“Learning Composition in Photography” is part of my Photography Basics series on PhotoTraces. You can find the rest of the tutorials here: Photography Basics.
What is composition in photography? This question is often taken for granted by many newbie and amateur photographers because the focus is mostly on things like using the right camera, lighting and camera settings. Understanding the value of composition is important if you want to come up with visually appealing and thought provoking photos. As such, we’ve decided to focus on composition and how it is used in photography, why it is important, as well as how a photographer can come up with a beautifully composed photo.
Composition and Its Meanings
The word composition can mean a lot of things. In writing, it pertains to a short essay or a literary work. Composition can also refer to the structure of something. In music, a composition pertains to a musical piece created by an artist or composer. In art (as in photography), it pertains to the act of combining several elements in order to make a whole.
Composition comes from the word componere, a Latin term that means “putting together”. So, basically, all the above-mentioned meanings are correct. When you write a literary piece, you put together your ideas. A painting, no matter what medium was used, is composed of different ideas and elements.
Regardless of how it is used, composition is important if you want to come up with an interesting and inviting work of art.
Understanding the Meaning of Composition in Photography
While the word composition means different things in various genres, its basic meaning is still one that can be used in photography. For one, photography is actually like creating a painting; you put together several ideas by taking photos. In some aspects, it is similar to a literary masterpiece as each photo tells an interesting story.
In a more detailed context, though, composition in photography pertains to the putting together or the arranging of certain elements or parts in order to create a visual image. It is what photographers use to highlight a particular viewpoint or focus that an audience clearly sees.
For example, a photographer goes out to take photos. He decides to explore Yosemite, an enchantingly beautiful location surrounded by greens, wildlife, and waterfalls. Since his intention is to show the audience how breathtaking the place is, he arranges or puts together some scenes or elements through his camera’s lens or viewfinder. He can choose several viewpoints for his photos: one perspective can focus on the big, green trees, while another can highlight the refreshing flow of the river with the waterfall on the side, and yet another can choose to capture the mountains that look so alive.
He will need to consider things like lighting, focal length, angle and aperture to come up with a good composition. If he decides to take the photo from a distance, he will need to first experiment to decide which angle, focal length, lighting and aperture to use. If he decides to use a wide aperture, his image will have a blurred background. If he wants the whole environment to be in focused and his images sharper from edge to edge, his aperture should be closed. This way, the image will be more balanced.
This is what composition does. No matter how simple an image is, by putting together the right elements, the photo will become livelier (with that extra pop and oomph), interesting and generally visually appealing.
Why Should You Bother With Composition?
As previously stated, composition can help photographers convey their message or central focus better. It helps the audience grasp the whole meaning of the image. In this manner, composition could become a personal statement of a photographer.
But do you think this is the only reason why good composition is essential in photography? The answer is NO.
Basically, when you photograph something, you want it to be as beautiful as it can be. This, however, is not the main reason why you should incorporate good composition into your photography practice.
Good composition is essential because it is what will help you to emphasize the effect that you want your audiences to feel.
For the photographer taking photos of Yosemite, he will choose to use elements that will make the audience feel as if they are also embraced by the refreshing effects of nature. To show the truth in his photos, he will not do anything that can change the colors of his subjects. The trees should be as green as they really are. The waterfalls should be rushing down. He should capture the wind blowing through the flowers and trees, or the sun gently touching the mountaintops. Even if he does not have a human subject, he should be able to display emotions in his images. Emotions can make or break a good composition.
How to Learn 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
With this image, I started with my Landscape Collection and applied on of my favorite presets from Landscape Collection, End of Summer.
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.
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 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.