What Is Composition? A Photographer’s Guide

Tips & Techniques

This is Chapter 2 of our multi-part tutorial, Composition in Photography, which teaches you how to compose photos that are as effective as possible. In this part of the guide, I’ll define composition and explain why it’s such a powerful tool for taking better photos.

Droplets
NIKON D800E + 105mm f/2.8 @ 105mm, ISO 100, 1/640, f/3.5

Table of Contents

The Definition of Composition

Each time you take a photo, you end up making conscious decisions about what items to include or exclude. You also decide how to arrange the objects that are in your frame. So, what is composition? It is simply the arrangement of the elements in your photo.

I know that plenty of people have more complex definitions of composition, but it strikes me that they’re only making things more confusing. In the end, everything you hear about composition boils down to the arrangement of the elements in your photo – and how that arrangement makes a photo succeed or fail.

Of course, capturing a good composition is far from easy. But that’s all the more reason to keep things simple when you can. If you’re struggling on where to even start when composing a photo, think back to the basics. Your photo has things in it; your job is to arrange them.

Fox
NIKON D7000 + 24mm f/1.4 @ 24mm, ISO 100, 1/1600, f/1.4

The Strongest Way of Seeing

The next question is how to arrange the elements in your photo effectively – and the answer is to arrange them in a way that brings out meaning.

For example, picture an image in your head. A shadow is no longer just a shadow. It’s a line that leads to a vase of flowers; the vase is the same color as a clock on the wall; the hands on the clock point back to the shadow.

Doesn’t that sound like a deliberate photo? With just two tools – lines and colors – the (hypothetical) photographer in this case has managed to thread together different objects and give them more meaning.

One of my favorite quotes about photography is that good composition is “the strongest way of seeing.” Who said that? None other than Edward Weston, among the best street photographers of all time and a master of composition.

Emotion

Putting “the strongest way of seeing” into practice isn’t easy, but I believe it all comes down to emotion. Think of it like this: Your composition should complement your subject. If you’re photographing an intense, apocalyptic storm cloud overhead, feel free to arrange an intense, apocalyptic composition! Get their emotions on the same page.

If you’re not sure how to capture an intense composition, don’t worry. First off, this guide is 90% about answering that exact question. But second, it’s all surprisingly intuitive. In this particular example with the storm, an intense composition might be one where the horizon is along the bottom edge of the photo and the sky is filled with sharp, dramatic lines – things like that. You might go so far as to boost contrast in post-processing to make the effect even stronger.

Ultimately, I find it helpful to have the same two questions going through my head when I’m taking a photo: “What emotions are my subjects giving off? And how can I arrange my composition to give off those same emotions?”

Alleyway
NIKON D7000 + 24mm f/1.4 @ 24mm, ISO 360, 1/50, f/1.4

Structure

Your composition also determines the path of a viewer’s eye through the photo. Even though you can’t know the exact path a viewer’s eye is going to take, you can nudge things one way or another.

Do you want your viewer to pay more attention to the mountains in the background of an image? Look for lines in the foreground or sky that point toward them. Or, wait until the light at sunset shines on the mountain peaks with brilliant color. Do what you can to make the mountains a destination for your viewer’s attention.

I always find it interesting how our eyes flow through a photo subconsciously. For instance, we intuitively follow along the path of lines in an image, especially straight lines. Even more than that, we spend substantial time looking at subjects and jumping from each important subject in the photo to the next. (An “important subject in the photo” would be something like a person’s face or an area of high sharpness and contrast.)

I’m not just inventing these ideas out of thin air. Take a look at this detailed study that tracked how people’s eyes flowed through different works of classic art, and even compared how their eyes flowed after rearranging one or two elements. If you take the time to click on that study, you’ll see something that I find especially interesting: Even a small rearrangement almost always had cascading effects. For example, cropping out the dark, left-hand edge of a Rembrandt painting led people to spend more time looking at a wall in the background on the opposite side of the painting.

This is the power of composition. By changing the arrangement of some elements here and there, you change the photo’s entire structure – and therefore how a viewer’s eye flows through the image.

Black and White Street Photo
NIKON D7000 + 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 55mm, ISO 640, 1/10, f/2.8

Control

Photographers tend to forget that they have tremendous control over the size and placement of the different objects in an image. And no, I’m not talking about moving around your subject in Photoshop after the fact. I’m not even talking about moving things around in a studio where you have full control over your photo.

Instead, any time you’re taking pictures, simply changing your camera position and focal length can have huge effects on the composition you get. Do you want a tree that’s bigger than a mountain? Done. Just walk up close and use a wide angle lens.

Wide angle lens for landscape photography
NIKON D800E + 20mm f/1.8 @ 20mm, ISO 100, 1/4, f/16.0
Wide angle, standing up close.

Do you want an imposing mountain and a smaller tree? That’s just as easy. Stand back and use a telephoto.

Telephoto lens for landscape photography
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 70mm, ISO 100, 0.6 seconds, f/16.0
Telephoto, standing farther back. (This is the same tree.)

So often, I see photographers set up their tripod at eye level and never move it at all. They’ll do 100% of their composition by loosening the ballhead on the tripod, pointing the camera around, and then locking the ballhead when they’re satisfied.

I won’t say this method is doomed to give you bad photos, but it’s missing out on a huge part of composition! If your tripod stays in the same spot, you won’t be able to change the relative sizes or relative positions of the subjects you’re capturing. That’s a lot of creative tools down the drain.

So, as you read through the rest of this guide, I recommend reminding yourself of something from time to time: You have extraordinary control over a photo’s composition… and, therefore, a photo’s emotions. Use

Next Steps

Now that you have an idea of what composition is and why it’s so powerful, it’s time to look at the specific tools at your disposal to help compose better photos. So, click below to go to Chapter 3: Elements of Composition.

(Note: I’m actively writing and improving this guide. So far, chapters 1 and 2 are fully up to date.)

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