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What is composition in photography?



Photography is not just a technical pastime. It is an art. While it's important to know how to control your camera, you should take the type of photos you want, rather than boring if technically correct photos.

Here's a technically perfect, awful photo. It's well exposed, there are good shadow and highlight details, the colors are accurate and it's thoroughly and completely boring.

And here is one of my favorite photos I took this year. It was shot with an old movie camera, so the quality is not perfect. There are a few development artifacts, and it's a bit soft. But it is a much more interesting picture than the photo of my light switch.

Well, this is an extreme example, but it applies to all areas of photography. Photography is more than just technical perfection. It's more than just photographing beautiful places or people, and that's what sets art apart from snapshots and good photos of bad ones. The word for something more is composition.

Composition is how you place things

Composition, basically, is how you insert your subject (and everything else) into your picture. It's rare that you can physically position buildings and trees where you want them. Your choice of focal length, aperture and the position you are in drastically changes the way different things appear in the frame.

RELATED: What focal length should I use for my photos?

The composition is the language of photography. How your subjects look relative to each other, additional objects and the background communicates much to the viewer. In the photo below you can see how I spent some time playing with different compositions made up of small rock formations.

I finally decided on the strongest composition because I liked how the balance was rock, sea and sky. All the other compositions put too much emphasis on one thing over the other two.

Since the model is the only real motive, I did not want people in the background to be a picture distraction. To make sure that was not the case, I used a large aperture to get a shallow depth of field to blur it.

On the other hand, in this shot, the relationship between the two Three Restaurant Workers in a break, I used a small depth of field to make sure they were all in focus.

How to see where you place the different parts of your image and how they appear relative to each other as you relay your message to the viewer. Well, I'm not saying that every photo needs a big, world-changing message. But at best, every photo tells a story – even if it's a little story. The most common topics that run through my photos are:

  • People are pretty cool.
  • Nature is really beautiful.

If you look at most of the photos in my tutorials here on How-To Geek, they fall off into one of those two big buckets. Just because the message is simple does not mean that I'm not trying to convey it. Here is a view of me that combines both.

See how I made Will, the skier, small in relation to nature and used the steepness of the slope, the spray of his skis. and the space he needs to move to show his speed? That's what I mean when I say that composition is the language of photography. It's decisions like these that give meaning to your photos.

Composition Follows "Rules"

The good news is that composition takes years to master, but it follows some basic "rules" – really guidelines.

You've probably heard of the rule of the thirds, and while this is a bit too simplistic to be really useful, there are other, stronger ideas that you can play around with. We'll explore a lot of them in how-to-geek in more detail, but here are a few to get you started.

RELATED: Is the rule of thirds really a photography rule?

The size of the frame is of importance. The bigger something is, the more important it will feel, especially when compared to something that seems relatively small. Take this attitude: If you make me small in the frame, you get both the scale of the mountains and the mountains.

People will first see what's in focus. Although the blades of grass are large and in front of the model, we are attracting our attention because it is the only thing that is in focus.

Natural or artificial lines are a great way to guide the eyes of the beholder exactly where you want them. Just look at how all the guides – I've marked them in pink – are pointing your eyes directly at the model.

A good photo should feel balanced. This can be achieved either by symmetry or by balancing different elements. In this photo, moon and rock have moved well despite drastically different sizes in the frame.

Do not just use the foreground. Also use the background and the background. It gives your pictures a much greater depth.

Color is incredibly important. The brightest, most saturated colors will always attract our eyes. Different colors also convey different moods and emotions. Pale blue is peaceful, while bright reds can be angry or energetic. I wanted a sense of calm in this photo, so I highlighted the almost pastel blue and gold colors.

This is just a small selection of some ways you can use composition to convey different meanings. If you think about it while you're recording, you're well on the way to developing a great eye for photography.


Composition is the language with which you, the photographer, can communicate with the viewer. As you place the various components of your image relative to each other, your photos are meaningful.


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