Defining Composition in Photography & How to Learn It

Have you ever wondered what it is that transforms a photograph into a work of art? There are different aspects of a photograph but, unarguably, it’s the composition that allows the photographer to make a statement with his image.

What is Definition of Composition in Photography?

To me, composition is one of the most difficult aspects of photography as it cannot simply be taught. Learning the perfect way to compose an image is an ongoing journey for the photographer that may even take a lifetime.

What does composition mean in the arts?

Composition is a term that is used in all genres of art. It involves the organization of the elements in a work or art, be it a painting or a piece of music. If your artwork is well-composed, its viewer or listener can grasp its intended message and feel the emotion you wanted to convey with it. There are many established rules of composition but the artist is free to break or transform them in order to express his idea in the best way possible.

Composition in photography – what exactly is it?

Composition seems like a lot of planning ahead so you may wonder how exactly it translates to photography.

Definition: Composition in photography can be defined as positioning the objects in the frame in such a way that the viewer’s eye is automatically drawn to the most interesting or significant area of the capture.

In landscape photography, we usually have the time to carefully compose our image before shooting since we work with objects that are immobile or slowly moving (such as clouds or the sun).

With street photography or photojournalism, on the other hand, composing is done in a matter of seconds. To reach this point a photographer needs a combination of knowledge, practice and a bit of creative courage.

San Francisco (California) - example of composition in photography

It’s the composition that delivers your message and defines your style

The photographic process has become increasingly automated but composition is still something your camera can’t choose for you. That’s why I believe it’s the single most important aspect of a photograph.

Even a perfectly exposed and sharp image taken with a professional camera can “tell us nothing” if it’s not composed in an interesting or meaningful way. In fact, if composed well, your image may as well be blurred or underexposed. As long as these aspects contribute to your idea, they are perfectly acceptable and might even become the emblem of your distinctive style.

Yosemite National Park: example of rule of thirds in photography

How do I master composition in photography?

Now that we understand the importance of composition in photography, the next step is to begin learning it.

Like I have mentioned many times before, I truly believe that composition is one of the most difficult aspects of photography since it is hard to teach and often takes a long time to learn. Why? Its complexity comes from its subjective nature. In most cases, there is no right or wrong and everything is open for interpretation.

What I also notice about composition is that there is no “AHA” moment. Very often when you are learning something complex, at some point after tackling it for some period of time, you just get it—in a single moment, everything becomes clear. With composition in photography, it is always a gradual process. Over time, you apply more complex concepts to your compositions, but it is always a learning process.

Here are the simple steps to start learning composition:

a. Analyze work of art

The first thing I’d advise every starting photographer is to look at a lot of art. Not just photography but, if possible, every other type of visual art. Start out with the classics but pay attention to what your contemporaries do as well.

Related: Composition – Repetition, Pattern & Rhythm

Analyze the images that strike you the most. What makes them so powerful? The point of view? The positioning of the main object of interest? Or the use of geometric lines perhaps?

b. Do not afraid to imitate

Then go out and try to reproduce the things you liked the most in your own photographs. Don’t worry; it’s perfectly okay to imitate your favorite photographers in the beginning. Everyone does it.

c. Learn rules of composition

Try to master the classical rules of composition at first – the rule of thirds for example. It’s important to know these rules before you begin to break them in order to create more interesting or striking images.

d. Practice, practice and practice…

As with everything, practice is key. Shoot whenever possible. Don’t just shoot objects that are obviously interesting. Shoot boring objects as well. With an interesting composition, even a photograph of a fork can turn into a work of art.

e. Share your work and get feedback

And then, of course, show your work and ask for feedback. In the digital world of today, this is easier than ever. Join photography forums or dedicated Facebook groups and ask the other members to evaluate your photographs. Don’t be afraid of critic – you need it in order to improve your technique.

Composition and Landscape Photography

There are many rules and guidelines of composition that can help you accelerate and make more sense of the whole process.

You have probably come across a variety of different tutorials that list the rules of composition such as the golden triangles and spirals, a rule of odds, balance, leading lines, patterns, color contrast, symmetry, filling the frame, framing, creating depth, and so on.

