What is Composition in Photography?

With the first article in our new Mastering Composition series, it is only fitting that we start off by discussing the very definition of our main topic. In this article for beginner photographers, I will outline the general meaning of the term “composition” in art. I will also briefly discuss the goal of composition, define what a good composition is and why it is such an important part of any work of art. At the end of the article I will provide you with a simple question that is also a hint on what is to come in future articles.

What is Composition in Photography

1) General Definition of the Term

The term “composition” applies not only to visual arts, but to music, dance, literature and virtually any other kind of art. In certain contexts, such as writing, this term may not be as widely used, but is just as valid nonetheless. In general, the term “composition” has two distinctive, yet related meanings.

First and foremost, “composition” describes placement of relative objects and elements in a work of art. Consequently, composition is a key aspect of a good work of art. There is hardly a way to overemphasize the importance of composition. Any aspiring artist ought to give composition of his work a lot of attention. A good composition is one that has just enough detail. Too few elements is bad because it robs the work of art of necessary detail that makes correct interpretation possible. It also ruins the balance of an image. And too many elements can be very distracting as well. Good composition requires good balance. It is best to make sure all the elements present are necessary for the idea or story you are trying to pass on.

In some cases, composition can mean the work of art itself and is a synonymous to that term. For example, when talking about a specific installation or dance, a phrase “This composition…” can be used. Such a definition also widely applies to music (creators of which are known as composers) and paintings.

2) What is Composition in Photography?

Now that we know the general definition of the term “composition”, it is not too hard to figure out its meaning in photography. Simply put, composing an image means arranging elements within it in a way that suits the core idea or goal of your work best. Arranging elements can be done by actually moving the objects or subjects. A good example for this case is portrait or still life photography. Street photography involves anticipation, since the photographer doesn’t usually have the choice of moving his subjects himself, but has to wait for them to take the most suitable position within the frame. Another way of arranging elements is by changing your own position. Such a way is appropriate in circumstances that do not allow the photographer to physically move anything, like landscape photography.

Composition is a way of guiding the viewer’s eye towards the most important elements of your work, sometimes – in a very specific order. A good composition can help make a masterpiece even out of the dullest objects and subjects in the plainest of environments. On the other hand, a bad composition can ruin a photograph completely, despite how interesting the subject may be. A poorly judged composition is also not something you can usually fix in post-processing, unlike simple and common exposure or white balance errors. Cropping can sometimes save an image, but only when tighter framing and removal of certain portions of the image is the correct solution. That is why giving your choice of composition plenty of thought before capturing an image is a step of utmost importance.

Street Photography in Vilnius

Focal length, aperture, angle at which you choose to position your camera relative to your subject also greatly affects composition. For example, choosing a wider aperture will blur the background and foreground, effectively lessening the importance of objects placed in there. It will also more often than not result in more noticeable corner shading (vignetting), which will help keep viewer’s eye inside the frame for longer. On the other hand, closing down the aperture will bring more objects into focus which, in turn, may result in better image balance. How so? Well, “sharper”, more in-focus objects may attract more attention than a blurry shape, but not always (see image sample below). An experienced photographer will use all the available means to achieve the desired result. It is worth noting that de-focusing objects in the foreground or background does not negate their contribution to overall composition of the image. Simple shapes, tones, shadows, highlights, colors are all strong elements of composition.

Take a look at the below image. Despite the fact that part of a wall showing in the foreground is completely out of focus, it is the most vivid part of the photograph as well as being quite bright. For this reason, it attracts our attention much more than the main subject (man with the tea cup and his Siberian Husky hiding in shadows). The bright yellow rectangle is the first thing you see when you glance at the photograph. A good and obvious way to fix this would be to reduce the vividness and luminance of yellow using Lightroom’s HSL panel (although I actually like the contrast between the two parts of the photograph):

Street Photography in Vilnius_1

We will discuss color, tone and other composition elements in more detail in upcoming Mastering Composition series articles.

Composing an image eventually becomes a very natural process. With enough practice – mind you, there can never be too much of such a thing – you will not even have to think about the placement of those elements. Your subconscious will do it for you. Your fingers will dial correct settings, your eye will guide the framing. Poor composition will instantly appear unnatural and just plain wrong to you. The more experience you have, the better choices you will make. Best way to grow as a photographer is not to rush your decisions and not trust your subconscious unquestionably, but to learn new ways of composing your image. Not that you shouldn’t trust your guts – you should, of course. But make sure to also give it some thought, experiment, take a few shots and analyze them during post-processing. See what works best, try to understand why and then experiment some more.

