Composition of Photography

1) General Definition of the Term

The term “composition” applies not only to visual arts, but to music, dance, literature and virtually any other kind of art. In certain contexts, such as writing, this term may not be as widely used, but is just as valid nonetheless. In general, the term “composition” has two distinctive, yet related meanings.

First and foremost, “composition” describes placement of relative objects and elements in a work of art. Consequently, composition is a key aspect of a good work of art. There is hardly a way to overemphasize the importance of composition. Any aspiring artist ought to give composition of his work a lot of attention. A good composition is one that has just enough detail. Too few elements is bad because it robs the work of art of necessary detail that makes correct interpretation possible. It also ruins the balance of an image. And too many elements can be very distracting as well. Good composition requires good balance. It is best to make sure all the elements present are necessary for the idea or story you are trying to pass on.

2) What is Composition in Photography?

Now that we know the general definition of the term “composition”, it is not too hard to figure out its meaning in photography. Simply put, composing an image means arranging elements within it in a way that suits the core idea or goal of your work best. Arranging elements can be done by actually moving the objects or subjects. A good example for this case is portrait or still life photography. Street photography involves anticipation, since the photographer doesn’t usually have the choice of moving his subjects himself, but has to wait for them to take the most suitable position within the frame. Another way of arranging elements is by changing your own position. Such a way is appropriate in circumstances that do not allow the photographer to physically move anything, like landscape photography.

Composition is a way of guiding the viewer’s eye towards the most important elements of your work, sometimes – in a very specific order. A good composition can help make a masterpiece even out of the dullest objects and subjects in the plainest of environments. On the other hand, a bad composition can ruin a photograph completely, despite how interesting the subject may be. A poorly judged composition is also not something you can usually fix in post-processing, unlike simple and common exposure or white balance errors. Cropping can sometimes save an image, but only when tighter framing and removal of certain portions of the image is the correct solution. That is why giving your choice of composition plenty of thought before capturing an image is a step of utmost importance.

Street Photography in Vilnius

Focal length, aperture, angle at which you choose to position your camera relative to your subject also greatly affects composition. For example, choosing a wider aperture will blur the background and foreground, effectively lessening the importance of objects placed in there. It will also more often than not result in more noticeable corner shading (vignetting), which will help keep viewer’s eye inside the frame for longer. On the other hand, closing down the aperture will bring more objects into focus which, in turn, may result in better image balance. How so? Well, “sharper”, more in-focus objects may attract more attention than a blurry shape, but not always (see image sample below). An experienced photographer will use all the available means to achieve the desired result. It is worth noting that de-focusing objects in the foreground or background does not negate their contribution to overall composition of the image. Simple shapes, tones, shadows, highlights, colors are all strong elements of composition.

Take a look at the below image. Despite the fact that part of a wall showing in the foreground is completely out of focus, it is the most vivid part of the photograph as well as being quite bright. For this reason, it attracts our attention much more than the main subject (man with the tea cup and his Siberian Husky hiding in shadows). The bright yellow rectangle is the first thing you see when you glance at the photograph. A good and obvious way to fix this would be to reduce the vividness and luminance of yellow using Lightroom’s HSL panel (although I actually like the contrast between the two parts of the photograph):

Street Photography in Vilnius_1

 

Composing an image eventually becomes a very natural process. With enough practice – mind you, there can never be too much of such a thing – you will not even have to think about the placement of those elements. Your subconscious will do it for you. Your fingers will dial correct settings, your eye will guide the framing. Poor composition will instantly appear unnatural and just plain wrong to you. The more experience you have, the better choices you will make. Best way to grow as a photographer is not to rush your decisions and not trust your subconscious unquestionably, but to learn new ways of composing your image. Not that you shouldn’t trust your guts – you should, of course. But make sure to also give it some thought, experiment, take a few shots and analyze them during post-processing. See what works best, try to understand why and then experiment some more.

