Composition in Photography is the most valuable skill we can acquire. And one that I touched on in my previous article How to Develop a Photographic Eye and in more detail in How to Take Better Photographs using a Shared Visual Language. But the question of how to approach composition is often misunderstood. In forums and even in camera club competitions I have seen and heard a lot of people urging the placement of elements to rigidly adhere to some rule or another. While compositional rules are a useful addition to the armoury, they are not intended to be binding, and the much overused maxim “You have to understand the rules so that you can break them” is simply bollocks (to use the technical term).
In this article, I will attempt to demystify what can come across as turgid and unbending rules and free up some space for the photographer!
For context there is an excellent article explaining the rules of composition as they apply to painting, at Golden Rules of Composition in Art. Painters of course, have rather more freedom of placement than landscape photographers but don’t let that put you off, there’s a lot of wisdom to be found on the subject of composition by studying the classic artists.
Table of Contents
Composition is Subjective
The first thing to say is that composition is massively subjective. The only real measure of a photograph’s success is whether it affects the viewer. Or, to put it another way, if the subject is boring, no amount of compositional excellence will make it interesting except academically to other photographers. Approaching composition is not done by slavishly following rules!
For a few paragraphs, let’s ignore the rules, Rule of Thirds, the Golden Ratio, Leading lines etc and take this back to first principles.
Placing the Subject
As a newbie photographer, the first instinct is to place the subject squarely in the middle of the frame. And for some photographs, this will work, but for many more, it’s not enough. Photographs with the subject in the centre tend to be photographs of things/people rather than about things/people. This is why they can so often be found in product catalogues where there is no need to tell a story. But without identifying supporting elements, that is, things that will enhance or say more about the subject, there is nowhere else to go but the centre.
This photograph features a sea stack in the distance that has been hideously over photographed on the Black Beach in Iceland. I wanted to create something different and so I went out in sub zero temperatures at dawn to capture the image in context. I got lucky with the sunrise which balances out the cliffs and adds some reflected light at the front for foreground interest. I also felt myself fortunate in that I was oblivious to the dangers of the location. A photographer staying at the same hotel, came down about an hour later, slipped and broke his hip a couple of yards onto the beach.
Finding Supporting Elements
So the first thing to do when searching for a composition, whether landscape or still life, is to look for elements that actively support the subject. Nothing more than that. These elements can support the subject in many ways, for example, by showing the context of the subject, framing or pointing at it. I would recommend taking multiple shots with different points of view and comparing them carefully and objectively when you come to process them.
Approaching composition in this way frees you up to cherry-pick the most appropriate ‘rules’. Because the rules are just elements, to be picked up, examined and possibly discarded in favour of a better idea.
The second thing to do is to ask yourself the questions “Is my frame getting too crowded?” and “Is there anything in the frame that does not contribute to the subject?” Experiment with different compositions.
This is extraordinarily important in product and editorial photography where distraction is anathema. You absolutely need to leave the viewer in no doubt as to what they are buying!
A word of warning. Be aware of “my ugly baby” syndrome. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been delighted with an image only to find it falls apart under close inspection!
Layers are a compelling way of adding interest to a photograph. Landscape, Editorial or even abstract, layers really help the viewer to see what is important in the image. In Landscape Photography these layers are typically foreground, midground and background.
There is a trend now towards placing a person in the midground of landscape photographs, and what a difference it can make to some images! A person immediately fixes the scale of the landscape, and in the case of astrophotography helps to convey the sense of awe that comes with viewing the milky way or the northern lights for the first time.
Best practice in creating a coherent composition is to keep the elements separate insofar as that is possible. What this means in practice is to wait for moving objects to be optimally placed. We’re all familiar with the unfortunate juxtapositions of head and lampshade that are ridiculed in portrait photography, but waiting for that car to reach a better position or that person to enter a patch of light instead of shuffling along in the shadows can make the difference between a boring composition and a great one.
Try to keep important elements away from the edges of the frame. It tends to draw the eye away from the image and out of the frame. For similar reasons, if you have a moving object, try to position it so that it has more of its journey to complete as it moves across the frame. This encourages more speculation about the car/person/animal than if they are about to leave the frame. “What happens next” is usually more interesting than what happened before the picture was taken.
Unusual shots of geometric designs are often interesting. The juxtaposition of the workmans. legs dangling into the precision landscape of the Waterloo Bridge in London is a case in point, but shapes do not need to be as exact as these machine tooled arches.
Take the picture at the top of the article –
There are three triangles at work in this image, with a fourth roughly outlined by the sunlit area in the middle ground. This gives the picture energy that is enhanced by the contrast and colour of the sky against the almond blossoms. I’d like to get rid of the distracting safety barrier at bottom right as it adds nothing to the frame but cropping would impinge on the point of one of the triangles. A job for careful cloning or the new AI tooling in Photoshop.
You can improve your composition radically in post processing. and not just by cropping.
Use cropping to improve the composition, you might set a leading line to come from a corner of the frame or position your horizon along one of the horizontal lines found in the Rule of Thirds grid that can be overlaid on the image in both Lightroom and PhotoLab.
When cropping make sure you increase the interest in the picture. There is a concept in Landscape Photography of balancing the weight of elements in the picture by which I mean that a strong element on the left should be balanced by an equally strong element on the right.
The use of Colour in an image can be radically changed in post-processing, just take the orange and teal look for proof of how much. We evaluate colour by hue, luminance and saturation. Colour can accentuate shapes and textures or highlight an element, such as smoke or water.
Colour can also be used to accentuate depth in an image. Think in realistic terms; in any landscape, the contrast tends to fall off as you look into the distance, so high contrast in the distance is not only anti-natural, it has the effect of flattening the image or reducing the depth.
I would encourage anyone to step away from the global controls and head for the selection tools to explore the power of colour. While the global tools can make a dramatic difference to an image, too often, we don’t notice that difference is applied to the entire picture, not just the element you want to affect.
The brush is your friend when it comes to contrast manipulation, as are luminance masks in Photoshop. Experiment with the HSL tools to mute or accentuate colours within a small selection or more widely. they work in the same way in most photo editing applications.
How to Approach Composition – Conclusion
The central idea of this piece was to move away from a ‘rules first’ approach towards a more free-flowing, dare I say filmic approach that is centred around the placement of objects, optionally using the rules as guides towards compositions that will be more compelling to the viewer.
In the case of Landscape Photography this can require a lot of time and legwork as the components of the photograph are generally fixed but it really does pay dividends. For still life, you are completely in charge so build up your elements and don’t forget your lighting, slowly and carefully. Street photography is more than just reacting to the moment, I favour the approach that makes the moment come to me – picking a frame and waiting but that’s only my preference – check out my article Successful Street Photography for Introverts!
Let me know if this article is helpful in the comments below; what is your experience? Are you ” ‘rules led’ or more of an anarchist?