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What is composition in photography | Why it's important

Composition in the most important aspect in photography. No matter what style of photography you choose, composition is everything. Composition i sthe foundation of your image, and like those of a building, they need to be strong.

"You don't take a photograph, you make it" Ansel Adams

What is composition?

Composition is the order of the visual elements in your photo. So far, so good, it seems simple. For a good photograph, the elements that compose it need to be in order. The thing about that is that this can be quite subjective. Depending on the photographer and what he wants to express, the order we need for a composing the image may vary.

But don't worry, there are some basic techniques you can use. No matter how basic, the greatest photographers come bacj¡k to them again and again.

The fundamental techniques of composition

1. Look for the leading lines

Great compositions take you on a journey. They lead you around and through an image. Your eyes are guided on a specif path to get to the exact destination the photographer wants you to get to. Use this to give your composition structure and draw the viewer to key elements. Often, one main leading line is all you need to make your image more powerful. In this example, The Var department by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1932) we clearly see how the staircase leads us to main charcater of the photograph, the figure on the bike. In this case, the photograopher uses leading lines as a singlshot motion around the image to heighten its very essence - movenment.

2. The shape of things

The shape of your photograph also dictates how you move across it. Horizontal images (or landscape format) encourage our eyes to move from side to side, whereas in a vertical image (or portrait format) encourage them to move up and down.

Try to decide on the format of your image depending on dominant lines - or natural flow - of your subject.Therefore, the shape of your picture and the subject will work together to guide the eye in one clear direction.

In this example of The Rebbe by Marc Asnin (1992), we can see a clear line created by each of the heads in the picture that lead us from left to right. This line also communicates the sense of drama present in the scene.

3. Think inside the box

Framing draws attention to aparticular part of your composition. It's especially handy if your shooting in a busy scene. Such as the one we see in this photograph in the Burning Man Festival by Cristina García Rodero (1999) where all of our attention goes straight to the figure surrounded by a hoop. Look for doorways, windows and openings, anything that might helop you focus your photograph in a specific part of your composition. This is such a powerful tool, make sure to find subjets that truly deserve to be framed.

4. The layered look

In this image by Edward Brtynsky the subject is a rusting container ship, but the composition has a few more layers to it than that. There's what is called "foreground interest".

The textured mud leads us to the reflection and this leads us to the subject itself.

The foreground interest offers the viewer a stepping stone into your image and heightens the sense of depth.

5. Get close. And then get closer

More often then not, there's nothing that kills an image more than keeping your distance. By getting close to your subject, as close as you can withought getting shouted at, you can show the very details that are what caused you to focus on that subject in the first place.

All these details are what help you form an opinion about what you're seeing. Martin Parr loved putting himself on the line to get that perfect shot. In this picture we can see the subtleties that make this image so peculiar.

6. It's primal instinct

Few can argue with the simple beauty of symmetry. It has a universal appeal, as it satisfies our primal need for order. Alkan Hassan uses symmetry to draw us into his compositions. The man and the buildings for an inverted triangle, in which the man is the vertex. Symmetry consits in creating an overall sense of harmony and balance.

But be warned: there is a fine line between balance and boring. If everything is to perfectly symmetrical the photograph can become soulless. Allow the human elemnts to creep in.

7. Be offish

The well-known "rule of thirds" If you don't want to centre your subject, the rule of thirds helps maintain balance. Use this as a rough guide line so that your photograph doesn't seem clumsy or careless.

A photographer that uses this rule often is Guy Bourdin. In this photograph he's splitted the frame in three and positioned his subject (a bottom) in one of the focal points. By the subject being off.centre he's added to the eccentricity of the shot whilst keeping it balanced.

8. Make every inch count

When composing your image, avoid "passive" areas that don't add much. When you think you're ready to take your picture stop for a minute and ask yourself, is everything where it should be? Is the composition working as a whole? Always keep an eye on how all the elements move around in relation to each other.

A great expample of this is 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue by Lars Tunbjörk. The beautiful thing about this picture isn't each individual object, it's how everythink works together. Nothing is out of place.

9. Reducing it down

Now to the opposite side of the spectre. Don't see the world as it is. See it as a photograph. Feel the visual weight of your scene and play around with it. This is complicated but our eyes are already pretty effective weighing scales. Apply this to your photography.

In this photograph Lewis Baltz felt the visual weight of each element. Although there is a lot of space, none of it seems unnecessary. Everything is exactly where it should be.

10. Throw the rule book out the window

Good photographs conform to the rules. Really great photographs often break them. While the compositional techniques we've listed above serve as building blocks, too much of that can make your photographs feel a bit safe and predictable. So concentrate on creating compositions that capture the essence of your subject.

Everything about this photograph of Francis Bacon by Bill Brandt is wrong. But somehow it works. Why? Because it captures the essence of the artist. It resembles one of Bacon's paintings.


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