3) The Goal of Composition

One may assume that a good composition is one that is most pleasing to the eye. Consequently, the goal of good composition ought to be showing your subject or object in a flattering, aesthetically pleasing manner. But such opinion is a little superficial. Not every work of art is supposed to be pleasing or beautiful to the viewer. Some artists try to express different, stronger ideas and their subject, as well as composition choices help achieve that. For example, if an artist wants the viewer to feel uncomfortable or nervous, he will choose a composition that is least “natural” and come up with something unexpected and shocking. A good example of such work is war photography, where photographers often try to help the viewer feel how terrifying and destructive war is. On the other hand, an artist may portray war victims in a very flattering and disturbingly beautiful way. By doing so, he would emphasize war’s ugly nature in a grotesque and sarcastic manner. So, in the end, the goal of a good composition is to help express the idea of the artist by necessary means.

4) Assignment for Beginners

This simple assignment is for beginner photographers, who would like to actively learn along with other readers and participate in creation of these articles.

  • Name basic varieties (or simply “types”) of composition you are familiar with. Make sure to list just one variety and try not to repeat those that have already been named by someone else. Best if you don’t use Google – test yourself and wait for the upcoming articles patiently :) The following image is a hint for one of the most obvious basic compositions types.

Street Photography in Vilnius_2

Good luck!


Avatar of Romanas Naryškin About Romanas Naryškin

A student and a wedding photographer with a passion for cinematography and writing. You'll see me buying film even when there's no food in the fridge. Follow me on Google+, Facebook or visit my wedding photography website to see some of my work.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) SINGH

    RULE OF THIRDS…

    Very nice article. Keep it up…!

    Thanks

    • 6
      ) Ankur

      Singh: Rule of thirds is pretty handy; however, from my personal experience I can tell using the Golden ratio helps obtain even more pleasing results – results that appear more easy on the eyes and seem naturally convincing as part of story telling, or bringing emphasis to certain parts of a photo.

      Romanas: Nice article! Thanks for sharing.

      • 17
        ) SINGH

        Hi Ankur – As per the article, “Make sure to list just one type…………..” i named one of the rules..wasn’t comparing which one is better..!!

        Thanks for sharing your experience though…

        • 18
          ) Ankur

          Singh: Apologies. That was an oversight on my part. Cheers!

          • Neither rule of thirds nor Golden ratio are types of composition, though. :)

  2. 2
    ) Sherman J. Buster

    Your bottom picture (your hint picture) is using a symmetrical composition (one that is balanced and typically can be divided into two equal parts).

    • Sherman, that is quite correct, although saying it is balanced is quite unnecessary – any type of composition can be balanced.

      In any case, that rules out listing symmetrical composition again for other readers. :)

      • 4
        ) Sherman J. Buster

        I actually wasn’t meaning the balance of the image, poor choice of words by myself when talking about composition. I was meaning the spacial weight between the subjects of the image should be equal. In the case of the hint picture, it is not a mirrored image (curtains different, lamps in different positions, etc), but the windows each have the same amount of spacial weight, which is what gives the image its symmetry.

        • What you are describing is indeed called composition balance. In any case, we will talk about symmetrical composition in more detail soon. :)

  3. 7
    ) Antas Benas Ališauskas

    O, Romanai, jau daug daug laiko įdėmiai seku šį tinklaraštį ir tik dabar, pamatęs man artimas vietas ir lietuviškus užrašus nuotraukose, pastebėjau iš kur esi. Tiesiog labai smagu buvo tai sužinoti – tik tuo ir tenoriu pasidalinti. Atleisk už beprasmį komentarą. Ir labai labai ačiū už visus straipsnius, man jie labai patinka ir yra labai geri – ypač apie Lightroom’ą. Tik su Tavo pagalba neseniai prie jo perėjau ir esu žiaaauriai patenkintas. Ačiū!

    • Antai, tikrai nėra už ką, toks jau tas mano darbas. Džiaugiuosi, kad skaitai. Straipsnių tikrai bus daugiau. :) Tad nepamesk, sek. Sėkmės!

  4. 9
    ) Meziane

    You’re using symmetry, where the line of symmetry is the downspout between the 2 windows.

  5. 10
    ) Meziane

    Forgot to thank you for the article, keep up the good work.

  6. 11
    ) John Adams

    I’m 70 year old and have been an amateur photographer since I was a teenager. I’ve become fairly proficient at taking technically correct photographs over the years. Where I am lacking is in the area of composition and an artistic view in my photographs. This article is very much appreciated as you seem to be going in a direction I would very much like to follow.

    As a small token of my appreciation for this article and the multitude of other articles I’ve read in Photography Life, I’ve made a donation using the link you provided above. You’ve become my primary photography school in my retirement years. I finally see myself starting to grow thanks to all the knowledge and perspective contained in Photography Life.

