explain that any collection of photos, called a photo story, needs to have lots of variety.  Students can think about a literal “beginning, middle and end” to their story, or they can think in several other ways: some photographers will include a variety of photos by capturing very wide shots, medium shots, and extreme close-up shots.  Regardless of which type of strategy a photographer uses, it’s important that he/she includes a variety of images, both when it comes to the photographs’ subjects and their composition.

2. Individual reading — 10 minutes

Pass out the first page of the Communication: Journalism Education Association “Show & Tell” article and give students time to read. Explain that these are tips on how to tell a cohesive and interesting story through photography.

After students finish reading, ask them to Think/Pair/Share about one part of the article that surprised or interested them.

3. Activity — 10 minutes

Working in partners or small groups, give each pair/group of students a copy of one of the sample photo stories from the C:JET “Show & Tell” article – make sure you give them a copy that does NOT have the original feedback on it! Give students time to look at the photos and answer the following questions:

a) How well does the group of photos tell a cohesive, powerful story?

b) How well does this photo story follow the guidelines given on the previous page?

c) What composition techniques does the photographer do well?

d) In what ways could this photo story be improved (either through photo editing or just different pictures)?

e) Rate this photo story on a scale of 1-10. Be sure to give specific reasons for why you think the photo story should receive that score.

4. Group share — 10-15 minutes

Have each group of students share their feedback and responses with the class. They should show students a copy of the photo story (put on projector so the whole class can see). If students differ in opinion, allow students to discuss and share their opinions.

5. Wrap up — 5-10 minutes

Compare students’ reactions to each photo story with the feedback provided on the “Original” C:JET article. See if students agree or disagree with the feedback. Discuss: do you think that there is “one” correct answer, or is beauty in the eye of the beholder?


For experienced photographers, consider asking them to evaluate their own photography for the existence of composition rules and/or errors.  They can determine places in which utilizing a composition rule would have improved the overall image, or they can identify errors in existing photography.

For students who struggle, consider giving them more specific instructions, particularly in the time where students are out taking sample photos.  It may make sense to ask them to use a classroom doorway or window in order to take a framing photo, or to use rule of thirds on an outdoor practice field.  This will give those students more guidance and make it easier for them to practice key concepts.