Mill Isle, Ireland

From Mill Isle, Ireland, a tradiional monochrome photographic artist specialises in abstract realism and the interplay of light and...

An eye for a Picture #5 *Composition*

5 Composition:

Composition is the artistic means of leading the viewer through your photograph and holding the viewer’s attention sufficiently long enough there until they get your message. Note that the technique of composition derives its importance from the way that the eye and the brain work together to see the world.

Photographers when buying a new camera are often preoccupied with learning all its various features and controls and certainly this is important in obtaining correctly exposed images and an appropriate depth of field. However, once the basic operation of the camera is mastered, one needs to direct their attention to seeing and composing effective images.

Ansel Adams used to say “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.” All photographs contain composition, but it does not follow that all photography is good.

The legendary Morecambe and Wise BBC television programme once featured the gifted conductor and concert pianist Andre Previn who was horrified at the rendition of Eric Morecambe at the piano. True he was using Mr. Previn’s finely tuned piano, and true the work did contain all the right notes, but not one played in the right order denied a pleasing performance.

Effective images are those that command attention and communicate some feeling to an audience. Capturing a “feeling” and your viewers’ attention is a demanding task that requires practice, experimentation and study.

Studying the basic elements of visual design and understanding how they work will help new photographers improve their composition, but simply following rules does not guarantee success and this is what Ansel Adams was referring to.

How a viewer or audience responds to an image depends on their past experiences (memory), interests, and what it is that they are looking for. This is why the same picture often receives a variety of responses from different viewers.

To create effective images a photographer must understand the way people respond to various kinds of visual organization. To me this is the vocabulary of design, and requires viewing examples of artwork that utilize effective design elements, and over time proceeding to put into operation components of design into the process of their photography.

Organizing the various elements within the frame of the viewfinder in order to create an effective design is definitely a lot more challenging than it might seem at first, whereas a painter can position the elements where they want, the photographer must find and organize visual elements within the camera viewfinder.

Although a photographer can sometimes “arrange” objects in a natural environment such as leaves, this often results in a contrived looking picture that becomes rather too obvious.

To me composition is all part of the eye-brain co-ordination thing, and either comes naturally or is doesn’t. However it is something that can be taught or developed.
To me part of the seeing is finding a scene which has a natural harmony of composition which your eye can identify, confirm and relate to, and then when satisfied click the shutter.

It is not always as straightforward as that of course and requires walking round, studying and viewing from different angles to get the right perspective, that is why I spend longer walking and studying than I do capturing images.

Composition is an arrangement of elements, an organization of random common things that transform it into an opus, a masterpiece, a concerto, a sonata, or a work of art. I refer to it in lectures as Notes and lyrics.

The notes are visual elements, the artistic elements in composition (the vocabulary with which the visual artist composes a discipline of applied compositional elements; line, shape, form, texture, tone or colour etc.

The lyrics are the components and are the found objects within the scene, e.g. a bench, a chair, a bottle; found within the scene, subject or study and are as the lyrics in the song, changing every time but some words will be found over and over again in different songs in the same genre or theme, and likewise images may often contain similar subject matter or themes, but will stand out due to the notes of composition.

The tempo is the music’s speed: the speed at which a musical composition or passage is performed. Cadence is the beat or pulse and contains the evocative or emotional message. The rendition is an interpretation or performance of a piece of music or drama, and thus two photographers can record the same scene or subject but use different notes, lyrics, and cadence in their translation or version; with entirely different levels of response or reaction from their audience.

Learn and understand the rules of composition before construction. The good architect and builder will know and understand the tools and materials involved before applying them.

Our understanding of composition takes time and experience, and as Edward Weston put it, it is to do with inflection not injection. When you are studying the scene the composition becomes established in your mind. It is an eye-brain co-ordination thing! Don’t make the composition too simple or contrived, but remember often a complex intriguing puzzle will draw the audience in to participate.

Shape. (from the Old English word sceap meaning created thing), refers to the external two-dimensional outline, appearance or configuration of some thing — in contrast to the matter or content or substance of which it is composed. There are two distinct groups of shapes with differing intention in the composition of our images.

The ordered group containing Squares, Rectangles, Triangles etc. generally composed of straight line segments; and can be viewed as static. These would symbolise structure and stability.

