is the placement or arrangement of visual elements or ingredients in a work of art, as
distinct from the subject of a work. It can also be thought of as the organization of
the elements of art according to the principles of art.
The term composition means 'putting together,' and can apply to any work of art, from music to writing to photography, that is arranged or put together using conscious thought. In the visual arts, composition is often used interchangeably with various terms such as design, form, visual ordering, or formal structure, depending on the context. It is accomplished by blending the Elements of Design with the Principles of Organization and Technical Photographic Elements.
The various visual elements, known as elements of design, formal elements, or elements of art, are the vocabulary with which the visual artist composes. These elements in the overall design usually relate to each other and to the whole art work.
The Elements of Design
Line — the visual path that enables the eye to move within the piece
Shape — areas defined by edges within the piece, whether geometric or organic
Color — hues with their various values and intensities
Space — the space taken up by (positive) or in between (negative) objects
Form — 3-D length, width, or depth; the physicality of an object
Value — The Light and Dark scale within the image, highlights & shadows
Texture — surface qualities which translate into tactile illusions
Depth — perceived distance from the observer, separated in foreground, background, and optionally middle ground
The artist determines what the center of interest of the art work will be, and composes the elements accordingly. The gaze of the viewer will then tend to linger over these points of interest, elements are arranged with consideration of several factors into a harmonious whole which works together to produce the desired statement – a phenomenon commonly referred to as unity. Such factors in composition should not be confused with the elements of design themselves. For example, shape is an element; the usage of shape is characterized by various principles.
Some principles of organization affecting the composition of a picture are:
Shape and Proportion
Positioning/Orientation/Balance/Harmony among the elements
The Path or direction followed by the viewer's eye when they observe the image.
Positive & Negative Space
Contrast: the value, or degree of lightness and darkness, used within the picture.
Geometry: for example, use of the Golden Mean, Golden Triangles, Rule of Thirds, and Shapes
Rhythm & Pattern or Repetition (Sometimes building into pattern; rhythm also comes into play, as does geometry)
Illumination or Lighting
The area within the Field of View used for the picture ("Cropping")
Perspective & Viewpoint
The Principles of Organization
(which can be considered Leading the Eye) The position of the viewer can strongly influence the aesthetics of an image, even if the subject is entirely imaginary and viewed "within the mind's eye". Not only does it influence the elements within the picture, but it also influences the viewer's interpretation of the subject.
For example, if a boy is photographed from above, perhaps from the eye level of an adult, he is diminished in stature. A photograph taken at the child's level would treat him as an equal, and one taken from below could result in an impression of dominance. Therefore, the photographer is choosing the viewer's positioning.
A subject can be rendered more dramatic when it fills the frame. There exists a tendency to perceive things as larger than they actually are, and filling the frame full fills this psychological mechanism. This can be used to eliminate distractions from the background.
In photography, altering the position of the camera can change the image so that the subject has fewer or more distractions with which to compete. This may be achieved by getting closer, moving laterally, tilting, panning, or moving the camera vertically.
There are no unbreakable rules when it comes to how you should compose your photographs. With that said.. Here are 20 guidelines along with examples of each.. from the most basic ones and finishing with some of the more advanced composition techniques.
Rule of Thirds
The Rule of Thirds is very simple. You divide the frame into 9 equal rectangles, 3 across and 3 down. The idea is to place the important element(s) of the scene along one or more of the lines or where the lines intersect. We have a natural tendency to want to place the main subject in the middle. Placing it off centre using the rule of thirds will more often than not lead to a more attractive composition.
Many camera manufacturers have actually included the capability to display this grid in live view mode. Check your camera’s manual to see how to turn on this feature.
Now that I’ve told you not to place the main subject in the centre of the frame, I’m going to tell you to do the exact opposite! There are times when placing a subject in the centre of the frame works really well. Symmetrical scenes are perfect for a centred composition. They look really well in square frames too. Architecture and roads often make great subjects for a centred compositions.Scenes containing reflections are also a great opportunity to use symmetry in your composition.
