Composition is one of the fundamental ideas behind all art, whether photography, painting or graphic design. It is the word to describe how everything in your piece fits together. But it is oven overlooked and dismissed.
Photographers of all levels tend to worry first about their cameras, their lenses, the lighting set-up, posing their models – everything but composition. And yet, this is what brings together their image.
Composition is what separates a well-taken image from a snap-shot. There are specific ‘rules’ that you need to learn and consider when capturing an image or a scene.
Eventually these rules will become second nature, and you won’t even think about composition. You’ll just shoot.
But for now, read through our guide, take notes, and then go out there and apply these rules of composition.
What Is Composition?
There are many different types of composition. It can be difficult to know when to use each one to boost the interest level of your image.
Some overused compositions happen as photographers have a limited knowledge about the possibilities. Others feel abused, as the photographers don’t really know how to use them.
One of these overused and abused rules of composition is the rule of thirds. This is the act of placing the interest towards the corners of the image, rather than the centre.
When using this rule, you need to think about your style and content. It needs to help reiterate and portray your concept or message. if it doesn’t, it works against the image.
Read more about these abused rules of photography composition here.
As we have addressed, composition is the arrangement of the visual elements in your image or viewfinder. You can change how these ingredients relate to one another.
By changing your perspective, your physical location and the type of equipment you use, differentiates the scene. It all comes down to you. Your concept and message you want to portray.
There is a lot of theory behind the rules of composition, and you will need a lot of time to put them into practice. They make you think about your image and how to capture it.
On a basic level, it adds interest and shows the thought you put into an image. This means that it must be important to you, and valid enough to show others.
Any photographs of people or with people in them will have eye lines. Unless you love the Guillotine composition of cutting off their heads, you’ll have eye lines.
This where your subject is looking. It could be towards the camera and the viewer, to another person or subject in the frame or out of the frame completely.
Eyes in an image are our go-to place to start. We then follow their eye-line to what they are placing their focus on. Read our article here on how to use them in your images.
The horizon is important. At sea level, it is precisely 86 miles to the horizon. It is the place where the sky and the earth will always meet and it is literally all around you.
So, where do you put this dominant line into your frame? Well, many people will take an image 50/50, placing the line in the centre of the image. This doesn’t really place importance on either half.
It might be symmetrical, yet it doesn’t give you anything else than the feeling of two images stuck together. The important question is what is more interesting: the Sky or the Earth?
Read our article here to gain a better understanding of how the placement of the horizon can have a powerful effect.
From photographing any number of scenes, you will find every spot will have lines, shapes and forms. Some images will have more than others.
As photographers thirsty for composition, we can use these to our advantage. Lines are the edges of a subject or an object that show the boundaries between two or more different items.
They also serve to lead the viewer’s eyes. A shape is what gives the object character. It might be 2-dimensional, yet the form is what makes it look 3-d through the use of shadows or perspective.
Read our article on how you can use these design elements for great photography composition.
Triangles are very important shapes. Look at the pyramids for their strength and powerfulness. You will also find them in everything that you see and aim to photograph.
They are powerful as they combine the techniques of lines and paths, and give the viewer the impression of stability. Or even instability.
These triangles can encompass the leading lines rule, and can point towards a part of the image with interest. Implied triangles are what you will find to be most common.
These are the shapes that make up a basic idea of the shape, rather than an exact triangle. Read our article here on how to turn them into a powerful tool of composition.
The visual weight of an image is more than the sum of its parts. Every subject or object has a weight, visible in photographs of them.
By understanding the weights of objects, you can have control over them. Eyes provide very strong visual weights in images.
They are the place where we place the most amount of our attention. Reducing the eyes in an image is to reduce the attention and focus your viewers will give a scene.
Our article goes into how using visual weight can really help the compositional value of your photography.
Balancing an image is a great start to a successful composition. Symmetry can be a really effective way to show a scene balanced perfectly.
Right to left as seen in an architectural scene, or top to bottom which you see in a reflection. They are both powerful to draw your attention to the overall image.
The placement, size and visual weight of the objects in the scene is important in creating a balance. The opposite can also work.
Unbalancing a scene on purpose can cause tension and will have your viewer searching the image for understanding or meaning. Our article gives you all the help you need in the act of balancing.
A great place to start with composition is focusing on capturing one subject. This will help you focus on one subject or item, and forgetting about any distracting or complex arrangements.
One single point will break up a plain scene, adding interest to an area that is lacking. What you want to have a single point comes down to your own vision and what is available to you.
Photographing a portrait is a prime example of this single point composition. It can even work alongside the rule of thirds, placing the face towards the corners of the image.
Figure-to-ground is a form of composition that we can use to differentiate between two opposing colours or contrasts. This is a great technique to separate your subject from its background.
