Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Composition in photography

This is a brief summary of how I currently see composition and its importance in photography. I am documenting my current feelings together with some points that I've noted from analysing photographs and paintings. I'm making no attempt to create a 'kit' or set approach for people to use in creating compositions. Formulaic approaches can't be applied to all situations, and besides, composition has to be personal. We are all calibrated differently and need to develop our own form of expression in order to express a personal perspective on a subject.

Red Pike, Mick's BG
Is this and example of balance or imbalance? They guys are all off to the right of the image, yet there is a large mass of mountain to the left to balance the image - and the light source is pretty much central

My at a glance approach to composition
The rules of composition

My at a glance approach to composition:

1. Subject - decide on what the subject of the image is, or how to combine multiple subjects so that they work together.
2. Backgrounds - backgrounds often make the difference between a successful photograph and a snapshot. When we look at something with our eyes we tend to focus intently at the main subject and filter out what else is happening around. The camera is more literal and less forgiving. Everything that the camera sees in the frame is captured in the final shot. Not all elements may be in sharp focus, so with control over depth of field we can control the emphasis in the finished image - but distractions are generally to be avoided. A slight step in any direction may help to eliminate a distraction, either by moving it out of shot, or behind the main subject.
3. Edges - distractions lead the viewer's attention from the main subject, and if distractions fall at the edge of the image the composition is usually weakened considerably. Another example of a weak composition is when the main subject is placed so that part of it is juuuuust kissing the edge of the image. Items touching the edge of an image set up a bond which is difficult to escape. Curved subjects are especially prone to this effect. Rather than just kissing the frame, most subjects benefit from what I refer to as a decisive crop.
4. Corners - if the edges were bad places for distractions, just wait until they fall in the corners! Corners form visual hotspots in a composition - a distraction in a corner inevitably leads the viewer away from the subject. Though I do not believe in the concept of leading lines in composition, I do agree with Andreas Finninger in his book 'Composition in Photography' that lines exiting the frame at the corner lead a viewer out of an image. Other people think the exact opposite and feel the best exit for a line in an image is the corner...

There are always exceptions. Each shot is individual, none of the above may matter. For instance, images with very strong geometrical shapes can often exploit the edges and corners of a frame to good effect.

Hot tips
1. Especially in landscape/still life /formal portrait images, get into the habit of checking all four corners of the frame and right around the edges before committing to the shot. These areas are every bit as important as the main subject - possibly more so.
2. If you are starting out in composition, try turning the image upside down, either on your monitor or as a print. By doing this you take the emphasis and power away from the main subject and see the more abstract qualities of an image - the pure compositional elements. It helps to determine which components are visually dominant. You can then decide what is distracting from your real subject.
3. The best tip is to experiment. This is one of the real joys of working digitally, it is so easy to take an extra shot or hundred, or to try different crops on your monitor back on the computer.
4. Beware of overcropping in-camera. You can always crop on the computer, but it can be very difficult to add something back in if you missed it out in the first instance! As you develop your sense of composition you will find determining your crop and composition on location far easier and the number of shots you take will decrease.

The rules of composition

There is only one rule in composition:


There are plenty of principles - but rules? Rules are too prescriptive and lead to ludicrous statements such as:

'You've got to understand the rules to break them.'

Err - no you don't. I can't think of any area of society where this is true - and I certainly oppose the idea when it comes to composition. Principles often work in pairs, each principle having a counter principle which can be an equally valid approach to composition.

Balance v Imbalance
Balance creates calm and harmony in an image. Imbalance creates tension and can add to drama.

Maryport Harbour, Cumbria Coast with Scottish Mountains of the Solway Firth in the distance
The main visual interest it pushed to the top right, but the mass of dark mud attempts to balance the overall composition. 

Centred v off centre
Centring a subject or working with symmetry in an image will lead to a strong sense of balance. The vertical axis tends to be the key one for symmetry, but why not the horizontal axis as well? A vertically centred composition usually calls for absolute precision - slightly off centre often looks wrong. A horizontally centred composition has more flexibility.

All Alone
Another Place art installation by Anthony Gormley, Crosby, Liverpool
Centred composition with some asymmetry from the Welsh hills in the background

Another Place art installation by Anthony Gormley, Crosby, Liverpool
This time off centre, same subject but a slightly different mood. Same location but a different context.

