Photography / Tips and Solutions

11 Thoughts: An Introduction to Photographic Composition

         

Composition noun com·po·si·tion \ˌkäm-pə-ˈzi-shən\ : the way in which something is put together or arranged : the combination of parts or elements that make up something

Welcome to the wonderful world of photographic composition! In its most general terms, photographic composition is the art of composing an image through framing. And there exists the problem. How is it that one thing that almost everyone agrees is critical to the success of a photograph is completely subjective—an art unto itself—and is sculpted by rules that everyone agrees should and can be broken regularly, with great success?

There is no way I can answer that question, but instead of giving you the same old, predictable introduction to composition as others, permit me to share some meandering thoughts about the subject.

1. The Non-Blank Canvas

Other visual arts start with a blank “canvas”… in photography, the canvas is preëxisting; it is our job to frame and eliminate elements. The other visual arts (painting, drawing, graphic design, and sculpture), the performing arts (dance, acting, music), and the written arts (prose and poetry), all allow artists to start, more or less, with a blank slate or canvas. There are no notes on the sheet music, there are no marks on the stretched canvas, and there are no words on the page. The artist adds them deliberately and methodically.

In photography, the only time you start with a blank canvas is in the studio, where you can control what is in the frame, the lighting, and the subject matter itself. Otherwise, outside the studio, the “canvas” has already been created. It is what is in front of you. It is the photographer’s job to choose what is eliminated from the canvas or added to it.

2. Positioning

How do you change what is already in front of you? Well, sometimes you can literally move something in a scene, but that is not always an option. So, you are left with two other possibilities: adjusting your composition through framing or by moving yourself or your gear. If you have a zoom lens, you can zoom in to isolate a portion of a scene, or zoom out to add to the scene. If you have a fixed focal-length lens, you will need to move your body to another position (if it’s feasible and safe to do so) to reconfigure the image.


Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp
 

3. Natural Abilities

To me, compositional ability is a lot like natural athletic ability. The rules of a game or sport can be taught, but, at some level, the person has to have the physical ability and intangible talent to perform that sport. However, proficiency can be gained by experience, training, and practice and skills can often be improved. Very few athletes enter a sport at the top of their game. They start with a unique ability and then develop it through study, training, and experience. This is the age-old “nature versus nurture” debate and it can easily be applied to the arts, as well. In photography, there are those with an “eye for composition” and there are those who do not have that “eye.”

Sometimes, your subconscious sees an image in the viewfinder that looks pleasing to your brain. You release the shutter and the camera captures an image. Looking at it later, you can see that the composition worked well and your brain registered it unconsciously. If this happens to you, congratulations! You have a gift! You have the “eye.” (Or, you just got lucky!)

Many will be jealous of your gift. But do not rest on your natural abilities. I encourage you to study the art because the knowledge and ongoing study of composition can help you to better understand your unique vision. This knowledge can be used to refine your natural-born skills and help drive you toward even better images.

If you do not have that “eye,” there is still hope. Do not give up! Much of this can be learned. Consciousness of good composition can be applied to your images even if you struggle to see it unconsciously. In the interest of being brutally honest, just as there are those who cannot catch a fly ball in the outfield no matter how many times they try, art is, at times, elusive to some photographers. But, here is the magical thing about art: if you love the art you create, no one should be able to take that away from you—no matter how you frame it.

4. Forcing a Photograph

Revisiting the analogy of our intrepid outfielder, applying intensive study of something may have undesirable effects. If the outfielder tries to calculate the speed of the pitch, the speed of the bat swing, the shock absorption of the ball and bat based on temperature and relative humidity, the angles involved, the gravitational acceleration of the planet, the friction coefficient of the ball in flight, and the acceleration and deceleration of the ball along a prescribed arc, chances are he or she will not be in position to make a catch. The outfielder’s brain does these calculations instantaneously, without mathematics and the glove and ball magically intersect.

In photography, seeing and capturing a well-composed photograph can happen without conscious thought or mathematics. Additionally, sometimes over-thinking composition can be your worst enemy. Your eye and brain might already know successful composition. Your job is to get the image in the camera to match what you see. Over-analysis of the scene may easily preclude the photographer from choosing a good composition for the image. Sometimes the knowledge in your brain might overrule what the eye sees and likes. This is the battle between the mind and the mind’s eye. You cannot force good composition to happen, you can only create it.

As a photographer, you will find that there are scenarios where your mind’s eye sees something it thinks you should photograph, but no matter how hard you try (brain on or brain off), you cannot make that scene into a good photograph through composition. When I am faced with this scenario, I either take a photo to prove that I was there, or try to remember what I wanted to capture, walk away, and then bemoan the fact for the rest of my life that I couldn’t capture it.

Not every fly ball can be caught, no matter how good you are.

5. Composition and Meaning

Composition can also be intangible. Sometimes a composition works, but you cannot explain why it works. The mind just likes what it sees in the overall framing of an image. On the contrary, there are times where you can point to a successful composition and know exactly why it works. Conversely, if you ever find yourself standing next to someone and, while looking at one of your photographs you say, “This is what the photograph is about and this is why the photograph has great composition,” you’ve likely lost the battle to achieve good composition and create an image that works for your audience.

6. Focus on the Subject

Composition should help identify, emphasize, complement, isolate, or highlight the subject—not detract from it. The subject is likely the reason you captured a particular image, so if the composition works to bring the viewer’s attention to other parts of the frame, then you have successfully distracted the viewer from the primary purpose of the photograph. When it comes to how you frame the image around your subject, you will want the composition to work, sometimes covertly, to ensure that the audience knows what the subject is, and what the purpose of the photograph is.

 

7. The Eye’s Journey

Composition is: arranging, creating, seeing, framing, and cropping. It must guide the viewer. The eye of the viewer will make its way through the frame of the photograph. The path is not always predicable, but how you arrange objects in the photograph, or how you frame the scene, can serve as a guide for the eye’s (hopefully) pleasing journey through your image—a journey that allows the viewer to understand the meaning of your photograph.

