Photography Fundamentals: Mastering Composition

Photos that illustrates photography composition

Photography is more than just capturing a photo; it’s about telling a story and conveying emotions through the lens. One of the basic aspects that can make your photographs stand out from being just ordinary is to apply compositional techniques.

What is Composition in Photography?

Photo composition is how a photographer arranges multiple elements or objects within a frame. It’s often the most simple yet complicated process that makes a photograph more or less interesting to the viewer. “Everything can seem perfect: lighting, location, wardrobe, styling, whatever,” says photographer Grace Rivera. “But if your composition is off, that’s a deal breaker.” 

Composing a good photo requires the ability to combine different elements into an aesthetically pleasing concept. It goes beyond just focusing on the main subject. Oftentimes, a specific compositional style is a key factor that defines the uniqueness of the photographer’s art.

In this blog post, I will introduce some basic composition techniques: the Rule of Thirds, Leading Lines, and Framing. These are not hard and fast rules but rather will serve as a guideline. Understanding and applying these techniques to your practice will certainly help you create more compelling photos that leave an impression on the viewers.

1. The Rule of Thirds: Balance and Harmony

A photo of scenery that is cropped using the Rule of Thirds principle.
Image source: Petapixel.com

The rule of thirds is a way to divide a frame by placing two equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines, creating a three-by-three grid. This compositional technique helps create balance and flow within the image where the key component or subject should be placed along the lines or at the intersections. The result would create depth and balance rather than just placing the subject in the middle of a frame.

Take the photo above, for example, the horizon is positioned roughly along the bottom third of the frame and the biggest and closest tree is along the line to the right. The photo would not create the same impact if the large trees were placed in the centre of the frame.

2. Leading Lines: Guiding the Viewer’s Eye

A field of red tulips and a windmill show how the leading line method works.
Image source: Borchee via istockphoto.com

Leading lines are visual elements in your photograph that pull the viewer’s eye toward a subject or specific focal point. They can be straight lines, curves, or patterns in your composition.

Photography flattens three dimensions into two. The image above is a good example of how leading lines can give a flat surface the appearance of depth, dimension and shape. In this case, the red tulip field that replicates straight lines – guides the viewer’s eye to the windmill house.

A photo of scenery that illustrates the leading lines technique.
Image source: Petapixel.com

Another example of a leading line appears in a curved line, which is a very dynamic compositional feature that leads the viewer’s eyes to the right of the frame. The photo above also demonstrates the use of the rule of thirds where the tree is placed along the line to the right.

3. Framing: Adding Depth and Context

Simply put, composition is the arrangement of the elements in a photograph. A composition can contain many or a few individual elements. It’s how the artist arranges such elements within a frame that makes an image more or less attractive to the viewer.

An excellent photograph will take many distinct components and combine them into an artistically pleasing whole. Composition is the process by which an artist communicates a story within the constraints of a single frame.

Two photos show the using of framing techniques to capture viewers' attention.
Image source: livesnaplove.com

The example above is a good example of using the arch as part of the image. On the left, the subject is framed by both the window and archway. The image on the right shows an open archway framing that pulls the viewer’s eye to the beautiful view.

It’s important to remember that the aspects of composition are meant to serve as a guide, not a replacement for the photographer’s own judgment and taste.
Basic rules of photography composition serve as a starting point. After learning the fundamentals, “you can experiment,” as Rivera puts it. You can aim and fire at whatever you like. That’s the beauty of being an artist. You get to choose your own boundaries and create your own visuals.

Composition is a means by which a photographer can convey their vision to an audience. They take pieces from all over the place and, using their tools and knowledge, arrange them neatly in a frame. This remains true regardless of the scale of the subject matter, be it a human portrait, a vast landscape, or a microscopic universe captured in a macro shot.

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