Understanding Composition in Photography: A Complete Guide


You might be thinking that a complete guide to composition is way to much to put into one post and you are absolutely right. I will try to break it up into a few posts so that this does not turn into something too long. But the goal for this blog post is to turn all that I have learned in college, from real life experience, and from research into one cohesive idea that will hopefully enlighten you about composition.

I am going to write this from a landscape photographers opinion because I simply don't know much about the other genera of photography.

Since I have a lot to talk about I am just going to dive into things.

How Eyes Move Through Images

This is actually not what I learned in college but from a portrait photographer. In the United states and through out much of the world we read from left to right. Funny enough this trend actually persists in our subconscious and effects how someone actually views a photo. Some of my best photos that I have ever taken often have a very strong left centric theme that is interesting but as the viewer moves through the photo they experience all that I wanted them to in the proper order. So something you should remember from this anecdote is that viewers of your images see from left to right so if you can lay out your photo so that the viewer is carried left to right it will be a stronger composition.

Next important concept comes from some basic understanding of what draws attention. I am not talking about sex, though that is always true. I want to talk about contrast… particularly bright things draw attention faster than dark things. Viewers will notice bright things before anything else. This is why sun stars are so powerful in images because they always draw all the attention first. But more on this later.

People look for eyes first when they see a person. If the rest of the image is technically perfect but the eyes are not, they will see the flaw first before they notice how awesome the rest of the photo is.

So what you should take away:

  • People view photos from left to right
  • Contrast draws attention
  • Eyes are the first thing people look at

Now that I have gotten a few basics out of the way, let's actually dive into the world of composition.

The First 4 Lines

The first day in my 2D design class in college started with the lesson that every canvas has four lines. Those four lines are composed of the edges of the canvas. Since we are dealing with photos, the 4 lines that are in every image are those that make up the frame of the image. Those four lines can convey height, (that's why we have photos in portrait) width (that's why we have landscape photos frequently in horizontal position because it shows large expanse) or if the four lines are in a symmetrical aka a square they show symmetry. The quicker you realize this lesson the quicker your photos will improve and you will know which way your photos should be oriented when you take them.

Other things to know about these lines is that they interact with the photo. So if you have elements that are close to touching these lines they create tension at those spots.

Horizontal Lines

Horizontal lines do a few things. They provide orientation, and they provide stability. Our world that we live in constantly has one very important horizontal line. If that horizontal line becomes eschew for any reason something is not right. That is why it is so key to have lines that are supposed to be horizontal be horizontal or they will draw quick attention to themselves. (And from what we learned form inception if things are out of place in made up realities the projections will turn on you and kill you… lets get back to topic.)

Other things about horizontal lines is that they are boring. The create a sense of peace thus no tension and often are not moody compositional pieces, they are safe compositional pieces.

Vertical Lines

Vertical lines are important because they cause the viewer to stop. I think this comes from our primordial past where we use to scan the horizon for threats or for food and if something was standing up it was either a tree or something trying to eat us. Because of this, horizontal lines can become very strong elements within an image. These lines are walls within images and can create spacing and breathing space They are also really good at carrying the viewer from the bottom of the image to the top of the image. Vertical lines also carry power. That is why the taller something is, the more powerful it appears to be.

Diagonal Lines

Since horizontal lines are safe and vertical lines are powerful, thus diagonal lines are somewhere in between. They are the mood creators of an image. They are also the directional creators in an image. Diagonal lines are how you carry a viewer from one part of the image to the next. They also have a nasty tendency of carrying the viewer out of the image, so try not to do that.

Diagonal lines also carry tension. If you horizon is eschew (thus now diagonal), the world is now not right and very uncomfortable for the viewer.

Curved Lines

One of the things that humans have perfected in the world is strait lines. Curved lines are organic on the other hand. Nature does not make much in the way of straight lines. Curved lines within images provide organic movement. This is why rivers, curvy trees, and swirling rocks are so interesting (and in the example below, the aurora). When composing an image, try to find curving lines to carry your audience through out the image.

One other thing that curved lines represent is woman. They have feminine aspects to them. When a combination of hard edges and smooth curvy lines are combined together within an image they provide a complete whole. I think this is why landscape with rivers with mountains work so well together.