8. Elemental Concerns

Elements of composition are: patterns, texture, symmetry, asymmetry, depth of field, lines, curves, frames, contrast, color, viewpoint, depth, negative space, filled space, foreground, background, visual tension, shapes. Use one or more of these elements to create a composition that works for your image. Of course, not all will be available at all times, but study them, recognize them, and employ them to help enrich your images.

9. You Create Composition

I feel that there are three basic ingredients to a good photographer: knowledge of camera, an eye for composition, and artistic vision.

Today’s cameras have such amazing technology that they can do everything but make a great photograph for you. That “but” refers to composition. Composition is the aspect of the medium that is 100% dependent on your efforts as the photographer. It is the one part of photography that the camera cannot do on its own. Therefore, good composition is not something that can be achieved by expensive photography gear alone. Along the same lines, you may have the most astute eye on the planet, but, without the aptitude to effectively use your camera, you may lack the ability to make the photograph that you perceive in your mind’s eye. Photography is a technically based art form. Even the world’s best composition can be ruined because the image is out of focus, badly over- or underexposed, or the victim of some poorly chosen camera settings!

And, on the flip side of that coin, a photographer can make a technically perfect image with a composition that is sorely lacking.

10. Rules. If You Must.

I made it this far into a discussion about composition without using the word “rules.” But, no discussion of composition is complete without, at least, an acknowledgement of the “Rules of Composition.” So, fair warning, before you dig into the content following this introduction to the B&H Photo Composition Series, know that, when it comes to composition, there is no right or wrong. There are no hard-and-fast rules. For every rule, there are countless images that break the rule. Success in composition is defined by whether the composition complements, instead of detracts from, a given image regardless of whether you follow, skirt, ignore, or break the rules. You should know that you could follow the rules of composition to a T and still create a photograph that is lacking. It takes more than good composition to make a remarkable image.

11. The Scale Tipper

Regardless of the subject matter, composition can make or break an image.

Postscript

I will leave you with a few thoughts on composition from some of the world’s greatest artists, photographers, writers, and me.

“The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.” —Émile Zola

“Now to consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk. Such rules and laws are deduced from the accomplished fact; they are the products of reflection.”—Edward Weston

“Rules are foolish, arbitrary, mindless things that raise you quickly to a level of acceptable mediocrity, then prevent you from progressing further.” —Bruce Barnbaum, from the book, The Art of Photography

“There are no rules for good photographs, only good photographs.” —Ansel Adams

“Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.” —Henri Carter-Bresson

“Photography has no rules, it is not a sport. It is the result which counts, no matter how it is achieved.” —Bill Brandt

“When subject matter is forced to fit into preconceived patterns, there can be no freshness of vision. Following rules of composition can only lead to a tedious repetition of pictorial clichés.” —Edward Weston

 “A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” —Ansel Adams

“This recognition, in real life, of a rhythm of surfaces, lines, and values is for me the essence of photography; composition should be a constant of preoccupation, being a simultaneous coalition—an organic coordination of visual elements.” —Henri Cartier-Bresson

“Photography is all about light, composition and, most importantly, emotion.” —Larry Wilder

“In a photograph, composition is the result of a simultaneous coalition, the organic coordination of elements seen by the eye.”—Henri Cartier-Bresson

“He photographs what he loves because he loves it, what he hates out of protest; the indifferent he can pass over or photograph with whatever craftsmanship of technique and composition he commands.” —Minor White

“There is no better time to crop a bad composition than just before you press the shutter release.” —Bryan Peterson, from the book, Learning to See Creatively: Design, Color & Composition in Photography

“The photographer has almost as much control over his subject matter as a painter. He can control light and shade, form and space, pattern and texture, motion and mood, everything except composition.” —Andreas Feininger

“Rules of composition are deduced from the work of strong masters and used by weak imitators to produce… nothing.” —Edward Weston

"My theory of composition? Simple: do not release the shutter until everything in the viewfinder feels just right." —Ernst Haas

"I don't know what good composition is... Sometimes for me composition has to do with a certain brightness or a certain coming to restness and other times it has to do with funny mistakes. There's a kind of rightness and wrongness and sometimes I like rightness and sometimes I like wrongness." —Diane Arbus

"Look at the photographs, look at them carefully. Let the composition and the subject matter determine the aspect ratio. That's the ultimate authority. Not the camera manufacturer. Not the film manufacturer." —Brooks Jensen

"Composition is the strongest way of seeing." —Edward Weston

"Our eye must constantly measure, evaluate. We alter our perspective by a slight bending of the knees; we convey the chance meeting of lines by a simple shifting of our heads a thousandth of an inch… We compose almost at the same time we press the shutter, and in placing the camera closer or farther from the subject, we shape the details—taming or being tamed by them." —Henri Cartier-Bresson

“Composition happens.” —Todd Vorenkamp

Discussion 142

Add new comment

Add comment Cancel

Here are my thoughts on this article:

Welcome to the wonderful world of photographic composition! In its most general terms, photographic composition is the art of composing an image through framing. And there exists the problem. How is it that one thing that almost everyone agrees is critical to the success of a photograph is completely subjective—an art unto itself—and is sculpted by rules that everyone agrees should and can be broken regularly, with great success?
There is no way I can answer that question, but instead of giving you the same old, predictable introduction to composition as others, permit me to share some meandering thoughts about the subject.

Yes, composition is critical to the success of any art, whether it's a drawing, painting, sculpture or photography. As Kenyon Cox once said "Without design, there may be representation, but there can be no art." But, I wasn't aware the nature of composition/geometry was subjective. That's like saying 1+1 can equal 2, 3, or 4 etc. How you design in a structured design system can be subjective. 

​From my experience, the master artists of the past did not break the rules of composition. This is a modern day myth that is repeatedly pounded in the minds of people by so called artists that aren't trained  Because most photographers aren't taught design, they can't read art. Simply put, they look at art and have no idea what the compositional structure is. Being able to look at a photograph or master painting and understanding what the artist has created in their compositions is critical to becoming a master photographer and it's critical to becoming visually literate. 