Including some foreground interest in a scene is a great way of adding a sense of depth to the scene. Photographs are 2D by nature. Including foreground interest in the frame is one of a number of techniques to give the scene a more 3D feel. Adding foreground interest works particularly well with wide-angle lenses.
Framing a Scene, Including a ‘frame within the Picture Plane’ is another effective way of portraying depth in a scene. Look for elements such as windows, arches or overhanging branches to frame the scene with. The ‘frame’ does not necessarily have to surround the entire scene to be effective.
The use of scenery viewed through arches was a common feature of Renaissance painting as way of portraying depth. Using a ‘frame within a frame’ presents a great opportunity to use your surroundings to be creative in your compositions.
Leading lines help lead the viewer through the image and focus attention on important elements. Anything from paths, walls or patterns can be used as leading lines. Leading lines do not necessarily have to be straight, In fact curved lines can be very attractive compositional features.
Diagonals / Triangles
It is often said that triangles and diagonals add ‘dynamic tension’ to a photo. My mother in law also does an excellent job of adding tension to any scene. What do we mean by ‘dynamic tension’ though? This can be a tricky one to explain and can seem a bit pretentious. Dynamic tension is a way of using the energy and movement available in various features of the frame to draw the eye out of the picture, in contrasting directions. Look at it this way, horizontal lines and vertical lines suggest stability. If you see a person standing on a level horizontal surface, he will appear to be pretty stable unless he’s stumbling out of a pub at 2am. Put this man on a sloping surface and he’ll seem less stable. This creates a certain level of visual tension. Or more simply put We are not so used to diagonals in our every day life. They subconsciously suggest instability. Incorporating triangles and diagonals into our photos can help create this sense of ‘dynamic tension’. Incorporating triangles into a scene is a particularly good effective way of introducing dynamic tension. Triangles can be actual triangle-shaped objects or implied triangles. Having diagonals going off in different direction adds a lot of ‘dynamic tension’ to the scene. This is what creates the visual tension.
Patterns & Texture
Human beings are naturally attracted to patterns. They are visually attractive and suggest harmony. Patterns can be man made like a series of arches or natural like the petals on a flower. Incorporating patterns into your photographs is always a good way to create a pleasing composition. Less regular textures can also be very pleasing on the eye.
Rule of Odds
In the world of photography, there are certainly plenty of ‘odds’ but the ‘rule of odds’ is something different entirely. The rule suggests that an image is more visually appealing if there are an odd number of subjects. The theory proposes that an even number of elements in a scene is distracting as the viewer is not sure which one to focus his or her attention on. An odd number of elements is seen as more natural and easier on the eye. To be honest, I think there are plenty of cases where this is not the case but it is certainly applicable in certain situations. What if you have four children? How do you decide which one to leave out of the shot? Personally, I’d go by future earning potential.
Fill the Frame
Filling the frame with your subject, leaving little or no space around it can be very effective in certain situations. It helps focus the viewer completely on the main subject without any distractions. It also allows the viewer to explore the detail of the subject that wouldn’t be possible if photographed from further away. Filling the frame often involves getting in so close that you may actually crop out elements of your subject. In many cases, this can lead to a very original and interesting composition.
Once again, I am going to completely contradict myself! In the last guideline, I told you that filling the frame works well as a compositional tool. Now I’m going to tell you that doing the exact opposite works well too. Leaving a lot of empty or ‘negative’ space around your subject can be very attractive. It creates a sense of simplicity and minimalism. Like filling the frame, it helps the viewer focus on the main subject without distractions.
Simplicity & Minimalism
In the last guideline, we saw how leaving negative space around the main subject can create a sense of simplicity and minimalism. Simplicity itself can be a powerful compositional tool. It is often said that ‘less is more’. Simplicity often means taking photos with uncomplicated backgrounds that don’t distract from the main subject. You can also create a simple composition by zooming in on part of your subject and focusing on a particular detail.
Isolate the Subject
Using a shallow depth of field to isolate your subject is a very effective way of simplifying your composition. By using a wide aperture, you can blur the background that might otherwise distract from your main subject. This is a particularly useful technique for shooting portraits.