As a beginner, when reading such a long list of rules, it often feels like your head is about to explode. You do not know where or how to start. When you try to randomly use the rules of composition, it rarely works.

I want to bring a bit of structure to the process of learning composition by applying my favorite 20-80 rule here. The rule states that in any process there are 20% of forces or work that is responsible for 80% of the results. The goal of any learning process is to identify and tackle that 20% first.

First of all, I believe that landscapes are the best subjects to start learning photography composition. Why? Because you have more control over the elements of the scene compared to street photography, wildlife, or even family photography.

There are two ways of addressing composition:

  • The first way is when you frame the shot.
  • The second is when you crop the photo during the editing process.

I am sure you have heard many times before that “you have to get everything right in the camera.” I completely agree with this statement but, in reality, this goal is not always possible to achieve. For me, it is always a two-step process. I try to get the best-framed shot possible, but I always have the option to tweak or adjust it later in Lightroom.

Improving Composition in Lightroom
When I bring a photo to Lightroom, I always check if I can improve the composition.

When you start learning composition, it is very difficult to immediately get it right in the camera. You are overwhelmed by other aspects you have to address like exposure, focus and additional camera settings that distract you from addressing the overall composition.

Do not be afraid or embarrassed when this occurs. Try to get the composition right when you crop your photos during editing. I believe the best way to start learning the proper framing and composition is in Lightroom. You can take your time and experiment in the comfort of your own home. By trying different versions of the same photo, you can see what does and does not work. Then, you can apply this knowledge the next time you take photos.

Today, I am only going to list three concepts of composition that will drastically change your photography.

Rule #1 – Level Your Horizon

It seems like such a simple and obvious rule, but nothing ruins the composition of a landscape more than a crooked horizon. This is something that is imprinted in our brain and in our subconscious—that the horizon has to be horizontal. When we see a photo with a horizon line that is even slightly crooked, our brain simply refuses to accept it.

Rule #1 - Level Your Horizon

However, it is not always possible to get your horizon straight when you are shooting, but you can fix it later in Lightroom. Lightroom even has an AUTO function that adjusts the horizon for you. In 90% of cases, it does an amazing job. If it does not work, it only takes seconds to adjust it manually.

Composition in Photography - Using Lightroom

But, we all know that rules are meant to be broken. So, if you intentionally want to make the horizon crooked, make sure that it is obvious that it was done intentionally.

Rule #2 – Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is the fundamental concept of composition in photography. To use the Rule of Thirds, you mentally or visually divide the scene into nine equal parts and place the subject of your photo on one of the intersecting points or lines.

By using the Rule of Thirds you, as an artist, help a viewer to navigate the scene by giving visual cues of where to start and where to go from there. You help a viewer identify the most important parts of the scene.

Rule #2 - Rule of Thirds

For example, by placing the horizon on a top line of the Rule of Thirds Grid, you tell the viewer that, in this particular composition, the land is more important than the sky and it is where they should focus their attention.

The Rule of Thirds is the best way to start learning composition in photography. For me personally, I prefer to use a variation of the Rule of Thirds—the Golden Ratio Grid. Actually, the Rule of Thirds is the simplified version of the Golden Ratio, which has its origins in a concept of the Fibonacci Spiral. Since using the Fibonacci Spiral can be overwhelming, it is much easier to look at it as a Phi Grid or the Golden Ratio Grid.

The difference between the Rule of Thirds Grid and the Golden Ratio Grid is very subtle, but I find that the Golden Ratio Grid helps me create more effective compositions.

You can use either since the concept stays the same: align the most important objects of your scene along the lines and intersecting points of the grid and it will result in a more meaningful composition.

Now for some practical steps on how to use the grid.

Almost every camera on the market has an option to use visual guides, all you have to do is activate it. On Sony mirrorless cameras, it is called the Visual Grid and, by activating it, you will have the Rule of Thirds Grid overlaid on the camera’s LCD and EVF. I have it enabled at all times as it helps me with framing when I am shooting.

Rule of Thirds Grid overlay - Sony a6000

In Lightroom, you have many more Visual Grid options to help you improve the composition of your image when cropping the photo.

