What is Composition in Photography?

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 the 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.

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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 - Cityscape Composition

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 - Landscape Composition

How do I master composition in photography?

As I wrote above, mastering composition to the point when you can make a creative decision in an instant may take a lifetime.

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 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 you 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.

Rule of third composition

What are the most important aspects of composition?

To me, there are two things you need to do to create a meaningful composition.

01. Focal Point

First, identify the most significant object in the scene. Maybe it’s a blossoming tree. Or a beautiful flower. Or a person in the street, wearing a huge bright-colored hat.

02. Simplification

And then make it easy for the viewer to notice it. Get closer. Zoom in. Or make sure there are no bright colors or big shapes in the foreground or background that would divert the attention of the viewer.

There are many ways you can play with composition but simplification is the most efficient one

Just get rid of anything that doesn’t add value to your photograph.

Can’t you really teach me composition?

As I said, composition is something that cannot be easily taught. But you learn it by practice. Just explore the portfolios of artists in your field, pick up the photos that you like the most and find out why you like them. Then shoot, shoot, shoot. And finally, show your work and ask for feedback. Before you know it, finding the right composition will turn into your second nature.

I cannot teach you how to see but I can help you learn what to look for.

Is there anything you’d like to ask me about composition in photography? Feel free to post your questions or comments below.

  • The photo of the standing tree is well composed but the photo with the horizontal tree trunk in the foreground is pooly composed because the horizontal tree trunk blocks the beautiful landscape.

    • Viktor Elizarov says:

      the logic behind this composition is it was middle of the day with no clouds in the sky and I was desperately looking for a point of interest. The horizontal tree became that focal point.

    • Actually, the tree trunk in the foreground adds to the composition. An otherwise “just like every other photo” becomes interesting with a point of interest with contrasting texture. Don’t get stuck composing average run-of-the-mill pictures… experiment and produce photographs.

  • You always do a excellent read thank you so much. I always read your story telling and helpful hints. Hat being said keep up the great work Would love to send you some of my photos and maybe you can tell what I need to definitely I’m a rookie I think but people always tell me I have a great eye but I really need a professional to tell me if that makes any sense. Thank you

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