Better Photography: Composition in Photography – Introduction


Learn Composition in Photography – More than any new camera purchase, learning to compose interesting and compelling photographs is a far better way to improve your photography.

Composition isn’t a set of rules, requirements or standards, composition is the arrangement of the elements in the picture to a pleasing result, and although any “rules” are made to be broken, you need to know what makes a picture visually pleasing before you can experiment with new ideas.

The basic composition ideas are based on thousands of years of art history going back to the Greeks.  Simply these composition ideas work with the human brain to convey information.

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  • In the visual arts, composition is the placement or arrangement of visual elements or ingredients in a work of art, as distinct from the subject.
  • It can also be thought of as the organization of the elements of art according to the principles of art.
  • The composition of a picture is different from its subject, which what is shown, whether a moment from a story, a person or a place.
  • The term composition means ‘putting together’ and can apply to any work of art, from music to writing to photography, that is arranged using conscious thought.

The basic composition ideas of balance, framing and the rule of thirds are the foundations of good composition that have been around since formal art was being created.  I’ve updated this 1950s college film in the public domain with some of my photographs to give you an overview of these basic composition concepts.

Balance – A balanced composition feels right. It feels stable and aesthetically pleasing. While some of its elements might be focal points and attract your eye, no one area of the composition draws your eye so much that you can’t see the other areas.  Balance can be symmetrical or by visual weight.  The train below is symmetrical, even on both sides.  The fishing pier is balanced by the visual weight of the foreground pier and the background building.

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Framing – Horizontal and vertical framing as appropriate as well as framing with elements in the environment.  Do you ever get the idea that some photographers don’t understand that their camera also works sideways?  Using architectural elements such as shown in the photographs below can also be used as framing devices.

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Rule of thirds – The ancient Greeks figured out that a composition can be divided into thirds, vertically or horizontally and the most pleasing places to place the subject is off center and specifically in the golden spots where the lines cross.

Rule of thirds
Example of the rule of thirds in a photo composition.

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In future blog posts, I’ll examine various composition techniques in further detail.