Point of View
Most photos are taken from eye level. In my case, that’s barely 5 feet! Getting high up or low down can be a way of creating a more interesting and original composition of a familiar subject. I’ve often seen wildlife photographers in particular lying in the mud on their bellies to get the perfect shot.
The use of color itself is an often overlooked compositional tool. Color theory is something that graphic designers, fashion designers and interior designers are all very familiar with. Certain color combinations compliment each other well and can be visually very striking. Take a look at the color wheel above. You can see that the colors are arranged logically in the segments of a circle. Colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel are said to be ‘complimentary colors’. As photographers, we can look for scenes that incorporate complimentary colors as a way of creating attractive and striking compositions.
Have you ever noticed how many movie posters have blue and yellow/orange color schemes? This is done quite deliberately to create eye catching adverts.
Rule of Space
The rule of space relates to the direction the subject(s) in your photo are facing or moving towards. If you are taking a photo of a moving car for example, there should be more space left in the frame in front of the car than behind it. This implies that there is space in the frame for the car to move into.
Left to Right Rule
There is theory that says we ‘read’ an image from left to right in the same way we would read text. For this reason, it is suggested that any motion portrayed in a photograph should flow from left to right. This is all very well but it assumes the viewer is from a country were text is read from left to right. Many languages are read from right to left such as Arabic for example. To be honest, I’ve seen plenty of fantastic photographs that ‘flow’ from right to left. I was once criticised by a judge for the fact that a woman in a photo I took was walking from right to left. He told me it didn’t follow the ‘left to right’ rule. I reminded the judge that the photo was taken in Tunisia where people read from right to left. I didn’t win.
The first compositional guideline we looked at in this tutorial was the ‘rule of thirds’. This of course means that we often place the main subject of the photo to the side of the frame along one of the vertical grid lines. Sometimes this can lead to a lack of balance in the scene. It can leave a sort of ‘void’ in the rest of the frame. To overcome this, you can compose your shot to include a secondary subject of lesser importance or size on the other side of the frame. This balances out the composition without taking too much focus off the main subject of the photograph.
Juxtaposition is very powerful compositional tool in photography. Juxtaposition refers to the inclusion of two or more elements in a scene that can either contrast with each other or compliment each other. Both approaches can work very well and play an important part in enabling the photo to tell a story.
Are you still with me? We’re almost there…. I promise. The golden triangles composition works in a very similar way to the rule of thirds. Instead of a grid of rectangles however, we divide the frame with a diagonal line going from one corner to another. We then add two more lines from the other corners to the diagonal line. The two smaller lines meet the big line at a right angle. This divides the frame into a series of triangles. As you can see, this way of composing helps us introduce an element of the ‘dynamic tension’ we learned about in guideline number 6. As with the rule of thirds, we use the lines (of the triangles in this case) to help us position the various elements in the scene. The rule of triangles can seem like a complex way of arranging a photo but it can result in some really striking compositions.
It’s true that the golden ratio method of composing a photograph can seem very complex at first. In reality it’s quite simple. It’s like a slightly more complex version of the rule of thirds. Instead of a regular grid, the frame is divided into a series of squares. This is known as a ‘Phi Grid’. You can then use the squares to draw a spiral that looks like a snail’s shell. This is called a ‘Fibonacci Spiral’. The squares help to position elements in the scene and the spiral gives us an idea of how the scene should flow. It’s a little like an invisible leading line. It is believed that the golden spiral method of composition has been in existence for over 2,400 years having been devised in Ancient Greece. It is widely used in many types of art as well as architecture as a way of creating aesthetically pleasing compositions. It was particularly well employed in Renaissance art. The golden ratio can be set up in different directions.
Obviously, it would be impossible to have all of these compositional guidelines in your mind as you are out shooting. Your brain would melt! However, a good exercise is to make an effort to use one or two of them each time you go out. You could do a photo session where you look for situations to use a ‘frame within a frame’ for example. After a while, you’ll find that a lot of these guidelines become ingrained. You will begin to use them naturally without having to think about them.