What is Composition in Photography

You’ve learned your camera’s basic settings, got a pretty good handle on shutter speed, ISO, & aperture, and you’re comfortable shooting in manual mode — but still, something is missing.

It’s that vital ingredient that separates good photography from great, the creative element that adds your “art” to your photographs. We’re talking about composition.

This guide will discuss the meaning of composition in photography and explain several composition techniques you can use to improve your images.

lemons on pink
Photo by Madison Inouye from Pexels

What is composition?

The dictionary definition of composition is, “the nature of something’s ingredients or constituents; the way in which a whole or mixture is made up.”

That definition pretty much sums up the definition of composition when it comes to photography, too. It’s how all the elements of your photograph combine to create the image.

Composing a photograph means making sure the elements that appear in your image are arranged in a particular way to create a feeling or emotion, lead the viewer’s eye a certain way, project your idea, or simply create the most visually appealing picture. Sometimes that means actually moving objects, and sometimes that means moving your camera so that objects appear in the frame a certain way.

While photography is an art in its own right — and there really are no rules in art — there are no rules when it comes to composition. There are, however, techniques you can follow to help you create a good composition. 

Composition techniques:

Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is one of the most widely used guidelines for composition. It’s very simple to follow. Just divide your frame into nine equal sections, with 3 imaginary horizontal lines and 3 imaginary vertical lines.

Then, when composing your image, the most important elements of your image should be placed at the intersection of those lines — whether it’s a horizon placed at one of the horizontal lines or a vertical element like a tree or person situated along one of the vertical lines.

The rule of thirds is so commonly used that many camera manufacturers have this grid available to display in live view mode. Check your camera manual to see if it’s an option available to you.

Remember, this isn’t a steadfast rule (even though it literally has the word ‘rule’ in its name!). But it’s a great guideline for composition that quite often will result in more visually attractive images. Just don’t use it all the time or your photos will start to become repetitive and predictable.

rule of thirds
Photo by Min An from Pexels

Leading Lines

Another quite common rule of composition is leading lines. Our eyes are naturally drawn along lines so use them in your composition to lead the viewer to various points in your image.

At the same time, be aware of lines that might lead the viewer’s eye somewhere you don’t want it to go. Street lines, railroad tracks, sidewalks, and paving stones are often used as leading lines but you can find them everywhere.

leading lines composition
Photo by sergio souza from Pexels

Create Depth

Because photographs are two-dimensional, it’s important to add a sense of depth to your composition so it doesn’t feel flat. One way to do that is by making sure you have a foreground, middle ground, and background, especially when shooting landscape photos.

Another way you can create depth is by overlapping elements in your image. The human eye will automatically recognize overlapped objects as layers and see the image as having more depth.

creating depth with composition
Landscape photography

Frame Within the Frame

In the same way that a frame highlights a beautiful work of art on your wall, using a frame as an element within your composition is a great way to bring focus to the main subject of your photograph.

A frame could consist of anything from tree branches to a window frame, archways, or even human hands. Frames can be many different things, but the result is that they isolate your subject.

frame within a frame
Photo by Suliman Sallehi from Pexels

Look for Symmetry & Patterns

Shots that fill the frame with repeating patterns — a line of trees, a row of windows, or a row of colorful tile — are impactful and visually interesting. Shots with symmetry are pleasing to the human eye, especially when centered. 

symmetry and patterns in composition
Photo by veeterzy from Pexels

Composition Do’s and Don’ts

  • DO be aware of your background. An unsightly or distracting background can ruin an otherwise great photograph. Always be aware of what’s in the back of your image, whether it’s an overly bright area or an unsightly object. Use a wide aperture to blur it out or move.
  • DO fill the frame. If you find that your image lacks impact because the subject is too small, crop in tight and fill the frame with your subject, eliminating the background altogether. Now all the attention will be on your subject.
  • DO straighten your horizon. Horizon lines are horizontal! Nothing kills a composition faster than a crooked horizon. 
  • DO leave negative space. While filling the frame is one way to make a compositional impact, so is leaving the frame wide open! Leaving a lot of empty space around your subject creates a sense of simplicity and serves the same purpose and filling the frame — it puts all the focus on the subject.
  • DON’T cut off limbs. Always watch the edges of your frame, especially if you’re photographing a person or animal, to be sure you don’t unintentionally ‘amputate’ any body parts. 
  • DON’T forget to break the rules! Once you’ve learned the guidelines for good composition, don’t forget to get creative, break the rules, and experiment with your composition to create your own vision.

Final thoughts

The best way to master composition is to put these guidelines to practice. First, look at your favorite photographs and see if you can tell what composition techniques the photographer put to use.

Many times they will have used more than one. Then, go out with your camera and try the techniques yourself. Before you know it, the art of composition will become second nature.

Brooke Arnold

Brooke Arnold is a writer and award-winning photographer specializing in cat portraits. She is an advocate for rescue animals and is best known for dressing up her cats as famous people like Bob Ross and Evel Knievel. Her biggest claim to fame, however, is being child #2 in an orange juice ad that hung in a mall in Miami at age 8.

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