Lessons Learned

The reason why I start all of this composition bit with lines is because any good photograph has a subject. But we as people tend to view and move on quickly. In order to trap people and force them to look at our subject we need to help them. In order to help our subject we direct our viewers with lines. These lines can be real or they can be perceived by patterns that create imaginary lines to our subject of choice.

Example: Photo by Kevin Jordan

(© Kevin D. Jordan Photography)

Ok, lets look at this image and think about what we have learned. We read from left to right. Kevin places a very strong vertical line on the side of the image being that epic old tree. Your eye stops on it first when looking at it. Second you have a curve line, the edges of the walkway, that carries you back into the forest. At the back side of the image we have two more very powerful vertical lines being that twin pair of old trees in the top center of  the image. I would define this as the subjects of the image. Since the walkway extends all the way to the far right of the image the image still remains balanced. Even when you go the the far right of the image the tension point in the bottom right (three meeting lines, the two sides and the rail) force you to look back to the path and back into the image.

See lines are every where. If you can harness lines and their different styles they create you can create better images.

The 8 Principles of Composition in Art

  1. Balance- This is something you feel when you look at an image. Does it feel left heavy? Right heavy? Centered? Symmetrical? If you look at your image and feel like you are leaning one way or the other a bit you might be out of balance.
  2. Contrast- This is one of the most overlooked aspect of photography. Contrast adds dynamic life to your image. Most of us know that, but contrast can also tell a story. When you look at old painting of Christ, you often see light coming from his head, and the surrounding environment is very dark. The contrast within the image forces you to look at his face. Contrast or the lack there of is a hugely powerful story teller.
  3. Focus- This is your subject or the thing you are trying to emphasize. Since we are talking about photography, this should be the thing that is in focus if you are a landscape photographer.
  4. Movement-Movement is kind of what is sounds like. Does there appear to be movement by either motion blur, wispy water, or cloud movement. This is motion. Motion is useful for telling a story or creating a mood within an image.

    Using long exposures to capture the motion of the waterfall in Granville, Vermont. Brenda Petrella Photography.
  5. Pattern-Pattern is important within an image as it can create a uniform feel. This feel goes into creating a unified composition. If there is too much chaos within an image the viewer does not know where to look at. Pattern stills chaos and allows the eye to search for the subject.
  6. Proportion- The deals with how things are in relation to each other. Since different focal lengths change how things appear next to each other, this is something we can really easily manipulate in photography. It is also a limiting factor in landscape photography. One of the things that has always bothered landscape photographers was the issue that when you were up close to your subject your back ground becomes really small with your wide angle lens. This is where focal length blending comes in and allows you to bring that far away subject back up close the make it appear bigger.
  7. Rhythm-Rhythm deals with how does the image resonates. It is a combination of repetition and pattern but with more dynamics too it. Think of it like a song. The music has repetition and pattern, but it rises and falls based on the words of the song. In photography this is created with light not sound.
  8. Unity- This is how everything within the image fits together. If something is out of place your unity is thrown off. This is where painters can cheat. They can add or remove anything they don't want. We one the other hand have to work with what we got. Especially us landscape and street photographers.

Lessons Learned

All the things above are things that are important with photographs, but they come with time. I would never expect anyone to pick any of these 8 principles up in one day and empliment them perfectly. It comes with practice.

The Structure of A Photo

A photo is broken up into foreground, mid-ground, back ground. Many of you may know this, but it is surprising how few people actually try to implement it. Want to know why your landscape photos suck? They probably don't have an interesting foreground, mid-ground and back ground. Literally if every photographer payed attention to this, there would be a lot of good photographers in the world. But there are not a lot of good photographers and a lot of people who point and shoot and are ok with that. Lets break down these three sections of a photograph.

Foreground-Usually encompasses the bottom third of the image. This is where you place your anchor in your photography. In landscape photography, this spot is often one of the most important part of your image. It is what draws your viewer into the image. If this spot is boring often the viewer moves on. This area also separates the average from the greats in photography. If good foreground is utilized the picture will look better.

Mid-Ground– Middle of the image, but may extend into the bottom or top. Often the subject is found here.

