The Ultimate Guide to Understanding Composition

With all of the gorgeous new gadgetry coming out this season, it’s easy to get caught up in the shiny, techy part of photography. (New Nikon D810, anyone? Or a Canon 7D Mark II? Or the sweet new GoPro Hero4 Black?) Lest you fall into the terrible hole of DSLR expectations vs. reality, though, we’ve got a video for you today from CG artist Andrew Price, who’s here to talk about the basics of understanding composition:

Composition: Basic Elements

Price defines composition here as “arranging elements in a scene in a pleasing and easy-to-read manner.” He explains that there are three parts of successful composition: focal element, structure, and balance.

I. Focal Element

The focal element of an image is simply something that the viewer is drawn to immediately upon seeing the image. Oftentimes, an image is difficult to read or distracting because it either lacks a focal element, which bores the viewer. Or, it has too many focal elements, which leaves the eye bouncing around the image without a point of focus.

composition with no focal element

Example of an image with no clear focal element. Created by Andrew Price.

composition with too many focal elements

Example of an image with too many focal elements.

There are several ways to successfully create and influence focal elements in imagery:

Natural Focal Elements

  • High Contrast
  • Saturation
  • Camera Focus/Depth of Field
  • Motion
  • Faces or Figures

Focal Element Influencers

  • Guiding Lines
  • Framing
  • Geometry
composition with saturation as focal element

The same image from above, with saturation used to create a clear focal element.

composition focal element

An image created by Tamas Medve illustrating successful use of natural focal elements and focal element influencers.

II. Structure

Another basic element of composition is structure. Structure is the organization of elements based on a rule. There are various types used in imagery: the rule of thirds, the golden ratio, pyramid composition, symmetry, and full frame.

1. The Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is simple a method by which an image is divided into thirds along the horizontal and vertical axes. Important elements in the composition are then placed along the intersection points or axis lines. This method is a simplification of the golden ratio. Price notes that it’s important not to become a slave to using the rule of thirds, and that having important elements relatively close to point intersections is generally sufficient to get an aesthetically pleasing composition.

rule of thirds composition

The Rule of Thirds in action. Photo by “The U.S. Army” (Flickr).

2. The Golden Ratio

Oh, the golden ratio. We’ve written about it here before, and you are probably somewhat familiar with it. I could nerd out on the golden ratio all day, but briefly described, it’s a mathematical division of space found throughout nature that happens to work well in creating images. It’s worth noting that there are crop options in Photoshop for both the rule of thirds and the golden ratio, if you’re not great at seeing them when composing an image.

golden ratio composition

Successful use of the golden ratio. Image created by James Gardner.

3. Pyramid Composition

Based on a pyramid within the image, this type of structure is good for creating striking figures in portraiture.

pyramid composition

Use of pyramid composition. Created by Reinier Reynhout.

4. Symmetry

Another relatively basic concept here: symmetry involves mirroring a subject along horizontal and/or vertical axes in the image. Price notes that this is often used to create strong architectural compositions.

mirror composition

Mirror image composition. Photograph of the Taj Mahal by Francisco Martins.

5. Full Frame

The most basic structural idea here: a single subject fills the entire frame. There aren’t any other compositional elements.

full frame composition

Full frame composition. Photograph by Andrew Morrell.


Successful use of balance means that the visual weight of the image is evenly distributed. Several factors can influence visual weight:

  • Size
  • High Contrast
  • Saturation
  • Faces
  • Figures

Price notes that a good way to check for balance within an image is to do a “squint test”–either turn up the contrast and blur in an image editing program to see if any elements really stand out, or simply squint your eyes to achieve the same effect.

unbalanced composition

Example of an unbalanced composition by Andrew Price. The eye is drawn to the lighted figure, while other compositional details are ignored.

The "squint test" shows where the weight of the image lies. Created by Andrew Price.

The “squint test” shows where the weight of the image lies. Created by Andrew Price.

balanced composition

An example of a balanced composition, created by Stefan Morrell: balanced contrast on top and bottom of image create an even visual weight, while a silhouetted figure in the foreground counterbalances the strong presence of the robot in the background.

We’ve discussed a couple of basic compositional elements and their sub-elements here. Try to keep these concepts in your head when you go out on your next photographic adventure; we wish you good luck and great success!

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