1. The Non-Blank Canvas

Other visual arts start with a blank “canvas." In photography, the canvas is preëxisting; it is our job to frame and eliminate elements. The other visual arts (painting, drawing, graphic design, and sculpture), the performing arts (dance, acting, music), and the written arts (prose and poetry), all allow artists to start, more or less, with a blank slate or canvas. There are no notes on the sheet music, there are no marks on the stretched canvas, and there are no words on the page. The artist adds them deliberately and methodically.

In photography, the only time you start with a blank canvas is in the studio, where you can control what is in the frame, the lighting, and the subject matter.. Otherwise, outside the studio, the “canvas” has already been created. It is the photographer’s job to choose what is eliminated from the canvas or added to it. However, not understanding design limits your ability to fill that preexisting canvas with elements that visually work. In other words, what you "eliminate" and keep in the frame become questionable because as an untrained photographer, your always unsure of what to add or take away. 

2. Positioning

How do you change what is already in front of you? Well, sometimes you can literally move something in a scene, but that is not always an option. So, you are left with two other possibilities: adjusting your composition through framing or by moving yourself or your gear. If you have a zoom lens, you can zoom in to isolate a portion of a scene, or zoom out to add to the scene. If you have a fixed focal-length lens, you will need to move your body to another position (if it’s feasible and safe to do so) to reconfigure the image.

This is repeating the same point made above. 

3. Natural Abilities

To me, compositional ability is a lot like natural athletic ability. The rules of a game or sport can be taught, but, at some level, the person has to have the physical ability and intangible talent to perform that sport. However, proficiency can be gained by experience, training, and practice and skills can often be improved. Very few athletes enter a sport at the top of their game. They start with a unique ability and then develop it through study, training, and experience. This is the age-old “nature versus nurture” debate and it can easily be applied to the arts, as well. In photography, there are those with an “eye for composition” and there are those who do not have that “eye.”

To say compositional ability is a lot like natural athletic ability is total BS. I strongly disagree with the notion that some have an "eye for composition" and there are those who do not have that "eye." Learning how to see and understanding composition requires study like any other craft. The idea that art flows from an artist freely simply or some of us are gifted while others aren't simply isn't true. I find this statement annoying because it eliminates all the handwork that master artists have put into their paintings and designs. 

​Sometimes, your subconscious sees an image in the viewfinder that looks pleasing to your brain. You release the shutter and the camera captures an image. Looking at it later, you can see that the composition worked well and your brain registered it unconsciously. If this happens to you, congratulations! You have a gift! You have the “eye.” (Or, you just got lucky!)

Many will be jealous of your gift. But do not rest on your natural abilities. I encourage you to study the art because the knowledge and ongoing study of composition can help you to better understand your unique vision. This knowledge can be used to refine your natural-born skills and help drive you toward even better images. 

I'm not jealous of this gift because it's not a gift. It's called getting lucky. It happens to every artist occasionally in their career. However, master artists that are trained don't rely on luck. They rely on the skills they have learned and applied over a long period of time.

If you do not have that “eye,” there is still hope. Do not give up! Much of this can be learned. Consciousness of good composition can be applied to your images even if you struggle to see it unconsciously. In the interest of being brutally honest, just as there are those who cannot catch a fly ball in the outfield no matter how many times they try, art is, at times, elusive to some photographers. But, here is the magical thing about art: if you love the art you create, no one should be able to take that away from you—no matter how you frame it.

I don't fully understand these last two paragraphs but I do agree that the art of composition needs to be studied. 

4. Forcing a Photograph

Revisiting the analogy of our intrepid outfielder, applying intensive study of something may have undesirable effects. If the outfielder tries to calculate the speed of the pitch, the speed of the bat swing, the shock absorption of the ball and bat based on temperature and relative humidity, the angles involved, the gravitational acceleration of the planet, the friction coefficient of the ball in flight, and the acceleration and deceleration of the ball along a prescribed arc, chances are he or she will not be in position to make a catch. The outfielder’s brain does these calculations instantaneously, without mathematics and the glove and ball magically intersect.

Applying intensive study of something does not have an undesirable effect. This is a simple way of saying I'm lazy. Again, this baseball analogy is misplaced. Comparing the techniques and skills in baseball to creating a work of art isn't really a one-to-one comparison. But since we are talking about baseball: In order to win the game of baseball you need to be able to measure who has the most home runs. You don't win the game from abstract ideas of how you feel about playing. The score is measurable in all sports, in the same way geometry/composition/design is measurable in all great art. And since you mentioned mathematic calculations, artist don't need to use calculators to create great design. Even though geometry is math no artist works in this fashion. They use calipers, compasses, rulers and t-squares to design art, not calulators. 

In photography, seeing and capturing a well-composed photograph can happen without conscious thought or mathematics. Additionally, sometimes over-thinking composition can be your worst enemy. Your eye and brain might already know successful composition. Your job is to get the image in the camera to match what you see. Over-analysis of the scene may easily preclude the photographer from choosing a good composition for the image. Sometimes the knowledge in your brain might overrule what the eye sees and likes. This is the battle between the mind and the mind’s eye. You cannot force good composition to happen, you can only create it.

As a photographer, you will find that there are scenarios where your mind’s eye sees something it thinks you should photograph, but no matter how hard you try (brain on or brain off), you cannot make that scene into a good photograph through composition. When I am faced with this scenario, I either take a photo to prove that I was there, or try to remember what I wanted to capture, walk away, and then bemoan the fact for the rest of my life that I couldn’t capture it. Not every fly ball can be caught, no matter how good you are.

In photography, seeing and capturing a well composed photograph rarely ever happens without a conscious thought. This is the equivalent to "using the force." That works great on the big screen in a science fiction movie, but art isn't science fiction. The idea of overthinking in photography is totally blown out of proportion and is derived from misinterpreted quotes from past photographers. If your not conscious while your photographing or creating any art, your screwed.

