Composition is critical. If you want to take powerful photos, it’s one of the most important parts of photography. Still, a lot of photographers start out only hearing about the rule of thirds, and they never go more in depth. The good news is that you can learn more about composition — and you should. It’s a deep topic, and there’s no way to cover everything in just one article, but I’ll do my best to hit the biggest points here.
1) What is composition?
Composition is the structure of a photo. It’s how you arrange the elements in your image to create the look you want.
Now, composition can make or break a photo. If you stumble upon an interesting subject — no matter how good the light is, or how unusual the conditions are — you still need to compose the photo carefully if you want a good result.
You have an absurd amount of power to change the composition of a photo. Move forwards and backwards, left and right. Change your lens — zoom in, zoom out. And pay attention to which elements of the scene you’re including, as well as the ones that you’re not.
If you do it right, composition takes your subject, and it presents it to your viewer as effectively as possible. It is the mechanism for telling a message with your photos.
2) The elements of composition
Points, lines, and shapes.
At the most fundamental level, those are the only elements of composition.
Anything in your image — your subject, the background, tiny details that don’t even matter — they’re all points, lines, and shapes.
Some of them are really complex. A hand, or a face, or a tree — those are not just simple things. But they still have a shape, and they can help form the structure of an image.
On top of individual elements in a photo, there’s also the way they interconnect with one another. Several elements of a photo, arranged properly, are stronger than the sum of their parts.
To make this clearer, I’m going to do something that, hopefully, you find very useful. I’m going to take some of my best photos, distill them down into their fundamental elements, and present them side by side.
The first example is a photo from Yosemite. Based solely on the line drawing, you can see that the composition is very balanced, with equal amounts of interest on both halves of the frame. Drag the slider back and forth to see the before/after comparison:
The next photo, from Death Valley, has a more dynamic composition, with strong diagonals running the length of the photo:
Last is a photo from Jökulsárlón in Iceland, with a block of ice washing ashore. Here, you can see the lines and shapes that form the structure of the photo:
To me, the interesting thing so far is that these three line drawings still work well on their own. I wouldn’t hang them on my wall, of course — but they maintain a certain balance and structure, even as simple as they are.
When I’m out taking photos, do I imagine my subject as a set of black-and-white lines? I’d be lying if I said that I did. What I do think about, though, is structure. I always try to put as much thought and effort as possible into making sure each element adds to the structure of a photo. Ideally, everything about a photo should be highly deliberate.
The big secret of composition is not that you should follow one structure for a majority of your photos (which is what the rule of thirds might suggest). Instead, the important thing is to pick your composition 100% intentionally.
Intent is the most important part of composition. Nothing in the photograph should happen by accident. Everything must have a reason to exist.
If you remember that, and you really spend time in the field making it happen, your photos will skyrocket in quality. That’s practically guaranteed, because you’ll end up putting more conscious thought into how a photo appears.
Every photo you take has an emotional message. That’s the core of what you want your viewers to feel when they look at one of your images.
When you’re out taking pictures, one of the best things you can do is hone in on this message and decide exactly what your photo will say. That’s the power of simplicity. It’s a crucial technique for photographers, and it’s one that doesn’t get enough attention.
Simplicity means that nothing in your photo takes away from the emotional message. If you’re trying to convey a sense of beauty at a landscape, eliminate everything from the photo that isn’t beautiful. That could be power lines, footprints in the foreground, a piece of trash in the frame, and so on.
Simplify your composition, too. Don’t overwhelm your viewers with too much information, unless your goal actually is to capture an overwhelming, chaotic photo.
One of the main things I think about when composing a picture is balance.
Balance is pretty easy. What you need to do is ask yourself how much attention each portion of the image draws. You might have heard about this before. It’s called “visual weight.”
Elements that have a lot of visual weight include bright objects, saturated colors, eyes, people, animals, high contrast, and unusual elements — pretty much anything that attracts attention in the real world.
Then, figure out if that visual weight is distributed evenly across the frame, or if one half of the photo has more than the other (from left to right). If they’re roughly even, it’s a balanced photo. If not, the photo is imbalanced.
