During my education at two art academies in the Netherlands, I was trained to look at the composition of paintings and sculptures. That was a big advantage for me when I started making taking pictures.
Painters often had a conception of composition that depended on their time. The Renaissance had a balanced, calm structure of the works. In the Baroque, the dynamic composition was usually applied.
What is composition in photography? The usual rule of thumb is the rule of thirds. It’s a great rule to start with, but in this article, I will explain some other possibilities for composition you can use.
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Table of Contents
What is composition in photography?
There is little difference between the composition of a painting or a photograph. Although you can more easily adjust the objects in a painting by omitting something or putting it in a different place.
If you want to take a photo and something is not in the spot you want it to be, you will have to move yourself to a different position. Although you can move loose objects. And if there are people in the photo, you can direct them.
Composition is the conscious arrangement of elements, an attempt to create order out of chaos. Not only shapes are important in a composition, but also colours and lines.
No matter what kind of composition you are choosing for your picture, the main point of interest should be your focus. What subject are you making a photo of and there is enough attention for?
Rule of thirds
The most famous rule in photography is the rule of thirds. Most cameras, including those of a smartphone, have a three-part grid in the viewfinder that serves as an aid.
The image is (invisibly) divided into three equal parts both horizontally and vertically. Important areas are the four intersections on which you can place the most important part of the image. In the picture, one of the eyes is on such a crossing point.
Also, the 4 lines that make the division, can be useful in positioning the elements of your composition. Have a look at the landscape pictures to see what I mean. You can use either one of the vertical or horizontal lines.
The easiest way to make a composition is symmetry. I have always called it the Catholic way because the Holy mass consists of symmetrical gestures and objects placed on either side of the altar. Pictures composed this way are peaceful and will have a quiet mood.
A clear example is the photo of these tiles. Buildings also lend themselves very well for a symmetrical photo. Symmetry has the disadvantage that it quickly becomes boring.
Although I take a lot of symmetrical pictures, I think it is very interesting to look for a dynamic contrast. Possible contrasts are:
- full of details/empty space;
- lots of colour/monochrome;
In the picture of a boat, you can see I have looked for a symmetrical composition while using a dynamic contrast between the ‘occupied’ left and the ‘empty’ right side. And buildings can also be photographed in a dynamic composition.
Usually a diagonal will make a composition dynamic, depending on the subject of course. If that subject is a frozen puddle, the image will be very peaceful.
Landscapes are often great for a diagonal composition. Or objects can be positioned in a diagonal way.
A vanishing point will suck the viewer into the image and creates an enormous suggestion of depth. The purest way is to position the vanishing point exactly in the middle, but as you can imagine, this point can also be on the thirds-line or anywhere else.
A picture gets extra depth when you make it through something else. Branches or leaves hanging in the front while photographing a landscape. A window, the bows of a bridge, or a tunnel are another way to make a kind of frame for your image.
No grid at all
Not every picture needs to follow one of the former composition rules. A lot of my pictures are textures of all kinds. They don’t have grids. Unless you desperately want to see a grid, in that case, you may notice the diagonal from top-left to bottom-right in the yellow picture with the light playing on the fruits. 🙂
Knowing the rules means you can break them
I am a strong supporter of knowing the rules, but that does not mean that you should follow the rules no matter what. Once you know them and mastered them, break them. (Uhm… concerning the composition, I mean).
The funny thing in my example is, that I deliberately broke the rule of thirds in this landscape and put the horizon extremely low, but when I drew the lines in order to show you, I discovered that the rule of thirds was in place after all!
Likewise in the picture of the blossom: the sun turned out to be in the cross line of the rule of thirds.
A lot of cameras have a display at the back or in the viewfinder with the grid shown. So will your smartphone. If you don’t see it, have a look at the settings.
The grid helps you to follow the rules or to disregard them. One way or the other, I am sure that if you take your pictures with these rules in mind, they will come out better than before.
Good luck and please let me know if you have any questions. Put them in the comment box below and I will gladly answer them.
This article is an update. Originally published on 31-12-2013.