Whilst Circles, Spheres, Arcs and Curves etc. are more an adventure group, suggesting motion and movement enabling the viewer eyes to wander and suggest freedom.

Line and Shape

A line represents a visual path between two points. The path is very contextual and is a vital part of the narrative or storytelling as mentioned earlier. A line can be straight, curved, vertical, horizontal, diagonal, or zigzag. Lines imply motion and suggest direction or orientation.

Lines don’t have to be actual and real, but instead a line can also be implied, that is filled in by the mind when several points are positioned geometrically within a frame. Placing four dots on a page in the shape of a square can imply the points are linked as the mind searches for recognizable patterns.

How the photographer uses line in an image contributes greatly to the information content and impact as the direction and orientation of a line can also imply certain feelings. For example, horizontal lines imply tranquility and rest, whereas vertical lines imply power and strength.

I personally favour oblique or slandicular lines as they imply movement, action and change and can radically alter the image’s dynamics. Curved lines or S shaped lines imply quiet, calm and sensual feelings; as for instance in my ‘SIGMA’ image. Also lines are used in a manner that they converge which implies depth, scale and distance – a path, fence or roadway converges into the distance providing the illusion that a flat two-dimensional image has three-dimensional depth.

A line is an effective element of design because it can lead the viewer’s eye. It is reckoned that the viewer sees as much as 86% to 92% of the image, but will focus mainly on about 18% to 24% only.

To create more effective photographs actively look for lines (actual or implied) and arrange them within your viewfinder to invoke specific feelings. I tend to do this through what is known as the ‘pin ball effect’ turning your image into a virtual pin board machine layout, with key components being placed at high value points score areas. In short successful composition by this method involves translating the picture into a series of pinball machine corners and traps.

Shapes are the result of closed lines. However shapes can be visible without lines when an artist establishes an area of tone or colour or an arrangement of objects within the camera’s viewfinder. Some primary shapes include circles, squares, triangles and hexagons all of which appear in nature in some form or another.

Shape from the Old English word sceap meaning created thing, refers to the external two-dimensional outline, appearance or configuration of some thing — in contrast to the matter or content or substance of which it is composed. The ordered group contains sqaures, rectangles, hexagons, triangles etc. are generally composed of straight line elements, and can be viewed as static. These would symbolise structure and stability.

Whilst Circles, Spheres, Arcs and Curves etc. are more an adventure group, suggesting motion and movement enabling the viewer eyes to wander and suggest freedom. Focal Power points are created by strong blocks of shape and become FPP’s ~ focal power points and I particularly trust the power of a circle of sphere to draw in the viewer.

Other times I combine three elements or components to create implied power triangles. Sometimes these can even be achieved with just two points, and you allow the viewer the right to draw their own third point to complete what I call a collaborative triangle, a collaboration being an important being of empowering the viewer to complete the picture, and enter into the feeling of involvement and atavistic activity.


Space is defined and determined by shapes and forms. Positive space is where shapes and forms exist; negative space is the empty space around shapes and forms. For images to have a sense of balance positive and negative space can be used to counter balance each other.

Form – Light & Dark

Form from the Latin word. forma and the old English word .mould), refers to the external three-dimensional outline, appearance or configuration of some thing – in contrast to the matter or content or substance of which it is composed. Photography relies on three-dimensional objects for strength and structure and recognition

Form refers to the three-dimensional quality of an object, which is due in part to light, and dark areas. When light from a single direction (e.g. our sun) hits an object, part of the object is in shadow.

Light and dark areas within an image provide contrast that can suggest volume. Factors that can affect our feelings towards an image include the direction of the light source, from above or below, and the gentleness or abruptness of the half tones. Light coming from behind a subject can form a silhouette resulting in an object that is completely black against a lighter colored background.

Silhouettes appear as two-dimensional shapes lacking form. In my own work I favour the monochrome medium as the absence of color often enhances our perception of form and dictates a more powerful impact. Light emitted from above and to the side when applied to portraits creates what is often referred to as “Rembrandt lighting” and this type of lighting emphasizes edges and depth. In landscape photography oblique lighting occurs early and late in the day where it enhances the natural texture of the landscape and is often accompanied by warm or cool color casts.

In many of my photographs I combine the notion of line and shape, space, and light and dark form into what I call IIP’s ~ intrigue or interest points; where people read into it all sorts of things and often find figures or faces and further a fantasy.

