ideas: composition

Photographic composition

Composing a successful photographic image is a personal business. You must decide what it is you want from an image - and then decide how to get it. This generally involves a combination of factors: technical know - how, that is, how to use your camera equipment to its best effect, an understanding how a camera lens and film "sees" as compared to the human brain, and being in the right place at the right time - with your camera. Photographic images that people will pay attention to should have impact - they should catch the eye for some reason and be able to communicate. Some tips, ideas and conventions are listed here, but remember, rules are made to be broken. A good approach is to experiment and take photos, "just to see what something looks like photographed." (i), as recommended by Garry Winogrand.


Landscape is meant to be restful

a rectangle in landscape (wide) orientation

Portrait is supposed to be active

a rectangle in landscape (tall) orientation

Angle of view

The place you take the photo from will affect the outcome. Looking down on a scene opens perspective and creates a feeling of space. Looking up from below can make small objects look big and oppressive. The lens you use has an effect; telephoto lenses flatten perspective and increase image size so that less of a scene fills the frame. You have to be more selective to get what you want in the picture. Wide angle lenses enhance perspective, making objects near you look much bigger than those only a little further away. They decrease the image size, so getting more of a scene into the frame, and leaving you less choice as to what is included in the picture. Fish eye lenses have an extreme wide angle of view and are uncorrected for distortion, creating a curved image of almost 360 degrees in some cases, which has a drastic effect on the composition of an image.


cartoon: a portrait showing a stern expression

The human brain seeks human interest in an image - we look for people and faces, and we seem to be drawn in particular to the eyes. The expression of the subject is therefore of great significance, and adds mood, drama, and meaning to an image. So, when photographing a person look carefully at their expression. Are they smiling / sad / scowling? Can you tell why the subject might look that way from other visual clues in the picture - or is it a mystery? What can we really tell from a person's face?


Adds impact, drama, and atmosphere to an image and helps to convey meaning. Can be used to enhance a person's expression. A bright sunny day gives you contrasty lighting which is appealing to our eyes, but film can't always cope - it records stark bleached highlights and darkened shadows. A cloudy day gives diffused lighting which produces more detail and better colours but looks flatter, low lighting can make an image look grainy and murky. Side lighting can be very dramatic, and enhances texture and contours, lighting from below especially of a person's face can give spooky effects and is often used in horror films.


Strong diagonal lines across the image can make an subject look dynamic, and converging parallels such as railway lines going into the distance help to lead the eye into the picture. Shapes, patterns and repeated forms such as railings, floorboards, bricks etc. are aesthetically pleasing to the eye and can be used to create a harmonious effect.


cartoon: a person who appears to have a lamp post coming out of their head

Being aware of your background is very important. Is there a lamp post growing out of your subject's head? We often miss glaringly distracting things in the background because when we look through the viewfinder the brain is selective and we only see what we want to see. So the lamp post temporarily disappears. However, the film records everything, whether you saw it there or not, so look beyond the subject before you take the photo.


The human brain is attracted to contrast and this can be used in effective composition, both to add impact and to help the subject stand out, so aiding recognition and understanding of the image. Contrast is the difference between light and dark / different colours / textures. Making the subject stand out clearly is often a matter of making contrast work in your favour. For example, a bright subject against a dark background, a person in red against a landscape of green, a sharply defined foreground subject against an out of focus background.

Rule of thirds

Sometimes called the golden section, this was a convention of landscape painters that photographers inherited. The rule states that the human brain finds it most aesthetically pleasing to view the most important elements of an image on a line bisecting the picture either one third of the way up or one third of the way down - so the horizon, or other major horizontal feature, should not be placed in the middle of the image. The same applies to vertical objects - these should be placed either one third to the left or one third to the right, never in the middle.

cartoon: a landscape pictures showing how good pictures can be divided into thirds

To check this out, look at images you like, and see if they follow this rule. If they do, then you may consider your own photography more successful if you follow the rule of thirds. If you prefer images with principal subjects and objects placed elsewhere than on the third lines, then your photography may benefit if you disregard this "rule".


The role of timing in the creation of the photographic image has been much debated. Famous reportage photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (ii) argues in favour of the decisive moment when all the elements in an image are interacting at their best. It can be argued that it is the photographer's job to wait for this moment, identify it, and then take the photo. Landscape photographers who sometimes wait hours for perfect weather and light would probably agree. Some photographers prefer to be more spontaneous, arguing that a more flexible approach to timing can give surprising and unexpected results.


  1. Garry Winogrand
  2. Henri Cartier-Bresson