Big sky v little sky
Big skies often give a feeling of vastness and can add huge scale to an image. Thin strips of sky can help anchor an image and make it feel whole, though keep the emphasis firmly on the other content in the frame.

Distant Howgills
I tried several compositions of this tree, but found the distant hills and wafer thin slice of sky essential to bring the image together and give the tree context. 

Wispies over the Knot
These wispy clouds take up most of the frame but the thin line of cloud near the base and the line of dark hills anchor the shot and stop it drifting away.

Simplification v complexity
Keep it simple, stupid. KISS, a principle adopted by lots of photographers. Few elements, simple relationships, no clutter or distractions. If the elements are resolved and working together the resulting image will be easy to look at and the photographer should be able to guide the viewer through the image.

The Promenade, Scarborough. An example of the KISS principle of composition - Keep It Simple, Stupid

Breakfast at the Hotel Florida, Biarritz, France
Maybe not that complex as most elements are repeated in a simple pattern. Plenty of room for the viewer to roam around until they latch onto the solitary couple sat on their balcony enjoying breakfast. 

A complex image takes the opposite approach. There may be key elements in the composition which required careful positioning, but they could equally be such a confusion elements the exact composition is quite arbitrary. The idea here is that there's such a lot to look at the viewer wants to roam freely and discover something new each time they see the image.

Put simply, work out the full subject, then make sure you include it all. So if you are shooting your dog sprawled on a rug don't just ponk its cute little face right in the centre spot of your viewfinder and press the button. You will end up with at least half its legs chopped off, yet a great space of nothingness above its head.

But this is where completeness gets more complicated. You may decide that its cute little face is the bit that really matters - so want to zoom right in on that. Make a decisive crop and all should be fine.

Zooming in on his cute little(!) head. Looking at this shot again, the toy cropped on the left of frame is incomplete and does weaken the composition, as does the overly large gap at the base. 
The opposite, incompleteness doesn't quite work as a concept - it simply implies a crop, where the real use of incompleteness should really be to create intrigue in a shot. Something missing, but the viewer's attention is drawn into the image and a story starts to formulate in the viewer's mind.

Street photography (and to some extent sports photography) is an excellent example of creating intrigue. Strange crops, crooked frames, tangents, corners, edges - its all fair game in Street photography, pretty much essential. All these features add to the spontaneity of the finished image and lead viewers to believe that the images were pure luck!

Emphasis can be achieved in composition, lighting, depth of field, motion blur and/or post processing. One of the great aims and reasons for black and white conversions is to control the emphasis of different elements of an image, for example the stark tree set against the Howgill Fells photograph above.


So what is good composition? Having looked at thousands of images through my work I've come to the conclusion that there isn't any such thing as good composition, unless good composition is defined as a composition without weaknesses. Ideally, all the elements work together and there are no distractions - the viewer is left to enjoy the subject and purpose of the image.

No rules, just a handful of principles to consider and adopt if they fit.

Rock tree study, Hampsfell, Grange over Sands


  1. Your best post to date. Very interesting.

    For me, composition is something I think about constantly, mainly because it is a struggle. I suspect it comes more naturally for some, but my mechanistic mind needs to really think it through.

    For that reason I'm the kind of person that can easily get trapped by the "rules" so it's always appreciated to read practical compositional thoughts that stray from formulas.

  2. Thanks Mike.

    The main problem I find with the 'rules' is that they are taken to be set in stone. If they are read as loose principles they form a far better starting point. The two main offenders are thirds and leading lines - I'd scrap any reference to leading lines altogether and take thirds as meaning reasonably off centre. Thirds can work, but so can forths, fifths, sixths... it has more to do with the flow of energy in the image than some archaic mathematical formula (as do leading lines).

    Other devices worth a mention are S-curves, they do have a habit of working, and foreground interest. The key with foreground interest is ensuring the foreground and background work together. Joe Cornish used foreground interest frequently - and to great effect.

    Always work on relationships, the relationship between individual elements in the photograph, the relationship between these and the edge of the image, and ultimately the relationship between the elements and the viewer.