Composition 101

Composition and graphic design have much in common; they both concern themselves with the arrangement of visual elements in the image to create a desired effect or communicate a desired message. The essential difference between composition in photography and composition in the other arts is the speed necessary in photography: a composition can flash into existence for an instant, just long enough to take a picture, and then disappear never to be found again. All of the following, and more, can affect composition in ways both subtle and gross:

  • Camera position
  • Camera direction
  • Choice of lens (focal length/angle-of-view)
  • Choice of aperture
  • Choice of shutter speed
  • Attentive observation
  • Good luck
  • Image modification in post

The basis of good composition is dynamic tension creating an overall balance. While there are no universal rules, there are a few common guides to keep in mind.

Avoid Centering, Generally

Avoid putting subjects or major elements of the image dead center in the frame; centering risks a static composition lacking in the requisite tension.

This is the closest suggestion to being a strict rule. Practice keeping it until you develop the experience necessary to know when a centered composition actually works.

That Goes For Horizons, Too

In a landscape, place horizons either low or high, but not in the middle. Landscapes are almost always about either the ground with a bit of sky for framing, or the sky with a bit of ground for framing; rarely do both have equal importance.

Faces High in Portraits

Unless shooting a headshot, place the face high in the frame and balance with an appropriate amount of the rest of the body when shooting a portrait.

Environmental portraits are an exception; the human subject becomes one of many elements in the frame. For examples, the work of the famous portraitist Arnold Newman is a good place to start.

Give Nature Room to Grow

In a natural detail, e.g., a flower, place the petals towards one side of the frame and let the stem and leaves, or the environment, fill the remainder.

Good Things Come In Threes

If you’re getting stuck putting things off-center and need a target to aim for, we can invoke the “Rule of Thirds,” the most often-discussed and misunderstood composition guide.

Mentally divide the frame into thirds both horizontally and vertically. Then, place the subject, horizon, or some key graphical element on one of the thirds-lines. It can be particularly effective to place something (e.g., an eye in a portrait) where two thirds-lines intersect.

This is a good starting point, but it’s only a starting point.

Lead Me, Guide Me

The eye tends to follow lines in the frame, especially diagonal lines. These are called “leading lines,” and a good photographer uses them to show the viewer which way to look. Common things used to create leading lines are:

  • A street/sidewalk/path
  • A major feature of a building
  • Vegetation
  • The direction someone is looking in the frame (“eye line”)
  • Patterns in masonry or brickwork