This is a guide covering composition in photography.
We’ll be covering the following topics (click on a bullet point to jump to that section):
- What Is Composition in Photography?
- How Is Composition Used in Photography?
- Why Is Composition Important in Photography?
- Basic Principles of Composition in Photography
- How to Learn Composition in Photography?
- And more
Let’s dive in!
What Is Composition in Photography?
Composition is all about the placement of elements within the frame in a manner in which the final image appears perfect.
Photography is a visual art and one that is heavily dependent on certain rules and regulations that are devised to capture better compositions.
Interestingly the word composition applies to not only photography but also many other forms of visual art, including dance, literature, and the art form of singing.
For the other art forms composition has distinct meanings.
When it comes to photography, however, the word composition is all about laying out the elements within the frame in a beautiful way for the perfect picture.
Now, perfection is a relative term, and it has a different connotation to different people. So, what is perfect for you may not be perfect for me, and vice versa.
So, I am not going to go into that discussion.
How Is Composition Used in Photography?
The task of composition is to present the subject of a photo in a way so that it appears more aesthetically pleasing and therefore gets more eyeballs.
All that we have learned and will learn in this guide on composition has the sole purpose of fulfilling that only objective.
But then not all compositions are visually pleasing. For example, there is this rule of symmetry that speaks about balance in your composition.
For example, let’s say that there are a few single-storied buildings on one side of the frame, and the other side has a single multi-storied building.
The two sides of the frame balance each other out.
But what if the other side has nothing? Just negative space? It will be a lop-sided composition with one side dominating the other.
The result will not be visually pleasing as the brain will try to find something that balances out the blank space.
Another example is a composition of a boat that is being rocked by strong waves. As you will agree a boat striding on calm waters is a visually serene composition.
But one where choppy water is rocking the boat certainly isn’t.
Again, this is an example of a composition that is not visually pleasing, as it introduces tension.
So, the composition may or may not be always visually pleasing. But the sole purpose is to introduce a subject in a way so that it captures the attention of the viewer.
Why Is Composition Important in Photography?
Quantities and with the right amount of cooking involved.
Just like when cooking you cannot just put all the ingredients together and hope that it all comes together, you have to know exactly how much of it to put in and how much to cook.
The same way in photography you have to know how much of the elements you have to put inside the frame for the composition to appear good.
Not only that, but you also have to know exactly how to put those elements in the frame so that the composition appears good.
There are some tried and tested methods for improving composition.
These are also known as the rules of composition and include things like the rule of thirds, the rule of odds, leading lines, and symmetry among others.
These rules have evolved over the years and were originally part of painting which is also a visual art form.
Some of these rules have also been used in architecture like the golden spiral from which the rule of thirds has been developed has been found to have been used in Greek architecture.
Composition is one of the most critical aspects of photography because it can make or break an image.
If a photographer does not have a proper idea about composition, he or she can easily make a hash of even a good scene.
On the other hand, if a photographer has an excellent idea about composition, he or she can make even a poor scene produce an impactful image.
A good composition will highlight the most important aspect of a photograph, usually the subject of the photograph, and capture the viewers’ attention towards it.
Basic Principles of Composition in Photography
Most beginner photographers would ask how do you improve your composition? And also what are the basic principles of composition in photography?
Now, I have named a few of the photographic compositional rules in the previous bag graphs.
There are many such other photographic compositional rules which can help you get a better composition going.
In this paragraph, I will detail a few of those compositional rules and how you can incorporate them in your photography to improve your work –
1. Use a Focal Point Rather Than Let the Camera Decide on One
Always insist on having a main focal point for your images. The main focal point can be the main subject of interest.
It can also be multiple subjects at different distances from the camera. It can also be a pattern, or the absence of it, or anything else that draws the attention of the viewer.
A focal point is where the attention of the viewer goes straight away when he or she looks at your photograph.
To choose a focal point you have to use single-point autofocus mode, and coincide one of the AF points onto where your subject of interest is in the frame.
2. Use the Rule of Thirds as a Compositional Rule
The rule of thirds is probably the most well-known photographic rule of composition. The rule of thirds can be understood by an easy example.
Let’s say you want to capture a landscape image and there is this singletree in the middle of nowhere.
Now imagine the entire frame of your camera is divided into 9 equal boxes buy two sets of parallel lines running left to right and top to bottom.
As you can imagine there will be four points of intersection where the parallel lines will cut each other.
These four points intersections are considered to be the ones where the attention of the viewer is the highest.
Placing any subject coinciding with one of these four points gets the highest amount of attention.
3. Using a Shallow Depth of Field or Wide-Open Aperture
A wide-open aperture is an easy way to isolate the subject of interest from the background and the foreground.
This is usually done when the background is cluttered and does not add to the overall composition.
Please note, that we defined composition as something where you not only decide where to put the elements in the frame but also how many elements you would want to be visible in the frame.
Usually, when photographers find that a subject is in a cluttered area, they switch to a wide-open aperture to ensure that the background is out of focus and therefore blurred.
This automatically puts the focus back onto the subject of interest.
To further explore composition tips, check out this in-depth video by Jamie Windsor:
How to Learn Composition in Photography?
In my personal opinion, the best way to learn composition is to follow some of the Master of Photography and their work.
If you are an aspiring landscape photographer follow pioneers like Ansel Adams, arguably the greatest landscape photographer ever.
Try to imbibe the methods and the techniques that he has used in his photography.
If you are an aspiring wildlife photographer simply pick up a few recent editions of the National Geographic magazine and you will have tons of inspiration as to what makes a great wildlife photo.
The same thing goes for somebody who is an aspiring wedding or portrait photographer, except in this case you have tons of material online to take inspiration from.
There are hundreds of successful wedding photographers as well as portrait photographers who you can choose to follow on social media.
At the end of the day, no matter the photographer you choose to follow or draw inspiration from you have to cultivate your style of photography.
And this will only happen when you shoot continuously.
You will slowly realize that you are drifting away from the style that you are drawing inspiration from establishing what is your style of photography.
It is this transition and final form that makes you unique, a photographer with a style of his or her own.
If you want to explore further composition tips, I recommend checking out these videos by Julia Trotti and The Art of Photography (as well as the one listed in the previous section):
The composition brings together the elements in a frame in a presentable way and allows the main focus onto the subject of interest.
It is composition alone that brings everything together without which a photograph cannot be made.
So, it is imperative that you learn the basics of composition along will the basics of exposure as you begin your journey in the world of photography.
I sincerely hope the above tips will help you start your journey on the right footing. Happy clicking and best of luck
Rajib is an avid travel photographer and an overall shutterbug. The first time he ever clicked an image was with an Agfa Click IV back in 1984. A medium format film camera. From that auspicious introduction to photography, he has remained hooked to this art form. He loves to test and review new photography gear. Rajib travels quite a lot, loves driving on Indian roads, playing fetch with his Labrador retriever, and loves photography. And yes, he still proudly owns that Agfa Click IV!