Today, I will attempt to define composition in photography and the most effective way to learn and master it.
Have you ever wondered what transforms a photograph into a work of art? There are different aspects of a photograph, but unarguably, the composition allows the photographer to make a statement with his image.
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.
Composition is a term that is used in all genres of art. It involves the organization of the elements in a work of 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 to express his idea in the best way possible.
What is Composition in Photography?
Composition in photography can be defined as positioning and arranging 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 immobile objects or slowly moving (such as clouds or the sun).
On the other hand, in street photography or photojournalism, 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.
Composition 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.
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.
As 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, after tackling it for some 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.
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 be 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 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 criticism – you need it in order to improve your technique.
Composition and Landscape Photography
Many rules and guidelines of composition can help you accelerate and make more sense of the whole process.
You have probably come across various 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, reading such a long list of rules 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, 20% of forces or work 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.
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. You can see what does and does not work by trying different versions of the same photo. 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.
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.
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.
Using the Rule of Thirds, you, as an artist, help a viewer 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.
For example, by placing the horizon on the 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. Personally, I prefer to use a variation of the Rule of Thirds—the Golden Ratio Grid. The Rule of Thirds is the simplified version of the Golden Ratio, which originates in the 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, resulting 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.
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 simplify it, I erased unnecessary distractions like electric poles and wires next to the lighthouse.
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, align it along the grid, and ensure 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, but 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 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 plus a smaller 4×6 photo.
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.
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.
Then, I created my first version of the photograph by tightening the composition.
Once satisfied, I used Lightroom’s Snapshot function to save the image using the name “3 x 2.”
Moving to the next version and so forth, I ultimately end up with six different snapshots in my Snapshot Panel.
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.
Composition in Photography | Conclusion
Although there are many articles and tutorials on mastering composition in photography, regular practice is the best and only way to learn. 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 Horizon, Rule 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.