Photography Class
Lesson 8: Composition
Ask a Question

Introduction: Composition

What is composition?

Composition is a set of visual rules that has been handed down from eons and eons of painting. Early photographers tried to mimic the compositions of the old masters, like Vermeer and Rembrandt. Some of the first photographs and Daguerrotypes have a very painterly quality to their scenes because up until the invention of the camera, paintings were the only way humans could interpret and recreate what we had seen. Early photographers mimicked painting because it was the only way they could imply a value for their image creation process - thanks, Painting!

The more you take photos, the more you will 'learn to see'. Photographers talk about this concept a lot. Your eyes and brain become attuned to framing compositions before you even have your camera out. To become excellent at creating structure and beauty in your images, it first starts with an awareness of the shapes and forms that exist all around you.

My former roommate who is a musician once told me "Playing music only becomes fun once you practice enough to make it fun". I think this statement applies to any creative practice, and to apply it to photography, the images you compose will only become better as you make mistakes and capture lots of images.

With the advent of digital photography, we no longer have to process rolls and rolls of film, instead, we are able to rapidly learn how to take photos by making lots and lots of images. In olden times, you know, 15 years ago, you were limited to 24 or 36 shots per roll, then you would have to wait for the images to be developed by a photo lab.

Being a great photographer takes practice, so make lots of pictures! And be your own critic!

Rule of Thirds

Photographers often frame their compositions so that they are divided into 9 equal parts. Images are vertically and horizontally sliced by 2 lines on each axis, creating 3 columns and 3 rows. To create an aesthetically pleasing composition in your image, try arranging your subject matter along these grid lines, with important focal points at the intersections of the grid.

If you decide to place your subject matter in the center, instead of to the side slightly, balance the image by putting equal amounts of space on each side of the subject. This way you are still creating a 'thirdsing' in your image with negative space around your subject.

Some cameras help you out a little by having the ability to superimpose a thirds grid over your image while you are composing your shot before you depress your shutter, so search through your camera's viewfinder options to see if that feature is available to you.

Negative Space

The space around your subject can make or break your composition. You may have the perfect light for your portrait or snapshot, but a busy background that crowds your subject can distract the viewer from the focus of your subject.

Negative space is what shapes the form of your subject, creating the leading edge of the background surrounding your foreground and subject-matter, kind of like an outline. Try to imagine each object or person in your foreground as just a silhouette, then consider how do the forms of these silhouettes look arranged next to one another?

By moving your physical position around your subject, shooting from multiple angles, you are able to exercise greater control over the negative space and shapes in your composition. You can give your subject a lot of space to create scale in your image, or crop closely so that you may remove all the distracting elements from your images.

Even your shadows can have distinct form and shape, so be sure to pay attention to how the shadows in your image interact with your subject and foreground.

Perspective and Framing

Creative use of perspective is perhaps the most important and challenging compositional device to master. How we hold our camera, and where we photograph our subjects from can help frame and contextualize our images' mood and flow. Your viewer sees and feels the moment you have framed from the perspective you shot your image. If you are shooting at eye level, try shooting from the hip to neutralize your subject even more within its background. Alternatively, try shooting from super high to give your viewer a sense of dominance and mastery over a landscape or vista. We covered this in How to Hold the Camera.

Consider your background, there are frames in the wild that are great perspective indicators for your viewer. Archways and doorframes can contextualize your subject in their setting, but there are plenty of natural features that can act as frames as well, like trees lining a trail or mountains converging ridgelines to a tree, etc.

Symmetry & Patterns

Symmetry and patterns are all around us. They occur in nature as well as man-made structures and features. We can use symmetry as a compositional device to create the harmonious balance in our images, or break symmetry to draw focus to one particular point in a balanced background.

Pattern is a powerful compositional tool to use to imply rhythm in your images, the human eye is trained to seek pattern in what it sees and your brain is comforted by its ability to find order or peace in the images we present our eyes with. Pattern can help develop an images implied texture and help convey depth as well. A pattern that converges to one side or into your horizon line will help contextualize your subjects in the space you are photographing them.

Leading Lines

By noticing where lines converge in your image, you are able to direct the gaze of your viewer. Our eyes naturally want to follow the edges of features, the paths of streams, and the spans of roads. Converging lines can convey a sensation of depth, or a feeling of endlessness. Horizontal and vertical lines can help connote emotion in images. Landscapes often are filled with lots of soothing compositional horizontal lines, but if you fill your frame with the many vertical lines of tall buildings, the viewer is made to feel small and impressed by the powerful vertical composition.

By arranging lines in your composition in interesting ways, you can manipulate the viewers' eyes to be pulled to particular focal points and subject matter, or indicate motion in a particular direction.


Like many other compositional devices, color is noticed on a subconscious level and can literally tone the mood of your images. Images with lots of bright colors are perceived as happy and cheery, while images that are mostly black, gray, and white are considered more serious.

Color can also add highlight points in your scene when used selectively. Your eye is drawn to the spots that are 'different' in your image, the points that break up the harmonious rhythm of your composition. Color is a great way to guide your viewer's eye to different parts of your frame.

Get inspired by how photographer Lauren Randolph uses color in her Chromological Order series, carefully placing bright pops of color in landscapes to convey mood and form. (and big thanks to Lauren for being such a patient model during our How to Hold the Camera lesson and What's Next lesson :D)

Ditch the Rules

Rules are meant to be broken, right? Not all the rules for composition make sense all the time, and every once in a while, you will stumble upon a form that will baffle you on how you should frame it, or need to be photographed from lots of angles and distances.

By playing with the rules of composition, and meshing common components, we can construct compelling images that draw the eye to lots of points in a busy image, or a single point in a flattened space. Understanding composition comes from developing a practice and observing the kinds of images you like to make. The times when you push the shutter again and again, and finally, after lots of shooting you have an 'AH-HA!' composition and get your shot. Sometimes it takes patience to make it work, so keep moving around your subject matter to nail the composition that makes the most sense.

Are You Ready?

A good photograph is a well-timed image. A photograph captured at the precise moment can tell such a big story. Often this means waiting and anticipating the motion and gestures of your subject.

Beloved street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, a true master of timing, once said:

"Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again."

Consider this, if you are giving someone a really cool gift, like a brand new bike, for that perfect reaction shot of the recipient, you have your camera out before you present them with the gift, right?

If you are photographing a sports event and want to capture a big play, try watching through your camera's viewfinder or LCD screen, with your finger resting on the shutter.

It's a good practice to also take lots of shots so that you may have lots to choose from later. If your camera has a burst mode, just hold your finger down on the shutter button to capture multiple shots in succession.

Class Project

My friend Shevawn and I took inspiration from Frida Kahlo to make some portraits and have some fun playing around with lighting.

Use your new compositional awareness and lighting know-how to mimic a famous work of art. Have fun with it. Who is your favorite painter? How do they render light in their paintings? Does it look flat or unrealistic? Experiment with the skills you have learned in this class to get as close as you can to the original work, but also, I am excited to see how each of you interpret great art from history.

In our next lesson, we will touch on what the Next Steps are for leveling up your photography practice and cover a deeper explanation of what is going on inside the camera.

Be the First to Share