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 preexisting; 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.
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.
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.
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