    • John Adams,

      I’m not sure if you received a proper thank you for your help. Please know we are deeply grateful for your support, it really does help us run the website. And if any of our articles is helpful to even one of our readers, it is worth writing and publishing, so I am very glad you’ve found something of use in our humble collection.

      Thank you!

      • 49
        ) Matthew Griffin

        So good of you to reply to a someone that appreciates your work so much! Great article and as a beginner its great to see an example of appreciated and building a warm community in the industry. Thanks to you both :)

        • Matthew,

          believe me when I say the appreciation is mutual. Thank you for your kind words ;)

  7. 12
    ) deepak

    Leading lines and Pattern

    • Deepak,

      what you named are elements of a composition that one may use to guide the viewer’s eye. These are not composition types. :) Read the comment number 2 to see what one of the types is.

      • 15
        ) Deepak

        Misunderstood question :)

        • 16
          ) Deepak

          Thanks for such nice article,

  8. 13
    ) Norms

    Nice Article! Actually I am weak in this area(composition) :(

    • 20
      ) Saiful Zaree Johar

      That makes two of us!

      • 26
        ) Norms

        Maybe we should wait for the next post/s….. Cheers!

  9. 19
    ) Huy

    Would perspective be a form of photographic composition (i.e. photo of alley way or a wide-angle vertical shot of a high-rise building)?

    • Huy,

      no, it’s more of a tool, an element of composition, a way to direct viewer’s eye.

  10. I have always thought that composition is the main factor in creating a good image. Strong photos are dependant on balance and composition is the key to creating tension and direction in photography.

  11. 22
    ) Dan

    Diagonal composition ?

  12. 27
    ) harjeet

    Framing composition? and
    Patterns – may be similar to symmetrical?

  13. 28
    ) Johny Wong

    Hi Roman,

    I just read the whole article and don’t give much attention to your last photo. I just know that your last photo is nice because it is symmetrical. I don’t realize that symmetry is one type of composition. All this time, I always think composition is about ‘rule’ (rule of third, leading line, repetitive pattern, etc), when to use or to break that ‘rule’. So, this article helps me to differentiate type of composition and compositional tool.

    Thank you ;)

  14. HI Roman

    I am not sure if you allow links
    http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/lowry-and-painting-modern-life

    but if you do this will support your point about composition from a separate medium

  15. 30
    ) Sherman J. Buster

    Since it has been a few days, and no one has mentioned this, I’ll go ahead. Asymmetrical is another type of composition.

  16. 31
    ) Serge

    Thanks, Romanas for your article.

    After some 5-10 minutes of thinking and looking at the world around me, I found out that there might be a Parallel, Linear, Convergent / Closed, Divergent / Open, Asymmetrical (already mentioned by Sherman) Composition, and a Composition based on colour. Not sure, if any of those fall into a Composition category, nevertheless, I attempted :o).

    Cheers!

  17. 32
    ) Raymond S. Legare

    Interesting, I think a teaching class for the teacher is in order. Your initial article designed to teach composition in photography begins with the assumption that any reader is already well versed in composition theory? This is a case of the teacher not being in touch with the needs of the student. It should be clear to the teacher that what ever point was intended was lost by most of the responses and I find it disturbing that the teacher turned this into a game. Very poor approach unfortunately more like someone wanting to show off that they know more than the people they are trying to teach. As a teaching professional you never start a basic course assuming students know anything about the subject, it’s called doing the work and not just flapping your gums saying what you want to say. Basically you taught that good composition is good composition never answering what composition really is. Go back to the Greeks for this information. I suggest you take a class in teaching basics before you continue this mess. Teaching 101 dictates that you clearly define the goal or results you expect the student to receive by experiencing your lesson. Try that on for size before you try this again, please.

    R.S. Legare
    Phd. Education
    Phd. Fine Art
    Phd. Psychology

    • Hello, Raymond, and thank you for your.. constructive criticism.

      I will start with a quote from the article:

      “First and foremost, “composition” describes placement of relative objects and elements in a work of art. In some cases, composition can mean the work of art itself and is a synonymous to that term. For example, when talking about a specific installation or dance, a phrase “This composition…” can be used. Such a definition also widely applies to music (creators of which are known as composers) and paintings.”

      My initial article is not designed to teach composition in photography. It is “designed” to give a short definition of what composition is in photography. Perhaps such a simple definition is not enough for a Doctor of Philosophy in Fine Art or Education, but at the same time perhaps you do not fully understand the target audience. They are not my students. I am not a teacher. I am a 23 year old student myself at an arts university. But first and foremost, I am a photographer. What this article is about is simplicity. It is not a book on composition. It is as in-depth as it should be given our audience. I feel fully comfortable in saying I am not qualified to teach a PhD. such as yourself. In all fairness, I am not qualified to teach anyone, anything. All I do is share my knowledge and experience, for free, with those who want it. That is what all of us do here. There are no games. If you think you can do better, by all means, go ahead, the better for all of us. It is not a competition, either. I am also quite confident in saying, with all due respect, I know my target audience a little better than you do.