3) The Goal of Composition

One may assume that a good composition is one that is most pleasing to the eye. Consequently, the goal of good composition ought to be showing your subject or object in a flattering, aesthetically pleasing manner. But such opinion is a little superficial. Not every work of art is supposed to be pleasing or beautiful to the viewer. Some artists try to express different, stronger ideas and their subject, as well as composition choices help achieve that. For example, if an artist wants the viewer to feel uncomfortable or nervous, he will choose a composition that is least “natural” and come up with something unexpected and shocking. A good example of such work is war photography, where photographers often try to help the viewer feel how terrifying and destructive war is. On the other hand, an artist may portray war victims in a very flattering and disturbingly beautiful way. By doing so, he would emphasize war’s ugly nature in a grotesque and sarcastic manner. So, in the end, the goal of a good composition is to help express the idea of the artist by necessary means.

Rule of Thirds

Rule of Thirds Definition

In the rule of thirds, photos are divided into thirds with two imaginary lines vertically and two lines horizontally making three columns, three rows, and nine sections in the images. Important compositional elements and leading lines are placed on or near the imaginary lines and where the lines intersect.

When taking a photograph with the rule of thirds in mind, it’s always best to compose the photograph in the camera. This is so that you can avoid cropping later to retain as much of the image as possible and avoid reducing the quality of your photographs. However, I encourage going back to some of your older photography and seeing if you can improve them by cropping in a way to make them use the rule of thirds technique.

Rule of Thirds Grid

Rule of Thirds Grid

Rule of Thirds Examples

Rule of Thirds Example: Landscapes

When taking a picture of a landscape, it’s natural to want to center the horizon in the frame. However, pictures often look better if the horizon falls on the upper or lower horizontal dividing line. If the focus of your image is on land (i.e. mountains, buildings), the horizon should fall near the upper third and if the focus is the sky (i.e. sunsets, sunrises), the horizon should fall near the lower third.

Here is an example of the rule of thirds for a landscape photo. The focus is on the land area rather than the sky so the bottom two-thirds of the photograph are filled with land and the top third is sky.

Rule of Thirds

Rule of Thirds Example: Portraits

Here is an example of a rule of thirds portrait. As you can see, the eyes are lined up with the upper horizontal line and each eye is where the upper horizontal line intersects with a vertical line.

Rule of Thirds

 

Leading Lines

Lines are capable of leading the viewer’s eye through the frame in different directions, usually either towards or away from a point of interest. Here’s our guide to photographing with leading lines.

Leading-Lines

Leading Lines

Lines are capable of leading the viewer’s eye through the frame in different directions, usually either towards or away from a point of interest. Here’s our guide to photographing with leading lines.

Leading lines is one method that depends upon utilising scenic surroundings in a format to literally lead the eye following a subject through the image. It can be an addition that takes an image to that meaningful next level.

Lines are capable of leading the viewer’s eye through the frame in different directions, usually either towards or away from a point of interest. When you open a novel, for example, your eye has been trained to read from left to right from top to bottom. Imagery is different as the eye will grab at certain contrasting areas, yet still follow and ‘read through’ the image.

Composition of leading lines should consider viewpoint as this may provide a ‘look down’ onto natural lines such as pathways that wouldn’t be seen from ground eye level. Arranging natural lines also requires consideration of where you wish to place emphasis in the frame, as a line can lead to a key subject. Multiple lines can provide a more complex effect that leads the eye back and forth, though complex compositions can become unpleasant to look at. Leading lines often lead from the bottom of an image, leading into the centre or key thirds.

Splitting a composition with leading lines can also have an unusual yet appealing effect. By dissecting one area from another, a line can have a significant impact. Central lines can act as divisions or pointers from one area of an image to another too.

Leading Lines – Examples

Patterns

Leading lines don’t strictly have to be single, defined lines. Shooting at the right angle on a pattern, for example, can create real drama in an image and draw the eye through the frame.

Leading-Lines-Fence

Placement

Don’t always concentrate on placing the leading lines in the conventional position. Introduce the line from off-centre, and have it exit the frame at a differing position.

Emphasis

With a low angle and close-up to a leading line, you can add real impact to a shot. While leading lines are a great tool to draw the eye through a frame, they can themselves be the focus of a shot.

 

Leading-Lines-Lights

Multiple

Don’t always concentrate on just a single leading line in a shot. Introducing more than one can create a real dynamism, though don’t overcomplicate things.

Shape

Remember, leading lines don’t have to be straight. A meandering stream or winding road creates a sense of harmony within the shot.

Leading-Lines-Path

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