Composition in Photography
Learn what composition is and how the placement and relationship of elements within a picture from one of the most fundamental elements photography.
Composition is one of the most fundamental elements in a photograph. Composition refers to the placement and relationship of elements within a picture. The arrangement of elements in a scene, the angle they are shot at, and the distance the photo is taken from, can completely change the final outcome of the photograph. Good composition engages the viewer and holds their attention.
There are several rules to follow for composition, some of them so simple you can master them instantly!
Rule of Thirds
The Rule of Thirds is the simplest composition technique, the easiest to master and quite possibly one of the most effective. This technique is so effective, many cameras have a feature to overlay the rule of thirds on the LCD or viewfinder.
The basic principle behind the rule of thirds is to imagine breaking an image down into thirds (both horizontally and vertically) so that you have 9 parts. You should aim to line up elements in the photo on the four lines, and place important subjects at the intersection of the lines.
The examples below illustrate the rule of thirds.
Avoid the Middle
When starting out in photography, it is very tempting to point your camera at exactly whatever you're shooting. However, this produces rather static, boring pictures. One way to overcome this is to use the rule of thirds, the other is to move your subject away from the centre and get a feel for how it can be balanced with everything else in the scene. This includes any areas of contrasting colour or light. There are no hard and fast rules about achieving this kind of visual balance, but you'll quickly learn to rely on your instincts - trust that you'll know when something just looks right.
A poorly composed photograph will leave your viewers unsure about where to look, and their attention might drift aimlessly around the scene without finding a clear focal point. However, you can use lines to control the way people's eyes move around the picture. Converging lines give a strong sense of perspective and three-dimensional depth, drawing you into an image. Curved lines can lead you on a journey around the frame, leading you towards the main subject.
Lines exist everywhere, in the form of walls, fences, roads, buildings and telephone wires. They can also be implied, perhaps by the direction in which an off-centre subject is looking.
Space to Move
Even though photographs are static, they can still convey a strong sense of movement. When we look at pictures, we see what's happening and tend to look ahead - this creates a feeling of imbalance or unease if your subject has nowhere to move except out of the frame. You don't just get this effect with moving subjects, either. For example, when you look at a portrait you tend to follow someone's gaze, and they need an area to look into. For both types of shot, then, there should always be a little more space ahead of the subject than behind it.
We've all taken that photo of a family member or pet which looked perfect at the time, however when viewing the photo later there is a tree growing out of somone's head!
The odd rule is that subjects should be grouped in odd numbers as odd number of subjects is seen to be more interesting and therefore pleasing. The theory is that if there is an even number of subjects, your brain finds it easy to organize the subjects into pairs and bringing in symmetry and dullness. Odd numbers of subjects throw that symmetry into chaos and the photo becomes "interesting". Also, the human eye tends to wander to the centre of a group. With an even number of objects, your eye will end up at the negative space in centre. If you have only one subject, accompany it with two supporting objects, one either side, so that your main subject is the centre of the group.
Visual weight is different to size or weight as we know it. It’s all about what we’re drawn to when we look at a photo. When you understand visual weight, you’ll start to understand how people look at photos and how you can position certain elements in a frame to direct the viewers attention to where you want them to look. It’s not so much a tool or a rule, but an understanding.
The main principals of visual weight are colour, contrast, lightness/darkness, size, density and complexity. You can read more about visual weight in graphic design in my guide to Graphic Design Elements & Principles.
Triangles are in almost everything we see in one way or another, it’s just a case of distinguishing and knowing what to do with them.
Triangles make great compositional tools as they’re easy to make and manipulate, and are remarkably common. They are also a great way of combining different compositional techniques, such as lines and paths, to create a more interesting part of a photograph.
You can even use them to make a photo feel more stable or unstable.
Rules are meant to be broken!
Photo composition is a little like a visual language - you can use it to make your pictures pass on a specific message. However, just as we sometimes use the written word to create a deliberately jarring effect, we can do the same with photos by breaking with standard composition conventions. For every rule suggested here, there is a fantastic photo that breaks the rule. The trick is knowing which rule to use, and when to break it.
Last updated on: Tuesday 24th October 2017