      In any case, thank you for your rant (and I am sorry to say, but it was a rant), all opinions matter. Forgive me for not looking at it seriously. I guess we all see what we want to see. If you believe this to be a sort of game and me being a big-headed kid who knows nothing and writes about it, for whatever reason that may be, you have no obligation to continue reading our articles, I assure you. At the same time, if you wish, you are more than welcome to read them – perhaps you’ll find something of use.

      Romanas
      A friendly chap

      • 39
        ) Owen

        Well, considering this was “the first article in our new Mastering Composition series” I didn’t expect it to be an exhaustive tutorial. I thought it was a good introduction. In fact, the invitation to list types of composition made me realize my lack of knowledge on the subject. I, for one, am looking forward to reading the rest of the series despite any stuffy negative reviews. As my grandfather would say, “Some people are educated beyond their intelligence!”

    • 47
      ) Gus

      Just found this website and I am finding it very useful. I am a novice at photography.

      I would like to add also that having a doctor of phylosophy in three distinct areas as the ones described seems to be a non-sense. By definition, a doctor of phylosophy should be the most proficient person in the world on a certain topic/matter (phlyos – knowledge). Im my humble opiniom, I cannot imagine how a single person can master three so distinct topics.

      PhD in Biological Sciences (only one)

  18. 34
    ) Michael

    Quote: “As a teaching professional you never start a basic course assuming students know anything about the subject, it’s called doing the work and not just flapping your gums saying what you want to say. Basically you taught that good composition is good composition never answering what composition really is.”

    Unfortunately I have to agree 100% with Raymond.

    • Hello, Michael.

      Just as unfortunately, I have to re-quote part of the text as I did while answering Raymond’s comment:

      “First and foremost, “composition” describes placement of relative objects and elements in a work of art. In some cases, composition can mean the work of art itself and is a synonymous to that term. For example, when talking about a specific installation or dance, a phrase “This composition…” can be used. Such a definition also widely applies to music (creators of which are known as composers) and paintings.”

      I hope you have a good day and thank you for reading.

  19. 36
    ) Tomas Manrique

    Usefull article! Keep up with the good work ;)

    Thank you Romanas!

  20. 37
    ) Scott Hammersley

    Thank you for this article, I am currently studying a course that includes photography in it. And I’m having to complete an assignment on composition. I originally thought that composition was just a fancy way of saying balance.
    For the different types of composition I have go these:
    Leading Lines
    Symmetrical
    Rule of Thirds
    Telling a story
    and some kind main focal point (where you want the viewers eye to end up)

    No Idea if these are correct or not, wondering if you or anybody else could gives a little help on it?
    Thanks again mate

  21. 38
    ) Mark Gibson

    I just read this article, read Raymond’s rant, and read the article again. I am in John Adams’ category (old guy serious hobbyist without formal art education). I find it a helpful start on the subject and can think of no reason for a pompous denigration of the effort.

    It would seem to me, without knowing better, that composition has two key realms: One is how the image feels to the maker or viewer – its subjective impact, and the second realm is the lists of types and rules that attempt to explain how such an impact might have been achieved. The latter are interesting as analytics, and mindfulness of them by the artist may assist in achieving the subjective effect desired. But it would seem to me that much is often achieved successfully absent conscious application of typology and rules by those few who are mindful of the goal of their image and work intuitively and instinctually.

  22. 40
    ) Ricardo Vaz

    Romanas, keep posting Composition topics, I think thats the most important thing a photograpbher can learn and aways improve.

  23. 41
    ) Rupinder

    Hello,

    it looks like open composition to me. Though the subject is well framed but there is more than one aspect that draws your attention. Also, there is a feeling of continuity beyond what is framed.

    i quite like your articles and the way of description. Thank you for sharing what you know.

  24. 42
    ) Zara

    Yes, it does sound like open composition.
    But nonetheless an interesting article.

  25. 43
    ) Sasha

    The last one is rectangular.

  26. 44
    ) Sasha

    .. it majors of a multitude of identical shapes that are different in size and further supported by the symmetrical placement and simple order as well as color scheme. What makes this shot though is two strategically placed lamps give a nice understated contrast in color and shape.

  27. 45
    ) Diamond Tyrone

    From below.

  28. 48
    ) Dennis Stahursky

    I’m newish at photo shooting and find the majority of articles, how-to’s etc are very easy to understand.
    Enjoyable reading is easier to retain too.
    In appreciation, I willalso support this site.
    Thanks !
    P.S. As a side note, the dog in the article’s image above looks like an Alaskan Malamute :)

Leave a Comment

*