Composition is an interesting aspect of photography because there are no absolutes. It’s mostly opinion. Compose an image a certain way and some people will like it, some people won’t. You can argue for hours about why a photo works, or why it doesn’t.
But amongst this variation of opinion something interesting occurs. It seems that we all know when a photo is well composed, even if we can’t agree why.
The challenge is in analyzing and understand the underlying principles, and then applying them to our own work.
Here then, to get you started, is my list of five things all photographers ought to know about composition. Do you have any to add? Please let us know in the comments.
1. Great composition is the mark of a great photographer.
If you want to learn more about composition, go study the work of Steve McCurry. The beauty of the composition of his images often leaves me speechless. His work shows a mastery of design that most photographers can only aspire to.
The same applies to every great photographer. Go and look at the work of the photographers you admire most. Two things will stand out. One is the mastery they have over their craft, the technical aspects—exposure, aperture choice, post-processing, and so on.
The other is their mastery of composition. This is much harder because it involves learning to see, and to arrange an often chaotic subject into a pleasing and interesting composition.
2. Composition takes years to master.
Seeing and composing great images requires a lifelong commitment to learning and improving. Don’t read a single article, or a single book, no matter how good, on composition and think that’s all you have to do. You should read as much as you can on the subject, then apply what you learn. There’s always something new to discover, a different author’s perspective to absorb.
3. Working in black and white tests your composition skills.
If you really want to test your composition skills out then work in black and white. The reason this works so well is that subtracting color reveals the underlying structure of the subject’s tonal contrast, texture, line, shape, space, and pattern.
These are your tools for creating good black and white images. Learn how to use them, then return to color and learn how to integrate color with other elements of composition.
The photo below works well in black and white because of the textures within the scene, the perspective created by using a wide-angle lens and moving in close to the car, and the tonal contrast (the car and the sheet covering the windscreen are the lightest parts).
There is also a diagonal line that takes your eye through the frame.
The color version includes all these elements. But they are far more obvious in the black and white version.
4. Compose your subject according to balance.
Many photos are composed according to a simple formula. There is a single main subject, and you need to work out where to place it in the frame, in relation to the background.
The rule of thirds is one of the concepts that photographers use when it comes to framing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but my suggestion is that you think of placement in terms of balance instead.
Where do you need to place your subject in the frame so that it balances with everything else? It might be on a third, it might not. That doesn’t matter. What matters is does it balance?
Sometimes you can go the other way and create unbalanced images, which have a different effect on the viewer altogether.
In this photo, I placed the rocks near the bottom of the frame because that’s where they balance against the sea and the sky.
5. Light, subject, and composition work together.
My final suggestion is that composition doesn’t work in isolation. Light and subject are equally important. Great photos are usually with an interesting subject, photographed in beautiful light, and composed an in interesting or dramatic way. Light, subject and composition go together.
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