5. Composition and Meaning Composition can also be intangible. Sometimes a composition works, but you cannot explain why it works. The mind just likes what it sees in the overall framing of an image. On the contrary, there are times where you can point to a successful composition and know exactly why it works. Conversely, if you ever find yourself standing next to someone and, while looking at one of your photographs you say, “This is what the photograph is about and this is why the photograph has great composition,” you’ve likely lost the battle to achieve good composition and create an image that works for your audience.

If a composition works and you cannot explain why, you are not trained in design. Every composition by master artists can be explained and measured. This is a perfect statement demonstrating how an untrained photographer can't explain good composition. All credibility is lost in this statement. 

6. Focus on the Subject

Composition should help identify, emphasize, complement, isolate, or highlight the subject—not detract from it. The subject is likely the reason you captured a particular image, so if the composition works to bring the viewer’s attention to other parts of the frame, then you have successfully distracted the viewer from the primary purpose of the photograph. When it comes to how you frame the image around your subject, you will want the composition to work, sometimes covertly, to ensure that the audience knows what the subject is, and what the purpose of the photograph is.

I have no idea what covertly means when it comes to composition. The elements around your subject should balance the subject. There are actual terms for this. "Classical Balance" and the "Steelyard principle," to name a few. 
 
7. The Eye’s Journey

Composition is: arranging, creating, seeing, framing, and cropping. It must guide the viewer. The eye of the viewer will make its way through the frame of the photograph. The path is not always predicable, but how you arrange objects in the photograph, or how you frame the scene, can serve as a guide for the eye’s (hopefully) pleasing journey through your image—a journey that allows the viewer to understand the meaning of your photograph.

The path is not always predictable? Again, another statement made by an untrained photographer. 

8. Elemental Concerns

Elements of composition are: patterns, texture, symmetry, asymmetry, depth of field, lines, curves, frames, contrast, color, viewpoint, depth, negative space, filled space, foreground, background, visual tension, shapes. Use one or more of these elements to create a composition that works for your image. Of course, not all will be available at all times, but study them, recognize them, and employ them to help enrich your images.

Composition is more complex than this. These are just elements of composition and doesn't explain how to put all these elements together. It's like reading a cookbook that only lists the ingredients of what goes into a cake, not how to prepare our bake it.  

9. You Create Composition

I feel that there are three basic ingredients to a good photographer: knowledge of camera, an eye for composition, and artistic vision.

Today’s cameras have such amazing technology that they can do everything but make a great photograph for you. That “but” refers to composition. Composition is the aspect of the medium that is 100% dependent on your efforts as the photographer. It is the one part of photography that the camera cannot do on its own. Therefore, good composition is not something that can be achieved by expensive photography gear alone.

Along the same lines, you may have the most astute eye on the planet, but, without the aptitude to effectively use your camera, you may lack the ability to make the photograph that you perceive in your mind’s eye. Photography is a technically based art form. Even the world’s best composition can be ruined because the image is out of focus, badly over- or underexposed, or the victim of some poorly chosen camera settings!

And, on the flip side of that coin, a photographer can make a technically perfect image with a composition that is sorely lacking.

Composition has absolutely nothing to do with camera gear. Photography is not a technically based art form. It is only approached that way because most photographers aren't trained as artists and most photographers are obsessed with camera gear. The camera is nothing more then a tool the same as pencil or brush. As an artist you learn how to use your tool effectively only to create the art. 

10. Rules.

If You Must. I made it this far into a discussion about composition without using the word “rules.” But, no discussion of composition is complete without, at least, an acknowledgement of the “Rules of Composition.” So, fair warning, before you dig into the content following this introduction to the B&H Photo Composition Series, know that, when it comes to composition, there is no right or wrong. There are no hard-and-fast rules. For every rule, there are countless images that break the rule. Success in composition is defined by whether the composition complements, instead of detracts from, a given image regardless of whether you follow, skirt, ignore, or break the rules. You should know that you could follow the rules of composition to a T and still create a photograph that is lacking. It takes more than good composition to make a remarkable image.

I knew this paragraph was going to show up sooner or later. As with most articles on composition, this ends up being the last bullet. The untrained artists standby, "rules are meant to be broken BS. I hate to break it to you, but there is right and wrong in composition. If there wasn't, we would all be working for Magnum and everyone's images would look as good as a Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph. They don't. Saying that there are no hard and fast rules in composition and that there is no right or wrong is to deny the existence of composition. 
 

Hi James,

Thanks for your extensive thoughts on my article.

Permit me to reply to some of your thoughts.

A.  I like your quote from Kenyon Cox. Deep. I will stand by my comment that art (and design) are completely subjective. Geometry is a type of mathematics that has defined numerical laws. So, in arithmetic, 1+1 will always be 2, but what we do with geometry is completely subjective and, within the boundaries of mathematics, completely flexible and free. Also, how we view geometry and geometric forms adds to that subjective nature. Are you arguing that the entirety of the universe is a "structured design system" and all of our designs are inside of it and confined by the boundaries of the known universe? I guess that is one way to look at what surrounds us, and I cannot disagree with that opinion. (How many dark matter artists have yet to be discovered?)

I think you can find innumerable examples of master artists breaking the rules of composition successfully. It is not a modern-day myth, in my opinion. Having the ability to “read” art is not a prerequisite to being an artist. There are a great many musicians who cannot read sheet music. There are great photographers who have never cracked open an art book, gone to school for art, or stepped foot into an art gallery—not that any of those things give you complete knowledge about art. Understanding compositional structure is also not a requirement of viewing or enjoying art. Does every person who smiles back at the Mona Lisa have a formal education in art, composition, or design and structure? No. Definitely not. Art transcends the boundaries of mathematics and physics to create an emotional reaction in the viewer that is not based on education, but on feelings.

1. I actually mention the blank canvas of the studio in another article, but left it out here to keep the conversation generalized. I disagree with your assertion that an untrained photographer will not know what to include or exclude from a photographic composition. They might not have layers of conscious thought about the removal of the wall to the right or the lamp post to the left, but their mind tells them that what they are seeing is not working in their photograph, so they leave it out and create the composition that they find pleasing to their eye. The conscious thought need not go beyond that. In fact, as I said in the article, sometimes over-thinking composition can be your worst enemy.