Back Ground– Top third of the image. Usually just the sky, but can be anywhere from mid to top. But it also is just the furthest thing from the lens. This is the icing on your cake. If it is amazing the cake is amazing. If the frosting is sucky the cake will be kind of sucky too, even though it was made expertly. Technically perfect photos with bland skies or background can often be kind of boring even though the photographer did absolutely amazing everywhere else.

Rule of Thirds

I am 2000 words into this article and I finally bring up the rule of thirds. The reason why I don't bring this up until now is because all the other principles of composition are often overlooked in online articles about composition. I looked up dozens of composition articles preparing for this essay and most drop rule of thirds and then leave you at that. The phrase “rule of thirds” came about in 1797 from a painter, John Thomas Smith. He pointed out in a pamphlet that he wrote that if an image is broken up by dividing the image up into thirds both vertically and horizontally it will create a pleasing composition if you place your horizons and subjects across those lines. Particularly he points out that horizons should be places 2/3 of the way up on your canvas. I agreethat that suits images well.

So things to note about this rule. Place your main subjects along these tree lines and your image will look well balanced. Not every important part of your image needs to fall on these imaginary lines. If you place your subject in the center it will feel symmetrical.  If you don't have your rule of thirds lines turned on in your camera do so now. It will make your life better. And when you do turn them on, actually pay attention to them.

This rule, by the way, is kind of like the pirate code, in that it is more like guide lines anyways. Break this rule if you need if the image needs it, but if it doesn't need it stick to the rule.

This is an image of mine. I followed the rule of thirds… almost. I slightly moved the main subjects off the lines because if they were right on them they would have been too left heavy. But since the rule of thirds is kind of like guide lines, you can have a bit of leeway on either side of those lines to place your subjects to get the desired results that you are wanting.

Golden Mean (Golden Spiral)

Forget this one.

I literally think this is the dumbest thing to try to teach someone doing photography. Why? It is based off a mathematical spiral the rotates and as you get to certain points you can draw little squares within it and it creates what we might say the most perfect ratio on the earth for your photos. This golden ratio mean thing is actually found through out nature. Shells, plants and other organisms use this rule oddly enough. But trying to pull it off in camera is… impossible unless your camera has it built into it. You can crop to it, but I don't think you can do it in camera. So why teach you something you can't do anyways except in post. That is a different article.

Rule of Odds

This one is actually really good. I saw it explained like this. Your mind groups things in pairs. This goes back to how humans are based on a bilateral symmetry. If you split us in half we look identical from one side to the other. So when you look at someone you see two's and your mind groups in two's. But if you see something with with an odd number of focus points your mind groups two of those, but it is left uneasy because of the odd number of things left out. Thus the eye re-adjusts to group again but is still left un-satisfied and does it again. This causes the viewer to wander through the photo over and over again. So when you are putting subjects within an image make sure there are 1,3,5, or 7 subjects. Anything after that will be probably too much to notice.

Rule of odds also gets applied in a different manner as well. If your subjects are all symmetrical, they will be less appealing. That is why if you have haves within your image that you are focusing on, try to have them off set in some fashion. This will make them more dynamic and more appealing to your audience.

The Power of Triangles

Literally if you can work on this in your images you will see improvement. Triangles fall along the rule of odds and provide natural areas for the viewer to look around the image and be entertained the entire time. Triangles also provide a few things. They provide stability if they are right side up in your image. They provide instability if they are upside down like you see below. Triangles can be composed of any types of lines. Because of that they create interest and dynamics to your photos. Try to find triangles within your images as you compose them.

End of Part 1

I will be back in a few weeks with more aspects of composition. But I left you enough here for you to be busy on. Go through the things I have spoken about and see how you have utilized them so far. If you see any areas that are weak, possibly go out and photograph for an evening and apply that skill to your images. Next aspects on composition are far more complicated and deal with color, color theory and symbolism.

If you think I have left out any aspect of composition let me know in the comment below. If you want any more articles on composition go check out Jim's article on composition.


5 thoughts on “Understanding Composition in Photography: A Complete Guide”

  1. Many thanks , the explanations are very clear and have definitely enlightened me when it comes to composition !

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