5 tips on photographic composition
Updated: Sep 19, 2021
A very broad topic.
Many photographers take a simplistic approach to composition in their photographs.
There are many magazine articles and videos about the rule of thirds, but very few go beyond this idea.
Many photographers are obsessed with the rule of thirds in composition!
As a reminder the rule of thirds is to divide your image into 3 parts horizontally and 3 parts vertically. Like this:
These dividing lines meet at 4 points in the center which are called force points.
(the subject on this picture is placed on the lower left point of force)
There are so many other ways to compose an image and nobody talks about it...
Why is that?!?
Maybe the photographers who discovered this information want to keep it to themselves.
Or maybe they have no interest in writing about it.
Either way, there are five things that no one tells you about composition that you really should know.
1. Great composition is the mark of a great photographer.
Think of a particular photographer, try to study their work and you'll be impressed to see how consistent everything is.
Two things will stand out.
One is the mastery of their craft, the technical aspects like exposure, aperture choice, post processing, etc.
The other is their mastery of composition.
This is much more difficult and tedious because one must learn to look, observe and organize an often chaotic subject into a pleasing and interesting composition.
Like a musical composition, photography is based on rules and feelings that come from the heart and from the sensations we want to convey.
If the composition is not solid and thought out in advance everything can fall apart.
For example Benjamin Von Wong uses different rules of composition but he keeps the same root for each of his pictures.
In this photo we can see that the main subject is aligned on the left side of the photo, his face is on a point of the rule of thirds but that is not all.
There is also a conductive line (created by the light/dark contrast and the subject's gaze) that leads us to a second subject which is the shark. The light on the rocks also forms lines that point to the subject.
The subject stands out from the background because it is in a distinct color with a different brightness from the rest of the image.
The photographer also uses empty areas that can be called negative space such as the top right corner of the image. If there were some small details in this corner of the image, the photo would not have as much impact.
2. Composition takes years to master.
Seeing and composing beautiful images requires an ongoing commitment to learn and improve.
Don't just read one article, or one book on composition and think that's all you have to do.
You should read as much as you can on the subject, then apply what you learn. There is always something new to discover, a different authorial perspective to absorb. It may not be what you want to hear, but to master it you have to force yourself to think about it constantly!
I read a book by a photographer who does excellent photographic work, his name is Chris SOM. He wrote a book on Portrait composition which illustrates his own vision of composition which I really like, but there are many other visions to discover. Don't hesitate to try as many schemes as possible to find what works for you.
3. The rule of thirds is overestimated
As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons the rule of thirds is so widely mentioned and used is that it is simple. Any good photographer knows that the rule of thirds is just the tip of the iceberg of what there is to learn about composition.
This rule is like any other rule, you have to use it to transform it, to play with it and not to follow its concept stupidly.
Otherwise all the pictures would look the same and there would be no artistic interest behind it.
So, if you think that all you have to do in composition is to use the rule of thirds, think again.
Composition takes years to master.
For example, in this image I took along the Ottawa River, one could say that the composition is simple because I respected the rule of thirds. I placed my subject on the left point of strength of the photograph but it is much more complex than that indeed.
Some people will notice that there are conductive lines (the beam in the water) that lead our gaze to a vanishing point and this vanishing point concludes on the gaze of my subject. The whole forms a triangle.
There is also a color contrast between the blue of the water and the blue of the sky.
The sky part represents 1/3 of the image and the river 2/3 of the image which is also a rule of composition.
There is room in the direction of the subject's gaze:
Often in photography there is a rule of composition which is to leave room in front of the subject's gaze, to know where the subject is looking and what he is looking at so as not to give a feeling of compartmentalization (enclosure).
For this photo there is a lot of space in front of the subject's eyes but we can't see what he is really looking at. I deliberately broke this rule to leave room for the viewer's imagination and in this way make the landscape in front of him seem infinite.
These more subtle compositional nuances are the ones that take years to fully appreciate and integrate into his photographs.
4. Light, subject and composition work together
The last thing anyone tells you about composition is that it doesn't work in isolation.
Light and subject are equally important.
Good photos have an interesting subject, photographed with great light and composed in an interesting or dynamic way.
Light, subject and composition go hand in hand, but remember that this is an ideal.
Photography, like life, is not always simple. You won't always be able to match light, subject and composition the way you want.
The good news is that unlike natural light, composition is always under your control. Improve your composition and your photos will naturally improve.
5. Working in black and white to improve your composition
Finally, if you really want to improve your compositional skills, you should work in black and white.
This allows you to reveal structure, tonal contrast, texture, line, shape, space and pattern in certain subjects.
It is an excellent tool to focus more on the composition as a viewer but also for the photographer directly at the shot.
If you think of the photo in black and white at the time of shooting your composition will be more thoughtful.
You will see lines or structures appear that would have no impact in color.
Once you have tested and integrated different compositional ideas you can return to color and learn how to integrate color with the other compositional elements mentioned above.
Now you can think back to this article when you look at a photo.