A photograph must be able to be ‘read’ well. We often find that the simplest images work the best. This form of composition is taking an image of a subject in a way that allows them maximum attention.
If you were to photograph a white dog in the snow, it would be difficult for the viewer to place their focus on the animal.
This is because the foreground and background are white. So how do we get around this? Read our article for all the tips you are ever going to need for this composition.
The golden ratio, sometimes called the Fibonacci spiral, golden spiral, phi grid, or golden mean, is a composition guide. It helps lead the viewer’s eye through the entire photo, leading to more captivating images.
It is based on the spirals seen in nature from DNA to waves. The ratio is 1.618 to 1. With two pieces, if you make one 1.618 times the size of the other object, the pair of them will be pleasing to the eye.
The golden spiral, as applied to photography, suggests placing the subject on the smallest box in that spiral. Placing other prominent areas of the image on the remaining curve, wherever possible, will lead the eye of the viewer through the image. Read here on how to create images that fit this interesting compositional rule.
Once you start looking for patterns, you’ll start seeing them everywhere. Everything has a pattern if you are close-enough or far away enough to see them.
Many of the best street photographers are adept at recognizing (and often breaking) patterns. They can be both man-made and natural.
Architectural photography is an excellent genre for finding geometrically perfect patterns. Finding the patterns and showing them off is a challenge in itself.
Read our article here on how to find and capture those defining designs.
Natural framing is a valuable compositional tool in any photographer’s inventory. It directs a viewer’s eye to the centre of interest in a photograph with speed and efficiency. It also adds narrative and depth to an image, holding a viewer’s attention for longer.
Frames are everywhere we look, and photographing with a camera is using a frame already. This composition really hones your attention to the inside, where the most interesting subjects are found.
For all the tips on natural framing, read our article here.
Leading lines as an arrangement tool are one of the most used, yet important photography compositions. They are everywhere and very difficult to miss.
These lines draw the attention to a subject or scene. A leading line can be a path or a road, leading us off into the distance.
But where are these lines leading the viewer? They should bring you to the most interesting part of the image. To subjects, scenarios or something specific.
Read all about them here, in our extensive article.
We have looked at lines in previous articles above. Those that lead your eyes to an interesting area of your image, or the edges of the objects in the frame.
These converging lines look at the lines that run along the image that ends in a point, far into the distance. These run along the image horizontally in street images, or vertically in architecture.
A great way to show depth in your 2-dimensional images is to use these converging lines. Even better if you can manage to capture many lines pointing to the same object.
Our extensive article here will help you understand and use these lines, helping to strengthen your images.
Horizontal lines are everywhere we look and form the basis of many compositional rules. This is a great way to group together many other subjects together.
It helps to give the scene a location or a direction. They also offer an impression of stability to the image as it runs parallel to the ground that we stand upon.
A horizontal line can be boring on its own, especially when unbroken. The horizon is a perfect example, yet when we break and intersect it with the foreground, it can add interest.
Read here on how to use these horizontal lines effectively.
Vertical lines are not as important as horizontal ones. Yet they are still good compositional tools. Our eyes are more used to horizontal lines, moving from left to right.
This is clear in how we read and look at scenes presented to us. Vertical lines are great at complimenting horizontal ones as they add contrast to the scene.
Our tip here is that if you are focusing on vertical lines, photograph in a portrait or vertical orientation. This will help you convey those lines and importance of the object.
Read our article here on how to use vertical lines to your benefit.
Fixing The Errors
With so many different forms of photography composition to choose from, it is hard to make the right choice for the scene. Some rules fit some areas yet they won’t fit others.
One of the biggest problems that people seem to have is in connection with weighted images. Beginners tend to try and weigh both sides equally.
What you will find it that this style of composition favours neither side. So it subtracts from the image. You should have one side weighted heavier than the other.
The most common mistakes in photography come down to when you are composing your images. It can be difficult to keep a hold over all aspects of the image.
You need to get into the habit of looking at all the things that could go wrong. One of the biggest mistakes is not looking at your background effectively.
This works for all types of photography, but especially portraiture and still life. Intersecting lines coming out of the models head are not good. They are very distracting.
Read our article here on how to get the best out of your photography composition and thus, your images.
Wedding photography in some ways is just like any other photography. They need light, composition and a moment to capture. To have a stunning image, you need strength in all three areas.
Composition is one of the most overlooked areas, and it needs a lot of practice to perfect it. Once you get enough time and shots, it will come naturally. It will work from your subconscious.
Triangles and diagonal lines work well in wedding photography. The triangles reiterate the strength between the couple. The diagonal lines help to show movement, moving forward.
Read our article here on how composition will definitely help your wedding photography.
Here is some inspiration for your consideration. You will see a lot of different compositional ideas that you can use, and apply to your own photography.