Rule of thirds

Last, but certainly not least, is the “rule of thirds” a principle taught in graphic design and photography which is based on the theory that the eye goes naturally to a point about two-thirds up the page. Also, by visually dividing the image into thirds (either vertically or horizontally) you achieve the informal or asymmetric balance.

Although there are many ways a photograph can be composed effectively by basing it on the use of “thirds,” the most common example is the placement of the horizon line in landscape photography. If the area of interest is land or water, the horizon line will usually be two-thirds up from the bottom. On the other hand, if the sky is the area of emphasis, the horizon line may be one-third up from the bottom, leaving the sky to occupy the top two-thirds.


The visual routes which take vertical, horizontal or vertical paths are the direction of movement.. When the subject is capable of movement, such as an animal, person, car or boat it is best to leave space in front of the subject so it appears to be moving into, rather than out of, the photograph to provide a sense of travel. This also can be extended to apply to rivers and roads and paths.


Linear elements such as roads, waterways, and fences placed diagonally are generally perceived as more dynamic than horizontals.

Harmony and unity

Unity refers to an ordering of all elements in an image so that each contributes to a unified aesthetic effect so that the image is seen as being holistic and harmonious. Failing to accomplish this, results in the premature termination of the viewer’s experience – the image jars, it is incomplete and thus they move away. We must discover ways to achieve unity to attract and keep the viewers attention.

Be aware of the decision-making process in which we are involved as taking a photograph starts first with being able to see possibilities out of opportunities. What we see depends on what we (and our audience) are interested in, what we are looking for and what our minds are prepared to show us. Seeing, in short, involves the mind and our memory as much as it does our eyes. Harmony of focus is crucial since improving our visual sensitivity requires quieting our minds, relaxing, and preparing by learning as much as we can about our preferred subjects. Once we see things that are of interest, then we isolate parts of the scene, and organize the important visual elements within our viewfinder to effectively convey how we feel about them.

Focal Point Power

The artist determines what the emphasis of the image will be and selects the centre of interest and composes the elements accordingly. The gaze of the viewer will then tend to linger over these points of interest. Elements are arranged with consideration of several factors into a harmonious whole which works together to produce the (usually) desired statement. The purpose is to clearly define your image’s centre of interest, thus attention of the viewer is sought, and if familiarization occurs then desire, then action.

One of the most frequent problems we see in photographs is that backgrounds or foregrounds detract from the power of the main subject. Distracting bright patches, colours or shapes, or a poor choice of aperture, mean the image impact can be hindered intrusive background detail that competes with the subject for attention.
POV, point of view or viewpoint

I find that the position of the viewer can strongly influence the aesthetics of an image, even if the subject is entirely imaginary and viewed “within the mind’s eye”. Not only does it influence the elements within the picture, but it also influences the viewer’s interpretation of the subject

Those with a background in business, marketing or advertising will recognize the AIDA concept and I feel we can lend it well to the art of composition. ~ AIDA

A compose pictures that get attention and deliver your message.
I identify a primary point of interest by studying before taking the picture
D a pleasing image is one that creates satisfaction and desire
A impact, response, participation and audience feedback should be the action

Good composition and control is crucial but can be learned and understood, and once done, allows the photographer to get on with the capture of the moment, and the compositional elements will fall into place automatically.

From there a style can be developed, a signature significant to separate. Be aware of the rules, observe them that you can absorb them and use them as necessary. The photographic artist with a grasp of the elements of composition will know instinctively what looks right in the viewfinder and can concentrate on capturing the moment confident that the overall outcome is sure. It can take a lifetime to learn, and we learn not from just reading texts but by examining images.


The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance. ~ Ansel Adams

The negative is the starting point ~ the final print is the statement of the negative. The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance. ~ Ansel Adams

We must remember that a photograph can hold just as much as we put into it, and no one has ever approached the full possibilities of the medium. ~ Ansel Adams

By form, I mean the rigorous organization of the interplay of surfaces, lines and values. It is in this organization alone that our conceptions and emotions become concrete and communicable. In photography, visual organization can stem only from a developed instinct. ~ Henri Cartier Bresson

Now to consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a bit like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk. Such rules and laws are deduced from the accomplished fact; they are the products of reflection… ~ Edward Weston

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