Understanding design may help a photographer, but it is not a prerequisite to making a great photograph.

2. The purpose of the "Positioning" thought was to emphasize that composition could be affected by more than where you stand and point the camera, but by other factors as well.

3. I will stand by my thought that parallels can be drawn between natural abilities in the arts and in athletics. It is an analogy that has worked well in my teaching of photography and, ironically, other sports. I strongly agree with the notion that some have an eye for composition and some do not. I have seen it in real life. Some of the best photographers I know have never stepped foot into a classroom or studied art. On the other hand, some of the not-so-good photographers that I know have academic degrees with "FA" in the initials.

One of my MFA classmates shared, with the class, the very first photograph he ever took. The image was part of his thesis presentation. His grandmother handed him his camera when he was a toddler and he took a photograph of her. It was one of the single greatest photographs I have ever had the pleasure of seeing—the composition was perfect, the focus and exposure were off, but it worked incredibly perfectly for that perfect image. Even though he was a great photographer, in getting to know his work, I felt that he had spent the next 30-some years of his life trying to take a photograph as good as the very first one he ever took. I doubt he ever will. Regardless, it is an interesting scenario to consider.

Learning how to see requires absolutely zero study. If you are lucky, you were born with the ability to see and have preserved that gift.

Learning how to see art is something that you could debate. Some people spend years and years of their life studying the meaning of art. Others, spend no time studying art, but simply enjoy it. Is there an advantage to one over the other?

Understanding composition does require study, but creating compelling compositions does not require an understanding of the subject—just like catching a fly ball in the outfield does not require a comprehensive understanding of physics.

The truth is that some artists are gifted. Many do not need to study to understand art. They just make great art. Natural ability exists, and it is definitely annoying—especially if you struggle to create compelling art. But, there are those who pour a ton of hard work into their art and get great results as well. The thing that should be annoying to people is when they spend time and energy studying art, yet fail to create their own good art but still have a passionate desire to create art. It is those people I have empathy for.

I will also stand by my position that natural ability is a gift and I am jealous of those who have it. Speaking of athletics, again, there is a famous quote from baseball player, Lucky Gomez: "I would rather be lucky than good any day." In photography, I would much rather be lucky than good, but I studied art in an attempt to be good when I am not lucky. My guess is that a lot of master artists enjoy their lucky moments as well. We all know that practice, study, and learning can help you get luckier more often than others, but I believe that chance, fate, and luck can all have their moments in photography, even for the master artist.

4. Applying intensive study of something does not ALWAYS have an undesirable effect. How many times have we "overthought" something? The fact that spell check does not underline "overthought" and "overthinking" means that those things definitely happen. Sometimes ignorance is bliss (and a great photograph) and knowledge can be dangerous.

I will stand by my baseball analogy. Obviously, sports and art are not the same, but the comparison works for me. It is not intended to be a one-to-one comparison. It is an analogy.

In order to win the game of baseball, you need to measure which team has the most runs, not home runs. And, if you have ever played baseball for fun, you might not even be keeping score. In those cases, it really doesn't matter if you win or lose (you won't know unless you keep score); it is all about how much fun you have playing. You can also make art for fun.

Geometry/composition/design is measurable in all great art, but were those measurements taken at the moment that the brush touched the canvas or the shutter was released? Or do we apply design and compositional study to the image after the work is complete and hypothesize that the photographer or painter must have consciously envisioned those digital cross-crossing red or black lines all over his or her image when they created it? My guess is they definitely didn't subject the image in the viewfinder to critical study—they went with what looked good to them and tried their hardest to capture the moment before it was gone.

Yes, the artist does not need calculators. Nor does the outfielder. And, not all artists need calipers, compasses, rulers, and T-squares. I own all of those, but don't use them for art.

I won't debate the existence of the Force, but I can tell you that a lot of great images have been created without conscious thought. I think there are one or two famous photographs that were taken when a camera was dropped and the impact with the ground released the shutter. Obviously, credit goes to gravity, not the photographer, but gravity is a force without conscious thought.

When it comes to "overthinking" in photography, I find most people give photography just about the right amount of thought for them. If they didn't, photography would not be as popular and widespread as it is. If you don't like your images, you might want to think more about what you are creating. If you like them and think too much, you might end up not being satisfied with your next images. I know that sometimes happens to me. Is this "totally blown out of proportion?" I am not sure, but I do see a lot of websites that seem to over-analyze imagery in an attempt to unlock the secrets of the success of a particular image.

5. I don’t have a degree in design, but I did take some master’s-level classes in it. My art education allows me to explain why a particular composition works and why another does not for me. Even that analysis is subjective. Something works for me, while something else does not. Yes, you can measure every composition by a master artist, but I will ask again, "Were those measurements conscious in the artist when they created the art?" Did da Vinci mark up his canvases with a compass, T-square, and guidelines before applying paint? He might have with the Vitruvian Man, but I am guessing he didn't on many of his works. Did Cartier-Bresson have interchangeable focusing screens with different compositional "rules" etched onto them, wandering around with the camera to his eye, waiting for everything to line up with the grid(s)? I don't think Leica makes a golden spiral focusing screen.

There is a huge difference between having the ability to create a good composition and formally explain composition. They are often mutually exclusive. Luckily, for most of the artists out there, they are not required to explain their art or their compositions to academia, or to experts.

Credibility restored.

6. When I mention "covertly" in composition, I am referring to the fact that sometimes leading lines, symmetry, etc. are not super-obvious to the viewer. Not every portrait needs to be taken on converging railroad tracks. 

I disagree that the elements around the subject should balance the subject. Sometimes, the artist will intentionally with unbalance an image in order to emphasize certain dynamism in the meaning of the image. Not every piece of art needs to be balanced.

