Photography Composition: How to Make Compelling Photos

What Is Photography Composition?

Photography Composition is a term for the formal structure of works of art. The term composition refers to the relationships between the elements of a photograph. These include:

  • The arrangement of figures or objects and their geometric relationships

  • Perspective and lines (real as well as imagined)

  • Principles of organization such as symmetry, grouping, structure, grid, and contrast

  • light and color

In this article, we’re going to explore a few examples where we can see different rules of composition coming to fruition. That way you can apply them to your own photography and start taking more compelling photos.

Rule-Of-Thirds

A very basic and well-known rule of composition is the rule-of-thirds. If you want to apply this rule simply divide the composition into thirds both vertically and horizontally, then arrange your subjects so they align with the intersections.

Let me give you an example with the following photo. See how the two protagonists are positioned exactly where the lines intersect? Applying this rule, you always place the most important subjects on top of the lines or where the lines intersect. Doing so will add balance to your photo. Some cameras even offer an option to overlay a rule-of-thirds grid over the LCD screen or viewfinder. Enabling this grid view in your LCD is a great way to rain your eye to compose better.

Rule of thirds method is about placing important objects or lines along or intersections of the rule of thirds grid.

Rule of thirds method is about placing important objects or lines along or intersections of the rule of thirds grid.

In addition to the composition, I like the content of this photo as it refers to our blind spots. Only I am aware of the smiling girl behind the corner while taking the picture. The second photographer depicted in this image is, on the other hand, aware of something I am not aware of. Look at his gaze drawn to something outside the frame and look at his open mouth. It looks like he spotted something!

Golden Triangle

A little more dynamic than the rule-of-thirds is the rule of the golden triangle. The concept derives from the “golden section,” in which mathematicians, architects, and artists have discovered the ideal ratio for design is 1:1.618. They have found this ratio throughout nature, man-made objects, buildings, and other forms of classical art.

So, how do you construct it and apply it to your photography? First, you draw a diagonal line from the bottom-left of the frame to the top-right. Then draw another diagonal line that intersects the first line at a 90-degree angle. It’s called the perpendicular line. Note that you can also do this the other way round! Again, put the objects deserving attention in the intersection points or let their outlines follow the imaginary lines we just drew.

Here is a rather mean example. It shows a market situation where two people seem to negotiate over a girl. The facilitating truth is, (of course!), that the seller just offers a mirror so the young girl can see herself, but the way of the composition offers the first mentioned interpretation. Observe how the important details are aligned along the crossing diagonal! The seller and his stretched arm, the small girl in the mirror and the money counting hands of the buyer. With composition, you can influence the way you want your image to be understood!

An image composed using the Golden Triangle.

An image composed using the Golden Triangle.

Leading Lines

Another way to compose your photos is through leading lines. See in the following photo how all the important lines lead to the centered protagonist on the bike. Leading lines have the purpose of creating perspective by leading the eye into the image. Further, you can use them to point something or someone out.

A photograph of a cyclist in the middle of the screen with many leading lines pointing towards him.

A photograph of a cyclist in the middle of the screen with many leading lines pointing towards him.

Another example of using leading lines in your composition.

Another example of using leading lines in your composition.

As our eyes are trained to read from left to right, try to compose pictures with lines hindering your eye from jumping out of the frame too fast. For example, it’s better to compose a mountain range entering in the bottom left and ascending to the top right rather than the other way round. Of course, you can have lines running from the top left to the bottom right, just make sure you have elements that stop the eye before it leaves the frame.

Your eyes are trained to look from left to right.

Your eyes are trained to look from left to right.

Composing with Color

If you shoot mainly in color, consider there are certain colors which work better together. According to color theory, introduced by the German writer and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1810, there are colors which are complementary, with the effect of boosting each other’s intensity when displayed next to each other.

Goethe’s Color Wheel

Goethe’s Color Wheel

Thus, the colors shown in the circle above create the strongest contrast with the color on the opposite side of the color wheel. Red goes best with green, orange pops out the blue, and purple is the complementary color of yellow. If you want to draw attention to your images, search for those color contrasts!

Conclusion

Of course, there are many more ways to compose than just those mentioned. You can play with bright/dark contrasts or you can implement letters and incorporate words and road signs to make your image more interesting.

The composition can underline your “message” so it’s smart to be aware of it. But, in my reality as a street photographer, I don’t think too much about the rules once I’m out there. Life happens too fast and good photographers will apply them intuitively without thinking. In fact, I am sure that in almost all the examples shown above I didn’t even think for a fraction of a second on composition rules. It’s good to know the basics, but there’s also a lot to be said for shooting with your heart and following your intuition.

Let me finish with what Edward Weston, photographer, and co-founder of the famous f/64 Group, said:

Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph, is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk.
My Playa Photographer in the streets of Havana