What is Composition?

May 28, 2007
Zurich, Switzerland
What is the art of photographic composition? A simple definition is: converting our good camera technique into attractive, interesting and successful images. These ideas relate to Documentary Photography as well as to Fine Art Photography and although it seems that when we are trying to “capture the story” it is simply important to get subject sharp, applying some basic compositional ideas will result in images which are much more pleasing.

Purpose of our Work

- remove the idea of stereotypes/clichés
- enhance the way in which we interpret what we “see” - learn to look “outside of the box”
- work on trusting our eyes
- start to develop our own compositional vocabulary

There are many tools and ideas which we can use to improve our skills at composition but the most important tools which we have are our eyes. Often we will spot something and want to make a photograph, only to allow our brain to get in the way, interpret the scene and tell us “there is nothing to see here”.

A little investigation should reveal the image which our eyes spotted initially. With practice we can get into the good habit of doing this regularly. The camera sees the world in an “objective” manner whereas our brains interpret the information from our eyes and things become “subjective”.
Try not to over-think the situation!

When looking for ideas or inspiration, it is a great help to turn to the work of photographers who we admire. Looking at photographs by Ansel Adams, Ray Metzker, Helmut Newton, Michael Yamashita or Henri Cartier-Bresson can only improve our knowledge of what is possible with the camera and help to introduce good thoughts next time we head out to make pictures.

Definitions Of Design Elements

There are 8 widely recognised visual design elements. Becoming familiar with all of these will allow us to become more consistent with our composition decision-making and more successful with our photography.

  1. Line - a narrow mark or path as if traced by a moving point on a surface

  2. Shape - an area which is separated from the area next to it by a real or implied boundary (basic shapes; circles, square, triangles are building blocks)
3. Form - the appearance of all 3-D elements within our composition (think of Form as being a 3- D version of shape)

4. Space - our conscious arrangement of elements to give the illusion of a 3-D image depicted in 2-D

5. Texture - a representation of how something “feels”. The tactile character of surfaces.

6. Tone - lightness and darkness in our composition (usually in relation to b/w images)

7. Value - lightness and darkness in our image in respect to colour

8. Colour - the naming words which we use to identify specific wavelengths of light

Our Goals When Composing An Image

- define a subject and background - seek some kind of balance
- choose the correct point of view - aim for simplicity

Some Of The Tools At Our Disposal

- tool of thirds
- repetition
- leading lines
- diagonals
- shadows
- reflections
- selective focus (depth of field control)
- movement
- proportion

The Plan Of Attack

Our definition of photographic composition “converting our good camera technique into attractive, interesting and successful images” is what we are hoping to achieve by using the tools which we have in our hands to arrange the various design elements in front of us to form an image.

Defining Subject and Background

if we don’t do this (as the photographer), our viewer is left to do this for himself and may come to the wrong conclusions.

- tool of thirds
- leading lines
- movement
- selective focus (DOF)

Finding Balance

a sense of balance makes our composition more “comfortable” to the viewer’s eye balance can be achieved side-to-side, top-to-bottom or across a diagonal

- light/dark
- shadows/reflections
- rough/smooth textures

Finding the Best Point of View

adjusting our point of view can have an enormous impact on what we see through the viewfinder

- proportion
- repetition/pattern
- shadows/reflections - diagonals


reducing our composition to the absolute minimum. If an object doesn’t strengthen your picture, try to eliminate it from the scene. One of our first instincts when wanting to simplify a shot should be to get closer to our subject. Carefully check corners and edges of our frame for extraneous objects.

- cropping
- selective focus/DOF - proportion

As a starting exercise, select 3 of the first 6 Design elements (excluding Value and Colour) and practice making images incorporating those 3 thoughts. By setting our cameras and working in black and white, we eliminate the very emotional response to colour and allow ourselves to build our skills step by step. Once we have spent some time with the chosen three elements, change over to the other three and learn more about the effect they have on our photography.

By mixing up these elements over a period of time and gradually adding more elements to our thinking, we will come to a better understanding of what we are “seeing” in photographic terms. As soon as we add colour to the mix, by its very nature it tends to overwhelm our thinking and it is then easy to overlook other elements.
May 28, 2007
Zurich, Switzerland
A very good summary. Thanks for writing this.

Thanks Larry and you are very welcome. I'm hoping that someone here will be able to profit from it and that we may be able to start doing some work and review on Composition as well as other aspects of photography.
Aug 22, 2009
Thanks for the write up David. Having never been formally trained in photography, and learning only through trial and error, viewing others' work, and the occasional "how to" books, usually on a specific topic like using a flash, it is interesting to see a more formal definition on composition. I guess I should read more like this, to improve.
Jun 14, 2008
This is a terrific write-up David. Thank you for posting this. I'm planning a 12 month project and now I'm thinking of ways to integrate this into it. Something more organized than "Hey I took these photos.".
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