7. The path of the eye of the viewer is in no way predictable. Every viewer can enters and exit a piece of art in a different way. It all depends on how your brain works. Not all of us read from left to right. Not all of us start viewing a photograph in the upper left corner. That is fact and has been proven by numerous studies.

That is the statement of a formally trained photographic artist.

8. I think you re-made my point here. I would not dare write an article that says precisely how to put together all the elements of composition to make the perfect photograph. There is no recipe. There are only the ingredients. And sometimes the cupboard is bare. There is no cookbook for a good photograph. If someone is selling one, ask if they are selling a bridge in Brooklyn as well.

9. Photographic composition has a whole lot to do with camera gear. The size and shape of the image is determined solely by the camera. Square format compositions are different than 3:2 or 16:9. Beyond format, there is focal length. The combination of camera and photographer define the boundaries of the composition. You cannot have one without the other. I think that is fairly significant.

I am not sure that your statement about photography not being a technically based art form is correct. In fact, I had a long discussion over breakfast one morning with a Ph.D. candidate from the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts who told me that photography was most certainly a technically based art form. I guess that is his opinion, but I share it confidently as he is working on his second advanced degree in the arts.

You are correct; most photographers are not trained as artists. Many, not most, are obsessed with camera gear. But, look at how many amazing photos populate the web and art galleries by non-trained photographers. Also, in somewhat rarer circumstances, see how some gear-heads are great photographers as well.

Yes, the camera is a tool for creating art, but it is much more complex and capable than the pencil or brush in its ability to instantaneously capture what is before it. Because it is a complex mechanism (minus a pinhole camera and other “alternative” capture methods), it does almost everything but the composition for us. The same cannot be said of the pencil or brush or hammer. This is probably why there are more great photographers and photographs than great painters and paintings or sculptors and sculptures.

Louis Daguerre, the inventor of the daguerreotype, was one of the very first people to talk about the technical nature of photography. He said, “By this process, without any notion of drawing, without any knowledge of chemistry or physics, it will be possible to take, in a few minutes, the most detailed views, and the most picturesque sites, for the technical means are simple, and require no special knowledge to be used. Only care and a little practice is needed to succeed perfectly.” He added, “The daguerreotype is not an instrument to be used to draw nature, but a chemical and physical process which gives her the ability to reproduce herself.”

With a camera, because the machine is doing much of the work, less is left to the abilities of the artist. That makes it a technologically-based art form.

10. Not only is there no right or wrong in composition, there is no right or wrong in art as a whole. A stroll through MOMA PS1 proves this.

Does every photograph taken by every master photographer follow the "rules" of composition? Definitely not. Is every photograph that precisely follows the Rule of Thirds a great photograph? Definitely not. The "rules" are not etched in stone, mathematics, or physics. What makes a photograph great is solely in the mind of the photographer and/or the viewer and "rules" can be broken to achieve greatness.

To say that a certain composition is right or wrong is, wrong. It is only right or wrong to you, the viewer, when you look at the image, and that particular point of view can be either backed up by raw emotional response and/or formal art education. Regardless of the lens through which you view the composition, right or wrong is only your opinion of the composition of a certain photograph.

Thank you for reading my article. I do hope you did get something out of it. I appreciate the discussion as well!

Comments from a critical theory point of view: Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, wrote a book called "The Aesthetics of Judgement" in the late 18th century. It is this text that all modern day aesthetics are based upon, wether people know it or not. Does not matter. For example modern day logic is based on Greek philosophy, particularly the works of Plato and Aristotle. Has everyone read them? No. But that does not change the fact that what Foucault calls the apparatus was set in motion to form modern thought, by these great thinkers. Ok, I digress, to get to the point. Within the Critique of Judgment, Kant puts before us the notion that all aesthetics are based off of subjective experience in relevance to our interpretations of beauty. Because aesthetics are about personal pleasure, and based on our point of view within our little tiny corner of the world. There for there is no such thing as a prior (before experience) knowledge within the judgement of taste. Point in case, what one image by Henri Cartier-Bresson may be considered and even accepted by one group of individuals, it is still based on individual taste (even if there is agreement), so there for that single image can not be said to be a pure aesthetic experience, or aka proper composition. In fact if you want to go really far back, Plato would have exiled all forms of artistic photography as he felt that the artist was nothing but an imitator of the gods and should be exiled from utopia :P

thanks for the shout out friend! Interesting read :D 

Thanks, Rowynn! Very interesting!

Dear Todd

Very interesting article, I agree with all points and some of them are strong ones to consider on my daily shooting, quotes are Unique! Specially from the master Henri cartier bresson, Thanks for sharing :)

Hi Mario,

I am glad you liked the article!

I scoured the web for quotes...there are tons of photography quotes out there to inspire us all!

Thanks for reading and thanks for the kind words! 

The greatest modern influence on my work has been from Alain Briot (www.beautiful-landscape.com). He taught me that every part of a photograph influences it. Some parts influence in a positive manner, others in a negative manner. Good composition is maximising the former and minimising the latter. Also, the raw digital image is the equivalent of a film negative. It's only the starting point. What you do after capture is the same as working in a wet darkroom--crop, dodge, burn, adjust in the multitude of ways that are available to the digital photographer. Finally, I say when I teach: If it looks good, it is good; if it doesn't look good, make it look good or work on a different image!

Hey Craig,

Thanks for sharing the link and advice! Good stuff! Thanks for reading the B&H blog!

Thanks for the discussion on this. And great photos by the way. Makes me wish I was into photography when I was on an aircraft carrier.

Thanks and thanks, Steve! Thanks for your service as well!

I have some more carrier/Navy shots on my Flickr page. Also, Commander Charles Heatley's book, The Cutting Edge (look for a used copy...it has been out of print for a while) has some of the best Navy Air photos ever taken.

Thanks for reading!

Very nice article. Hard to find good meaningful stuff among all the noise these days.

Thank you, MP! I try very hard to only add good noise to the noise!

Thanks for reading!

