Photography 101: What is Composition?
Last Updated on January 23, 2022
What is Composition in Photography?
So far, we’ve been more on the technical side of the photography spectrum, and the only reason why is because it is necessary to learn how to use the tool before creating something with it.
This is just like driving after you learn how to control and maneuver the car; you can start having fun and going places. With photography, the exact thing happens; first, you need to learn how to use a camera and learn the basics about light behavior and how to capture it. Then you can start trying to create meaningful shots, and here is where composition comes into play.
Earlier before, we mentioned that depth of field and white balance are compositional elements, but there are also some guidelines (or rules) that you need to understand about composition. The composition is the soul of a photograph, always remind that. In technical terms, a picture can be perfect, but it could lack of soul.
And composition has a lot to do with that soul beyond the concept or the topic behind your photos. It is better to have a sloppy yet meaningful and aesthetic shot, than a sterile but extremely perfect photo.
The Elements of Composition
The composition can be divided into two big worlds, the elements of composition, and the good practices or rules of composition. Let’s talk about the elements first.
The line is the most basic element in the composition, and they can be horizontal, vertical diagonal, organic, and implied. Each of them has its own purpose as structural elements in the composition. Therefore, they shouldn’t be treated as main subjects but just visual guidelines that make the image reading a pleasing task.
Read more: Photography 101: How to Use Focal Length and Crop Factor?
Horizontal lines are usually good for achieving a sense of balance and calmness in a shot. While vertical and diagonal lines are more useful for tension and dynamism. Organic lines are those found in nature and are extremely useful to compose aesthetically.
Last but not least, implied lines are those lines that you simply can’t see but can feel (or imagine), like the implied line you can get from two people crossing looks on the street, for example.
Forms and Shapes
Since photography is about capturing the three-dimensional world via a two-dimensional image rendition, studying how forms and shapes behave will give you a better idea about how they can be used as composition elements.
Discover more: Photography 101: What are Shooting Modes?
This is something very hard for painting and drawing to achieve, but for photography, they are quite easy to achieve.
Learn more: Photography 101: Metering Modes and Histogram?
Empty and Negative Space
In many things, less can be more but it is not that easy to achieve. One of the best ways of doing it is by using negative or empty space.
See more: Photography 101: Shooting RAW vs JPEG
This is usually a neutral colored background as opposed to a very much smaller element, making it immediately pop-out from the scene in a protagonist way.
This is considered to be hard to handle composition elements and is usually built of a smaller frame (a window, a mirror, or a phone’s screen) within a larger frame.
Further reading: Photography 101: What is ISO?
There is a vast literature related to composition, but those are the main elements that you need to consider when taking photographs.
How To Arrange Them
Now that you know about the existence of specific elements that could build a photograph, it is necessary for you to learn about how to arrange them in order to make your photographs a pleasing visual experience. For this, there are some “grammatical” guidelines or rules that need to be taken into account.
The Rule of Thirds
There is a high chance that you have already heard of this composition rule, and it is important for you to know that despite its importance, it isn’t a synonym for composition. It is just a guideline that helps us out into placing things in a way that viewers could feel more interested in beyond centered shots.
This rule is easy to follow and could take a lifetime to master correctly. You simply need to imagine two horizontal and two vertical lines crossing the frame in the same way you’ll make a tic-tac-toe grid. Now you’ll notice that there are 4 points in which lines cross each other.
Learn more: Photography 101: What is Shutter Speed?
Those are called interest points, and you simply need to place the most important element of your frame near that spot. We highly suggest that you avoid using virtual grids in your camera, otherwise you’ll always rely on them. It is important that you train your eye with time so you can start seeing it in an aesthetic way.
The Rule of Odds
Whenever capturing a group of elements, try to arrange them in odd numbers like 3 or 5, further from that is just complicated to see as a whole group. The main purpose behind this compositional rule is to take advantage of a psychological condition we human beings have.
We tend to instinctively order things into groups for an easier to “digest” experience. Pair numbered groups will eventually be decomposed into smaller groups, but that doesn’t happen with odd numbers (especially 3 and 5) since the human brain perceives that as a unitary group. This is perfect to use when you want to transmit a sense of unity among people or elements.
Oh, and don’t forget that this group can be placed in the frame following the logic of the rule of thirds too! Learning to compose in a consistent way is the baseline for style, a major concern for any creative that takes its craft seriously. In order to practice composition related exercises, we highly suggest you first to start aiming for the elements solely, if as they were meant to be the main subjects.
This will teach you more than you think about how these elements are able to structure the frame in a way that enhances the reading experience of it. While doing that, try to blend your daily visual routines with both the rule of thirds and odds so you can start seeing the world in a different and more pleasing way.