10. Photography composition

In the preceding chapters of this course we’ve spoken about how cameras work, how to get creative using aperture and shutter speed and how lenses and light can impact the look of your shot too, but one creative element relating to photography that we haven’t yet discussed is composition.

Travel photo composition example
© Karl Taylor

Composition in photography

Composition (which I referred to earlier as the subject) refers to how we lay the picture out and how we place objects within the scene to get the most aesthetically pleasing results. The purpose of composition is to guide the viewers eye through the picture, and this we do through careful framing, arrangement and placement of objects within the scene.

One of the most important things to remember about composition is this: although there are compositional guidelines such as the rule of thirds or golden ratio, they are simply that — guidelines. Often, some of the best images completely ignore traditional compositional convention. So why then, is it important to know and understand them?

By following compositional guidelines, although you’re not guaranteed a great image, you will have a much better chance of capturing a good image compared to if you don’t understand composition at all.

That being said, composition isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of good photography. There are other factors, such as the science behind our visual systems, that can also be used to create effective imagery too.

Rules of composition

The most common compositional rule you’re likely to have heard of is the rule of thirds. It’s easy to remember and fairly simple to apply, which makes it a popular method to apply for those just starting out with photography.

Rule of thirds

One of the most well known compositional rules, the rule of thirds divides the image into three rows of three, splitting the image into nine equal blocks. The idea is to position important elements so that they fall either on the dividing lines or at the points of intersection. The reasoning behind this rule is that by placing objects within these areas helps to create more interest in the image than if you were to simply centre the subject.

Rule of thirds example photograph

Interested in night photography? Click here.

In this chapter I show you a number of examples of how I’ve applied the rule of thirds to many different types of photography and explain why it can help. But there are a few other rules of composition that you may have heard of too.

Golden ratio - The golden ratio is a mathematical formula that relates to Phi (1.6180339…). Two quantities (a and b) fit the golden ratio if b is to a what a is to the sum of a + b. In this ratio, a is 1.6180339 times bigger than b. This formula forms the basis for other compositional rules, such as the golden spiral and even to some extent the rule of thirds.

Phi illustration

Golden spiral - The golden spiral, developed by Fibonacci, is, contrary to its' name, composed out of a series of Phi Grids. These grids determine the path of a snail-shaped spiral (known as the Fibonacci Spiral), which guides your eye around the image to the focal point.

Golden spiral

Having now explained these different rules, you would have seen in the video that I don't believe the influence or importance of these rules are as great as people often believe.

Composition techniques

In addition to compositional rules, there are a number of compositional techniques you can include in your images.

Leading lines

Leading lines are lines (or curves) that guide the viewer’s eye to the subject. Anything from fence posts to winding roads, leading lines can be straight, curved, diagonal or converging. These lines help keep our eye in the frame and draw attention to the subject.

Leading lines photography example photograph

Interested in travel photography? Click here.

Symmetry

Although this generally goes against the rule of thirds, symmetry can be very effective when used correctly. Often quite striking, symmetry can help remove or minimise additional distractions and focus the eye.

Symmetry can be seen in the images above and below.

Symmetry composition example photograph

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Colour

Colour is an important part of photography and we can use this to even greater effect with some careful thought. Colours can be used to change or influence the mood and feel of an image or to draw attention to particular elements. Using juxtaposing colours within an image can be a particularly effective way of catching the viewers attention, as I show in the examples in the video.

Both the images above and below are an example of how colour theory has been used as a compositional technique.

Photograph using strong colour to influence mood
© Karl Taylor

Framing

As the name suggests, framing is when you use other elements within the image to frame the subject. This can be particularly useful in creating depth and three dimensionality. The objects you use to frame the subject not only add additional elements of interest, they can also add perspective and a sense of scale.

Photograph composition using elements in photo to frame subject
© Karl Taylor

While it’s important to keep these compositional rules in mind when photographing, the most important aim is to maintain your viewer’s attention and keep their eye in the frame. This can be done using other techniques that link to the human visual system, such as left to right bias, contrast, colour, narrative etc. This is covered in detail in our ‘A Visual Journey’ workshop, which you can read about here.

As photographers, our goal is always to keep the viewer connected with our images, and while it can be beneficial to try and follow these guidelines, good photography comes down to far more than just good composition. It’s therefore important to make sure you have an understanding of everything we've covered in this course: how cameras work, how time and aperture can be used together for creative imagery, optics and their differences, the importance of light for conveying emotion and the different types of recording mediums and how these relate to image quality.

All content © Copyright Karl Taylor Education.

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Now that you've completed this introduction to photography course, don't forget to download the free e-book. This supplementary guide provides an abundance of useful information and infographics to use in conjunction with this course to further enhance your learning. Specifically designed to provide a handy tool to take out with you while shooting, you can quickly and easily refer back to key concepts throughout the guide and also check your knowledge.