It is very common to take a photo of Uncle Billy and pay no attention as to what else is in the frame. The attitude is that if you see your subject in the frame then snap it. Is there garbage on the ground, people in the background, backlite, or anything the degrades the quality of the photograph. Pay attention to your suroundings. You will have a much more pleasant picture to view if  do.

Hi Jim,

Yep! Definitely pay attention, however, if this is the last time you are going to see Uncle Billy and he cant move and you cant move, you are stuck with the shot you get!

Tell Uncle Billy to move!

Thanks for reading and commenting!

If everybody were to follow the rules, we all would be taking same picture of everything.  Sometimes, when the opportunity presents itself, it is in a hurry, and there is no time to compose, not even to set shutter speed and aperture.  And you just go with your gut feeling.

...and sometimes that gut feeling can be a great photograph! But, I would guess that practice and knowledge can help increase the odds of that gut feeling shot having a better chance of success than not.

Thanks for reading, Neil!

For me composition is in your mind and expirieses in life wat is good to me is not for oders.

Thanks for your comment and thanks for reading, Jose!

Great article on composition.  Most of my photography is wildlife and sports.  Eagles, deer, and football are my favorites.

My “composition” is attempting to be in the right place, at that right time, with the right equipment, to capture a moment.  But when the moment presents itself, composition goes out the window and is the last thing to enter my mind.

Recently put my life in danger trying to get to the right place in order to shoot a drop dead sunset.  Not a lot of time for thinking, talking or messing with settings.

Is all of the above still considered composition ?  If so, then at least I am on the right path.

Thanks, MPS

Hey Mike,

Every time you are creating a photograph you are composing the image—whether you know it or not; or are conscious of it. If your mission is to zoom in to the maximum extent possible and center your subject in the frame, you are making a conscious compositional choice. If you zoom in and out a bit and put the subject off to the side, again you are composing the image.

Pointing the camera at something creates a composition. You cannot avoid it.

If you are getting great photos without giving thought to composition, then congratulations! You are a natural! You are the outfielder who just tracked down the fly ball without doing math.

Thanks for reading and writing in!

Reminds me of the quote from GBShaw "most people see things as they are, I See things as they never were!" Good composition is the result of seeing beyond what the eyes see.

...and then capturing that composition with the camera. Often it is easier to compose with the mind's eye than the limited view of a camera!

Thanks for reading, ArtR!

Memorable composition, like all things beautiful, lies in the eye of the first beholder,the photographer.

Well said, Doc!

Thanks for reading!

Thank you for your help, I am an amateur picture taker and enjoy the knowledge share from an expert!

Please B&H continue publishing articles like this.

Hi Charley,

I, too, am an amateur picture taker! Thank you for the compliments and thanks for reading the B&H blog!

We will certainly keep producing content like this. Thanks!

An effective composition results from a visual balance of the elements in the frame.  This balance will automatically please the eye of the viewer.  If the photographer has selected an interesting subject to photograph, then it and this composition together can produce a worthy photograph.

Yes, some photographers possess a natural eye for good composition, and yes, they may profit from a study of the concepts, rules, principles, and techniques of composition.  Such mechanical concerns remain timeless because they directly affect human perception of an image.  Thus these concerns bear attentive study and diligent application.

Hence, a real photographer will pay careful attention to how he or she frames and arranges the elements in the photograph in relation to the subject in order to achieve a compelling composition. 

Well said, anotherview02. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I am currently working on an article on compositional balance. I hope you enjoy reading it!

Thanks for reading the B&H blog!

Hey Todd...I love the analogy regarding what an outfielder can calculate when assessing the arriving ball! A busy person.

This article has driven me toward paying attention to composition all of the time instead of some of the time. 

Thanks for this.

Hi Tom,

Yes, always pay attention to composition. If you don't, you can just chalk up your good shots to pure luck!

Thanks for reading, Tom!

Thank you for the thoughtful content. Under #4, the third paragraph fits me exactly. Will take a shot (regardless of quality) to know I was there, or remember the ideal I was attempting to shoot.

The quotes very enjoyed too, but noticed that two by Cartier-Bresson were nearly identical - was one re-worded? 

Also, considering the article's subject, it seems odd to see Andreas Feininger's quote:
"The photographer ... "can control... everything except composition".

While we might disagree with that, it's like a "rule" -- not always heeded. Thanks again.

Hi Scott,

You are welcome! Thanks for the kind words. I am glad the article resonated with you.

I think all the Bresson quotes were original, but you never know what you find when you mine the internet for stuff these days. For all I know, they could all be reworded!

I think what Feininger meant was that we cannot always control what is placed in front of us. He obviously did not think that framing was outside of his control—his images prove that!

Thanks for reading the B&H blog!

Excellent article! I received my start in this photography business in 1964. Today I am retired but still teach - composition first, everything else secondly.

Thanks for reading, Douglas! I am glad you enjoyed the article!

Composition is a great first lesson, but today's cameras are so complicated, you often need to start with how to turn them on before you can even talk about taking a photo!

I really get this.  I spent a lot of time learning composition for the purpose of learning how to paint.  I have since applied that knowledge to photography.  But here is the interesting thing:  I will see something I just have to photograph.  I will quickly take a photo to make sure I have captured it before something unpredictable happens to ruin the photo--then I will take a series of photos, keeping in mind what I have learned about composition, playing, experimenting and so on.  Invariably it turns out that my first, impulsive photo was the best.

Hey Cristi,

In the digital world, I highly encourage the quick shot...becuase it is virtually free!

We have something in common there! A lot of times, my first composition is the best of a bunch! Sometimes you can over-think this stuff and sometimes natural ability comes subliminally to the forefront!

Of course, you might like your first photo best, but other viewers might like the second, or third, or fourth, or fifth... Art is still subjective!

Thanks for reading! I am glad you enjoyed the article!

I loved the photo of the bow of a aircraft carrier with a lone sailor standing at the end of the flight deck. That's what I used to do when I was an airman on the USS Midway. Great article it will take me forever to take it all in.