This works a lot like a seesaw. Indeed, you can balance a “heavy” object — your main subject — with a “lighter” object, so long as the lighter object is farther to the edge of the photograph (just like balancing a child and an adult on a seesaw). Take a look at the photo below:
In photography, you have the choice to capture balanced photos or imbalanced photos. Neither is better than the other. What matters is that they both convey different emotions.
Balanced photos are peaceful, static, and calm.
Imbalanced photos are dramatic, tense, and dynamic.
If you’re photographing a gentle lake at sunrise, you might not want an imbalanced photo. But, with more intense subjects, it could be the perfect look. It just depends upon the mood you’re trying to convey.
6) Breathing space
When there are multiple points of interest in a photo, you need to give them “breathing space” by spacing them apart from one another. Otherwise, elements of your photo will interfere with one another (or the edges of your frame), making for a sloppy composition.
Think about a scene where a few birds are flying through the air, and you want to capture all of them in a single photo. If one bird crosses in front of another, though, that area of the image will look messy and unintentional. It’s better, instead, if all of your subjects have space to breathe.
The same goes if you’re photographing a mountain, and the peak is almost touching the very top of your photograph. In that case, it will draw unwanted attention and demonstrate a sense of carelessness.
Instead, it’s best that your subjects each have room to stand on their own, unobstructed by anything else in the photo. That’s how you send a strong, cohesive message to your viewers.
7) Positive and negative space
I’ve already covered positive and negative space, but it bears repeating here.
Positive space is anything in your photo that stands out and attracts attention. Negative space is the opposite — areas of an image that fade into the background and don’t draw the eye.
You can take photos with high amounts of negative space, high amounts of positive space, or somewhere in between. They all convey different emotions.
Photographs filled with negative space have a sense of emptiness, peacefulness, and isolation. They tend to be somewhat minimalist images, and they work well when you’re trying to show a sense of scale or loneliness. A single tree in a snowstorm would qualify.
Photos with a lot of positive space are more intense, busy, and active. They include lots of little details for your eye to notice, although the downside is that they can appear crowded if you aren’t careful.
These emotions are very important to your composition. If you’re paying close attention in the field, you can move around and change your framing to make the photo lean more in one direction or another. It’s a great tool to have at your disposal.
8) Patterns and relationships
In some cases, with care, you can capture photos that have more intricate patterns and relationships than just a simple composition.
For example, you might photograph a landscape with an orange flower in the foreground, and orange light on distant hills.
Or, you could capture a plume of smoke rising from a volcano at night, and matching with the shape of the Milky Way overhead.
There’s no end to the world of deeper relationships that are possible in photography. It’s not something you’ll find all the time, but you should keep an eye out — when a photo has such imaginative relationships, it will feel completely interconnected and intentional.
I don’t want to make it seem like composition is easy. In some sense, it’s impossible. Even the greatest photographers of all time never mastered composition, because composition isn’t the type of thing you can master.
“Good composition” is not an end point that you’re able to reach with enough talent or hard work. It is, instead, a shifting target that depends vastly upon your own, changing qualities, as well as the scene in front of you.
The rule of thirds won’t get you there. It’s a simple technique, meant for beginners, and it only scratches the surface of what composition can be. The same goes for any other simple tip out there — none of them encapsulate even a fraction of what matters for good composition.
That’s also true for reading about composition online. You can’t learn the most important things from any article, no matter how detailed or well-written it may be. Composition is an intensely personal topic. It’s the sort of thing that you must go out and learn for yourself.
Hopefully, the tips in this article gave you a good starting point. Very few elements of photography are more important than composition. Done right, it has the power to make your photos truly stand out from the crowd.
- How Light Creates Emotion in Photography (Along with composition, light is a valuable tool to make your photos impart the mood you want to convey.)
- Rule of Thirds: Does It Really Work? (Diving into more specifics on why the rule of thirds doesn’t work for composition.)
- Landscape Photography Composition Tips (Recommended if you want to learn more about composition with regards to landscape photography, specifically.)