Architecture image capturing needs a different set of photography composition skills. Buildings come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Composition is really the key in this area.
Some buildings are immediately leading lines if you shoot from down-up. The converging lines disappear into the sky, leading your eye into a clever use of negative space.
One of the most important tips on what to look out for is to capture the details. Look closer at the building and in a way that most people wouldn’t.
A staircase captured from the top looking down makes for a great composition. Read here for more architecture photography composition tips.
Have a look here for some interesting compositions for architecture photography. These are pure minimalism put into play. A discussion of how the buildings interact with the sky.
Food photography is easy. You take your camera or iPhone and snap away at the day’s eats. It is true, and Instagram already has millions of these images.
To truly make a photographic masterpiece, you need to know about lines, textures and colours. These three tools are part of a larger system of photography composition.
By considering the angle and orientation of how you capture food, you can incorporate lines into your photograph. A line is a basic element of composition, and also powerful.
They have the potential to lead your eyes to important areas of the photograph. They can be natural, following a plate for example or created in the image with props.
Read here for all the information you will need, covering texture and colour theory for your photography composition.
On top of all the technical aspects of food photography, you also need to have a good understanding of composition. Think documentary mixed with still life.
One of the photography composition areas that you can delve into here is the golden ratio. This was a concept some 2000+ years ago that applies to mathematics and art.
Putting your subjects along a curved line draws the viewers eyes around the picture. This involves the viewer more, making it more interesting.
Our article shows you how you can apply this to your food photography, while also discussing the Phi grid and Fibonacci spiral.
Street photography is no different when it comes to what makes a photograph work. Whether it’s a photo of people or buildings, photography composition is at the root of a great street capture.
One of the tips that we can offer you is to utilise patterns. As humans, we identify patterns easily. Our eyes get drawn to them subconsciously. That is half the battle won.
The great thing is that patterns are everywhere, and come in all sorts of sizes and shapes. Their repetitive nature makes for an interesting addition to your street photography.
For the other 9 tips, read our extensive article here.
Travel photography is already immediately interesting. You are photographing places people haven’t seen. You will be looking at interesting new cultures, foods, patterns and fashions.
This doesn’t mean that your photography composition isn’t important. At first you may find it more difficult to photograph a new place, warranting time to practice.
Focusing on photography compositions can help you find your feet. Using scale is a great tip to start with. Incorporating people in large, open spaces bring home how large a space is.
Read more great tips here on how to use composition in your travel photography.
Negative space simply refers to the area that surrounds the subject or subjects in your image. The technique of using negative space effectively is about creating the right balance.
Here, you concentrate on the relationship between the subject(s) and the background. You can make the background almost feel like it is receding away.
Positive space, on the other hand, refers to the primary subjects of a photograph. Positive and negative space can dance well together. For more information on how to create and utilise negative space, read our article here.
Here is some inspiration for your street photography composition. These black and white images show that simplicity can be a very effective way to create powerful images.
Compositions of Masters
Alfred Eisenstaedt was a photographer during World War II. He worked for the early version of Associated Press, then moving on to work with Time magazine.
His work has been thoroughly looked at in terms of the compositions he used. What you might find useful is that when we read an image, we go from left to right.
Baroque are the points of interest on the right and Sinister are those on the left. We try to keep the point of interest on the right, so our view finishes there.
If the point of interest in on the left, it breaks our flow and can cause tension. Read our article here on the breakdown of Alfred’s work.
Henri-Cartier Bresson was a French photographer. He pioneered the genre of street photography, and viewed photography as capturing a decisive moment
A great tip that we can take from Bresson is to try and find a likeness in your image. Try and capture a composition that repeats itself, or where the foreground copies the background.
The diagonals in the example here go from left to right, the way our eyes move over an image or text. It follows our natural eye movement, guiding us.
Breaking The Mould
They might sound like rules, and, heck, we even call them rules. But, these compositions are more like guidelines. Some of these ideas and concepts have been around for 2000+ years.
The medium of painting helped to create and mould other forms of composition. Others are more modern, a new take on an old, describable ideology.
Of course you wont get into trouble if you photograph through a tilted camera. There is no composition police.
We use these to help us create the best possible photograph you can. Get out there. Shoot, evaluate and shoot again.
A central composition can work really well. It helps to isolate the subject, utilising negative space around them. All eyes go from the edges to the subject in the centre.
This also take importance away from the background, making the subject in the centre more powerful. You also show the subject or object off in a symmetrical way, which is powerful enough.
Read here for more information on how a centre composition can help you.
The most important thing is to use your creativity. That’s how you push the boundaries of the photographic field and photography in general.
It is also what gets your message out there. There is only one ‘you’, and there is no one like you. You are the sum of all your experiences.
Creativity is way more important than composition, so focus more on that. The photography composition will come later.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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