This is one of my favorite tips that I teach in my beginning photography workshops. I’m focusing this article on nature and landscape photography because it’s mostly what I do, but I think this is applicable in almost any genre.
There is a natural tendency to try to get it all in, especially when there is a lot of visual information to process. But all of that visual information doesn't translate to the viewer if it's not organized well. This is where composition comes into play. And one natural way to start making a stronger composition is to get in closer and have what is most important in your image fill more of the frame.
I think many of us who have done any landscape photography have had this type of experience: You just drove to see some amazing place, like the Grand Canyon. You get out of the car with your camera and get to one of the more beautiful overlooks in the evening light. The stunning natural beauty is a bit overwhelming, so you take a wide angle shot, trying to get lots of it in and capture the scope of it all because it's just so amazing. The resulting image however is kind of, well, blah. It ends up being a lot of little details in the distance and doesn't really work as a composition.
The next time you are faced with this, find an element to get closer to. When you get closer, it allows for your subject to stand out and be the focal point of the image. Or it creates an anchor point that can then lead your viewer's eye into the frame. You become more intimate with what you're photographing, more connected to it, and so does your viewer.
In the Grand Canyon example, maybe you find a certain rock formation where the light is the best or perhaps a distant cliff with a cool cloud formation above it — some part of the larger scene that has a special quality and allows you to create a more interesting image. Or, if you are wanting to do a wide-angle shot, you find an interesting tree to place in the foreground which then adds a sense of depth when it's contrasted with the vast expanse in the background.
If you start looking for it, you’ll see this used frequently in wide angle landscape photography. Just scroll through some of your favorite images on this site, and you will see that this holds most of the time. In wide angle images, there is often something large in the foreground, whether it's a clump of flowers, a tree, or maybe rocks at the edge of the water on a lake — something close that the eye can focus on. This is another way of getting closer, even when taking in a great expanse of scenery all at once.
Also when you get closer to your subject, it allows it to fill the frame and helps you to create a more interesting composition. You're likely to cut out unneeded elements like a distracting background and to focus on what really matters most in your image.
I even use this idea in my macro photography. I found that if I'm composing, say an image of flowers, and it's just not working, often, the remedy for me is to just move in closer and eliminate the clutter. Sometimes, I can take an otherwise straightforward shot and make it more abstract.
Essentially I've found that when I move in closer, whether literally with my feet or by just zooming in or changing lenses, I can often isolate what it is that drew my eye to a scene in the first place. And I often find that I discover something new and interesting.
So, the next time you're out with your camera and you find you're struggling to get a good composition, try getting closer. If nothing else, it's something simple to try and can be a good learning exercise. And I think you will find your images becoming more compelling.