Composition

Composition is the arranging of elements in a work of art.
That could be music, painting, drawing, illustration, film, photography…

In photography the Rules of Composition are a set of rules and guidelines that help to create stronger images

Images that are well composed are more likely to be good images.

They help us to get the person looking at the images (viewer / audience) to look where we want them to

The Rules of composition are guidelines, sometimes breaking the rules can make the strongest images. However, they provide an excellent framework and starting point for creating strong images, particularly when you are first starting out in photography.

Rule of Thirds

Image showing Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is one of the most important compositional aids in photography, because by using this alone, you can make a stronger images.

Most cameras / camera apps have a grid that can be switched on in the viewfinder as a guide to the rule of thirds.

For landscape images like this placing the main elements of sky and land on one of the lines will improve the composition. This is more pleasing to the eye than an image split in two by the horizon. Placing elements of an image on the points where the lines cross (intersect), creates a stronger image.

Rule of thirds in more depth

Example of the rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is a simplification of compositional aids such as dynamic symmetry and the Golden Section / Golden Ratio / Divine Proportion / Fibonacci Spiral. Some people suggest that the rule of thirds doesn’t work or is outdated but these are compositional tools that were used by all of the great masters and can be seen in most art works including painting, filmmaking, architecture and photography over the past two thousand years.

The Golden Ratio
The Golden Ratio
Dynamic Symmetry
Dynamic Symmetry

Roman Engineer and Architect Virtruvius -70BC – designed and built buildings using the principle that the human body represented the perfect proportions. This is where the name for Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (1490) came from, which illustrates Vitruvius’ concept.

These proportions can be seen in the work of all of the Master painters. The rule of thirds is a simplification of some of these concepts

Da Vinci Vitruvian Man
The Last Supper
Da Vinci’s (c.1498) The Last Supper – showing how the Rule of Thirds relates to previous artworks.

Da Vinci, L. (c.1498) The Last Supper. Available at: https://digitalcommons.lasalle.edu/last_supper_iconography/2/
Da Vinci, L. (c.1490) Virtruvian Man. Available at: https://antigonejournal.com/2021/05/da-vinci-vitruvian-man/
Dean, R. (2019) ‘We Are the Golden Rule’ Medium 29 Sept. Available at: https://medium.com/signifier/we-are-the-golden-rule-eafed209ec31

Leading Line

example of Leading Line in Composition

Leading Line – lines that lead the eye around the image, they don’t have to be physical lines, they could just be suggested lines, for example a line of trees, footprints in sand.

Scale

Scale shows gives a comparison of how big or small something is and improves a sense of awe, particularly in landscapes. In this image the building allows us to see just how high the cliffs are.

Contrast

Example of composition contrast

Contrast can refer to tones or colours, in this image the bright grass stands out because of the contrast with the dark background. Contrast could also be between colours, textures, old and new, between dark and light, rough and smooth, young and old, big and small.

Framing

Framing in a photograph

A frame within an image draws the eye to whatever is within the frame. In this image the dogs are in the frame of the door, within the frame of the image. Like leading line, the frame does not have to be physical in the image of Lindisfarne below, the castle is framed by trees, while Durham Cathedral in the second image is framed by the buildings.

Colour

Colour adds impact and interest, this could be complimentary or primary colours that work well together,  shades and tones that are similar in colour, or a single highly saturated element within the image. The image on the left works particularly well because of the Primary colours of Red, Yellow and Blue. The image on the right works well because of the Complimentary colours of Green and Magenta (or purple).

These images have been made by excluding anything that does not fit with these colour schemes, leaving everything out of the frame that does not fit the colour scheme.

Colour

Colour can also be used in other ways:
A single colour element that stands out in an image.
Similar colours that make the image almost monochrome (single colour).

Texture

Texture in a photography adds to the realism of the image. Texture can be naturally occurring, for example the bark of a tree, or can be created or emphasised with the right lighting conditions. Late afternoon light for example creates longer shadows, so therefore can create more texture.

Viewpoint

Example of viewpoint in photography

Look up and down, an angle that we are not used to seeing will add impact to an image. Viewpoint can have a huge impact for example in portraits photographing a person from above can make them look vulnerable or from below can make them look powerful. Get down low, climb up high, find an unusual angle to take photographs from.

Repetition

Repetition in Photography

Patterns, reflections and repetition all make stronger images.

Background

While we are taking so much care to ensure our subject looks great and is composed well, it is easy to forget what is going on in the background. We have all taken photographs with lampposts and trees growing out of people’s heads. Part of composition is ensuring that everything in an image is in the right place and that there is nothing distracting from the main subject. It is important to observe the background of your image, what is going on, whether there are any distractions are anything in the background that draws the eye away.