The art of composition

photography composition

Once you have mastered exposure, the next focus (forgive the pun) will be composition. Composition is defined as the “act of combining parts or elements to form a whole”. Do you look at photographs and find them interesting or pleasing, even beautiful, but don’t really know why? On the other hand do you look at photographs and think that they don’t look right for some reason? Again you may not be able to put you’re finger on the reason why you don’t like a particular photograph, but hopefully the following article will help you understand what makes a good photograph and a bad one.

Below is informative video tutorial regarding composition of photographs that I thought might be of interest. The remainder of the article covers laws such as the law of thirds to isolating a subject, we have tried to detail as many of the rules that help achieve a better photograph.  Feel free to add any in the comments that are not covered in this article.

The traditional laws of composition

1. The law of thirds

The rule of thirds is in fact a simplification of the golden mean. The golden mean is a ratio that has been used by visual artists for centuries as an aid to composition. When two things are in the proportion of 1:1.618, or 3/8 to 5/8, they are said to be in the golden mean. Dividing the parts of an image up according to this proportion helps to create a pleasing, balanced composition. The intersection points on a golden mean grid appear at 3/8 in and 3/8 down/up, rather than at 1/3 in and 1/3 down/up on the grid of thirds.

2. Positive and negative shapes

When we look at photographs and our attention is occupied by the subject (positive space), we often don’t consider how we can use the negative space (not our subject). In the photograph below the negative space is all the space between the subject and the edge of the photograph. Generally speaking the composition works if there is a balance between the positive and negative space within the overall photo. In the example below the negative space is used to lead the viewers eyes to the subject (positive space). When taking a photograph think about the composition as a whole and how the positive and negative space is being used for the overall benefit of the photograph.

makeover photoshoot 283

3. The golden triangle – equilateral

4. The golden mean

Subject near and far

5. Rule of odds

The “rule of odds” states that by framing the object of interest in an artwork with an even number of surrounding objects, it becomes more comforting to the eye, thus creates a feeling of ease and pleasure It is based on the assumption that humans tend to find visual images that reflect their own preferences/wishes in life more pleasing and attractive. An image of a person surrounded/framed by two other persons, for instance, where the person in the center is the object of interest in that image/artwork, is more likely to be perceived as friendly and comforting by the viewer, than an image of a single person with no significant surroundings.

6. Rule of space

The rule of space applies to artwork (photography, advertising, illustration) picturing object(s) to which the artist wants to apply the illusion of movement, or which is supposed to create a contextual bubble in the viewer’s mind. This can be achieved, for instance, by leaving white space in the direction the eyes of a portrayed person are looking, or, when picturing a runner, adding white space in front of him rather than behind him to indicate movement.

Space management in the viewfinder

1. Leaving space

See Henri Cartier Bresson for good examples

2. Checking out patterns.

3. Using symmetry

Is calming but not very dynamic

4. Using asymmetry

Have subject looking into or across frame rather than out of it.

fashion makeup after photograph
5. Sweeping curve

Leading viewer on a diagonal journey form top of frame to its bottom (from one corner to opposite corner (coast line)).

6. shape or form

7. simplicity

Less is more

8. reflections and shadows

makeover photography
makeover photography

The shadow adds to the drama of this image

9. Frame within a frame


The car window frame acts as a frame within the larger frame of the actual photograph

10. Using scale

Haigh Viaduct Wigan

The image gives the viewer a sense of scale, showing how impressive the church is and how small the people are in comparison

11. Repetition of shapes

12. Eliminating space for a reason

Tight cropping

13. Space and movement

wedding photographThe couple are positioned in such a way as to allow them to move into the space in front of them (left). incorrect framing can leave the viewing feeling the photograph looks badly framed and poorly conceived (right). It is a subtle difference but one that makes all the difference.

14. Focal point

wedding63aThere is a clear focal point to this photograph

15. Lead – in lines

see how the lines of the path lead in towards the kissing couple leading into the focal point of the image

16. the Dutch angle, using diagonals

To make dynamic and fill frame when photographing strong vertical shapes

17. move in closer

wedding31Don’t be scared to get in and personal. The close in feel of this photograph makes the view feel part of the story.

18. impact or interest

19. pyramid shapes

portrait photoshoot 226Look to have your subjects form a triangle shape, this is pleasing to the eye. having an inverted triangle (imagine the central subject lower than the two either side) would look odd to the viewer.

20. tell a story with as few objects as possible

21. use your imagination

22. simplification

Images with clutter can distract from the main elements within the picture and make it difficult to identify the subject. By decreasing the extraneous content, the viewer is more likely to focus on the primary objects. Clutter can also be reduced through the use of lighting, as the brighter areas of the image tend to draw the eye, as do lines, squares and colour. In painting, the artist may use less detailed and defined brushwork towards the edges of the picture.

23. isolation of subject