Thanks for reading, Charlie! And, thank you for your service in the US Navy! If you have not been yet, the USS Midway museum in San Diego is a great stop. They are doing a wonderful job preserving your old ship! Fly Navy!

Todd,

That's a very useful article.  I have only one rule, and it's partially opposed to your point 6.  I found it very important to understand the difference between a telescope (or microscope or a pair of glasses) and a camera.   One looks THROUGH those other instruments in order to look AT a subject.  When using a camera you look AT the image in the viewfinder, which happens to cantain a subject.  I have found it useful (I don't do this exercise every time I take a picture) to pretend that the viewfinder image is the finished picture, on a wall.

I don't know if others will find this useful.  However, when looking at a lot of photos from those who think the don't have a compositional eye, the pictures often look as if they're meant to capture the subject and the rest of the image simply has not been considered. 

Hey Ed,

Great points! I don't think your thoughts are in opposition to #6—they compliment it.

There are a lot of times where the subject does not work with the rest of the image, but the need to capture said subject does not go away. This may be the difference between a snap shot and a photograph!

Thanks for reading and commenting!

“The camera has ideas of its own,” John Szarkowski

Great quote, Craig! Thanks for sharing!

They say that in aviation the three most comment phrases heard in the cockpit are:

1) Oh shoot.

2) What did they [ATC] say?

3) Was that [radio call] for us?

In the modern technology era, a fourth was added:

4) What's it [the airplane] doing now?

That last one could definitely be applied to digital photography!

Thanks for reading!

Craig,

I'd love your input but can't seem to reach you by any other means. Would you kindly reply via the contact info you already have for me.

Brad

One way of using rules is to "Think outside the box". Howver, to quote the dancer Twila Tharp "Before you can successfully think outside the box, you must understand the box". In other words you must "understand" the rules before you go off and just break them. Using the "understand" implys that you know those rules, in this case of composition, and can apply those rules without thinking. Composition is an active process, it is necessary to think about what you are creating.

Hey PDL,

Great share. Thank you! Yes, you must know the rules you are breaking. If you do not know the rules, you won't think you are breaking anything. Photographic anarchy!

Thanks for reading!

"It (composition) is the one part of photography that the camera cannot do on its own". How true! You can always achieve technical perfection of an image. But composition as you have implied comes from the photographer. Framing, positioning a subject to convey a message comes only from within, and from life's experiences.

Wonderful and thought provoking article. Thank you.

Thanks for reading, Ganapathy! Maybe I should have quoted myself with that quote at the bottom of the article! It is up to you to make it go viral!

I am glad you enjoyed the article!

Thank,

Wonderful collection of throughts by the most respected artist in photography. I have always been focused on good composition and rules of composition. When I was teaching, I was concered with my students knowing the basic rules well enough so that they could knowingly move to greatness by using the rules or knowing that they stepped outside of the rules to create great composition. One of my instructors said that one must know the rules in order to be able to break a rules and an artist must know when to break a rule.

Hi Jim,

Thanks for your comments and thoughts. I hope the rest of the article was as good as the quotes!

Thanks for reading!

It is no coincidence, IMHO, that many of the greatest photographers of the 20th century studied painting and/or closely involved with other visual arts.  Steichen was originally a painter. The master Cartier-Bresson studied painting before becoming a photographer.  Saul Leiter was also a painter. Steiglitz of course not only exhibited paintings, sculptures and drawings at gallery 291, but surrounded himself with painters and other artists, not the least of which was his lover O'Keeffe.  Aaron Siskind was close to Franz Kline, as was Bill Brandt to Henry Moore.  The influence of classical painting is evident in the work of Shelby Lee Adams, who may have been a photography major at the three art schools he attended, but was obviously educated outside that discipline.  The list goes on.

Great composition is sort of like the famous statement about pornography - you know it when you see it.  Beyond that, it's hard to define by a set of rules.  In fact I'd venture to say that when you're resorting to a rule, by definition it won't be great.  But studying the great visual artists under the tutelage of a good teacher, particularly painters, will expand greatly the visual vocabulary at your own disposal.  You will see the decisive moment more often, or see why it isn't and what to do.  This may not satisfy those drawn to photography from the technical side who keep asking for the rules, but that's the reality.  OTOH, if you're a hobbyist who is seeking to do better work, the rule of thirds and cropping into the head on portraits may be enough to impress friends and family.  That's craft and there is nothing wrong with good craft.  But going beyond that takes some work and some artistic aptitude.  If it only took "knowing the rules," there'd be more great photographers than you could shake a stick at.

Another advantage of studying painting for photographers, particularly 19th century and earlier, is that the subject matter is likely quite different than what you are photographing.  For it to be relevant, you will have to ignore the literal and focus on the basic geometry, forms, spatial relationships, etc. that make the painting work.  This ability, to see the formal versus the literal, is like a muscle that most photographers never develop.  It's magic when you start to see through the viewfinder the composition you are making instead of just the thing your are photographing.  Great photographs (at least in the art genre) are made, not taken.

And if you’re really ambitious, study drawing.  I know – you’re a photographer because that’s not your thing.  But I tell you, nothing (other than studying the great painters) has improved my photography more than drawing.  My technique is terrible and my drawings are an embarrassment.  But drawing teaches you to see.  And by that is meant seeing how the 3D world in front of you relates to the 2D picture plane you are working on and the role of light (or “value”) in the image. 

AMEN - to the comment on drawing.  Daily

Agreed!

You say composition is "hard to define by a set of rules."  The concepts, principles, rules, and techniques of composition, a photographer can easily learn.  Their application remains the hard part.

Well said, R. Parker!

You make some really great points. Photographers can always benefit from studying other genres of the visual arts! Cartier-Bresson actually left photography to go back to drawing in his later years.

I would guess that a lot of us pick up a camera because the other arts aren't as fun—or we aren't as good at them as we are with a camera!

In researching this and other composition articles, I spent a lot of time with books and websites that deal with composition in painting and drawing. It is all the same. The eye likes what the eye likes!

Thanks for reading!

Show older comments