Rule #3 – Simplicity

This is the best way to start approaching composition—try to simplify it as much as possible. Identify the most important subject or part of the scene (the focal point) and try to isolate it by excluding the clutter around it so the viewer has no other choice but to concentrate all his attention on it.

The composition below is very simple, it has only three elements: the sky, the field and the lighthouse. To make it even simpler I erased unnecessary distractions in the form of electric poles and wires next to the lighthouse.

Prince Edward Island

Ideally, you want to use all three rules I listed above in the same composition. Make sure the horizon is straight, identify the main subject of your composition and align it along the grid, and make sure the scene is not cluttered with unimportant objects (see shot below).

If you learn and master the three rules of composition outlined here, you will be able to produce pleasing and meaningful compositions and will be ready to apply more complex artistic concepts to your photography.

Practical Steps for Learning Composition in Photography

Today, I’d like to share with you an unconventional way that you can accelerate your understanding of composition using Lightroom. Not only will you find that Lightroom can help build your knowledge of composition, you’ll discover it can also help you gain confidence in your photography.

Because of my work on PhotoTraces.com, I use multiple channels to publish my photographs starting with my blog. Once my images are posted on the website, I then publish them on popular social media sites such as Facebook, G+, Pinterest, and Instagram. I also create an additional version for print.

By now, you are probably wondering: “Does he realize that publishing sites like Facebook, Instagram, and even blogs have their own standard image sizing?” Yes! If my original photograph has a landscape orientation with an aspect ratio of 3 x 2, posting to Instagram requires a 1 x 1 square while Pinterest requires a vertical image. For print, I may decide I want a panoramic version or another size altogether.

While creating multiple versions of a photo to ensure consistent and meaningful composition does take time, the process is incredibly valuable to better master and understand the importance of composition in photography.

Real Life Scenario Exercise

During a trip to Hawaii’s O’ahu Island, I took this photo just after sunrise and knew, almost immediately that the scene had great potential as a feature on my blog and perhaps even in my portfolio.

Knowing that a regular landscape composition is 3 x 2, I purposefully took the shot wider in order to leave myself plenty of room and freedom to create a number of different versions for publishing across multiple channels. Because my Sony a6000 has a 24 Mpx sensor, I have more than enough pixels to trim and even aggressively crop my photographs during post-processing.

Once I was satisfied with how the image looked, I then focused on composition by setting the Crop Tool’s overlay options to Golden Ratio. While Thirds is the most popular option among photographers, I have personally found consistent success in creating more balanced compositions using the Golden Ratio.

Lightroom Crop - Setting Aspect Ratio Grid

To save time, you can even scroll through the various overlay options by hitting the “O” on your keyboard until you find the overlay you want to use.

After setting the overlay to Golden Ratio, I locked the aspect ratio at 2 x 3.

Setting Aspect Ration Crop

Then, I created my first version of the photograph by tightening the composition.

Version 1 – Aspect Ratio 3 x 2

Once satisfied, I used Lightroom’s Snapshot function to save the image using the name “3 x 2.”

Lightroom Crop - Snapshot View

Moving to the next version and so forth, I ultimately end up with six different snapshots in my Snapshot Panel.

Version 2 – Aspect Ratio 1 x 1 (Instagram)
Version 3 – Aspect Ratio 2 x 1
Version 4 – Aspect Ratio 4 x 3
Version 5 – Aspect Ratio 16 x 9
Version 5 – Aspect Ratio 3 x 4 (Pinterest)
Lightroom Crop

It’s important to note that you can use Lightroom’s Virtual Copy function as an alternative to Snapshot; however, I find that Snapshot keeps Lightroom much more organized, which is a key component in ensuring efficiency during post-processing.

With my snapshots finished, I reviewed each individual version to ensure the results were what I wanted. Then, I began publishing.

Conclusion

Although there are many articles and tutorials on mastering composition in photography, the best and only way to learn is through regular practice. Start by incorporating the exercise above into your regular routine by creating an Instagram version and a Pinterest version for each photo you edit.

Try to employ three concepts of composition we learned earlier: Straight HorizonRule of Thirds, and Simplicity. Once you get into the habit, I promise you’ll see a world of difference in your understanding and mastery of photography composition.

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