The Truth About Composition

This post took me much longer to write then I expected. The biggest reason, is that I had a difficult time narrowing the scope of the article while still communicating the nuances of composition. Take that as a testament to how complex this topic really is.

At its most basic, composition is simply the arrangement of elements in an image. It may have a simple definition, but it is by no means a simple subject. Artist, critics, and scholars have argued about what constitutes a "good" composition for centuries. 

A successful composition not only communicates the artists intention, but it also draws the viewer in and encourages them to spend time exploring the image. In this post I will cover a few common misconceptions everyone (including myself) has made, and then I will share 5 basic elements I have found to make up all compositions. 

I won't claim that this post will give you all the knowledge you need to make a perfect composition, but it will hopefully give you a better understanding of how to craft an exceptional image.

 

Common Misconceptions

More Is Better

When faced withal spectacular vista, our first instinct is to try to capture it in all it’s glory. This rarely works how we hoped, because when there is so much going on in an image, your subject can easily get lost. With out anything to hold your audiences attention, they will move on.

To avoid this, be sure to include a focal point as this is what immediately draws your viewers in. It’s often a part of the subject, or an interesting detail of the landscape.

 


Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Little things like a stray branch or an awkwardly cropped lamp post don’t seem like a big deal, but they can make all the difference in your photo. These details can distract from an otherwise good composition, and pull the eye away from your intended subject. 

While composing, be sure to pay attention to the edges of the frame. If there is a disruptive element, try to recompose while excluding that object. You won't always be able to crop these eyesores out: in these cases do your best to make sure the object complements, or at the very least doesn't detract from, your over all image.

 

For A Good Photo, Just Follow the Rules

There are a handful of rules that are frequently suggested to beginner photographers to help them create more interesting images. These are all well and good, and they even have their place in a professionals repertoire (they are "rules" for a reason), but it is important to not be limited by them. Using and reusing the same compositions over and over will make your images all the same.

Instead of relying on a bag of tricks, it is good practice to always try something new. It may not work out, but the more you try, the more unique and exciting compositions you'll discover. Each situation has multiple compositions that can work, you just have to discover the one that best matches your vision.

 

Basics of composition

Balance

Balance is the actual placement of elements and distribution of visual weight in an image. This component of composition is what gave rise to a number of the "rules" that are frequently shared, including the rule of thirds and the golden spiral. Each element you include in your image will have a different visual weight, depending on it's size and color. 

You can use this to your advantage to create mood and atmosphere in your image. Using a symmetrical arrangement can create a sense of tranquility and peace, while having the majority of visual weight on one side can be used to create tension and anticipation in the image. 

Hover over each image for more

 


Space

Space is closely related to balance, in that it is affected by the placement of each object in your composition. There are two main types of space, negative and positive. Negative space is the area around your subject, while positive space is the area within it. 

Ultimately, the end result will depend on numerous variables, such as balance and lighting, but by altering the ratio of positive to negative space it is possible to change the feel of your photograph. Leaving more space around your subject can give a sense of loneliness or solitude, while cropping close and leaving less space can create either an intimate scene or one of claustrophobia.

Hover over each image for more

 

Line and Shape

This element is fairly self explanatory; it is how the various lines in your image interact with the rest of your composition. Our eyes are naturally drawn along lines in an image, and as photographers we can take advantage of this. With conscious placement of the lines in your frame you can pull the viewers eye towards the subject, encourage their gaze to move around the entire image, and create a sense of motion or stillness. lines don't even have to be straight, in fact curved lines can be much more interesting.

Hover over each image for more

 

Depth

The depth of an image has to do with the separation of each "field": the foreground, mid-ground, and background. This element of composition is determined by perspective, therefore it's closely linked with the focal length of your lens, and how far you are from your subject. I will talk more about the effect of focal length in a future post, but for know suffice to say that shorter focal lengths (wide-angle) expand the depth of an image, while longer focal lengths (telephoto) can compress it. An image with more depth can be very dramatic, but this isn't always better.

Hover over each image for more

 

Complexity

The Final element I will discuss is the complexity of your image. This is a bit of an odd one, because composing using either extreme of this component is very difficult. if done incorrectly, attempting to minimize the elements to only the bare necessities can lead to boring and empty images, while overly complex photographs that lack structure are overwhelming. 

Most photographs can find a happy medium between these two ends, but when done well the extremes of this element can lead to very interesting and unique photographs.

Hover over each image for more

 


How to Build a composition

These are only a sampling of some of the concepts that can be considered when creating a composition. The point I hope to get across with this post, is that a composition is a balancing act of all numerous parts. Each element is like a spectrum, and when mixed you can create innumerable amazing photographs. 

When you are out photographing, and you've found your subject and you have a vision of what you want your final image to communicate, consider how you can use each of these elements to create your photograph. Simplifying the composition with little negative space may create a more impactful image, or moving around so the path you're on creates a leading line that draws the eye in could make your image that much closer to what you envision.

 


Conclusion

Composition is a complicated topic. I barely had enough space to cover the basics in this 1,268 word article, and honestly I am just scratching the surface. I hope that at the very least you have begun to understand how even slight changes in your photograph can lead to dramatic differences.

It can be hard to describe composition because as artists we frequently rely on our instinct, but by giving thought to how your choices affect your photograph, you will be able to go beyond most photographers. And don't forget: the best way to learn is to get out and experiment!

 

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