Thursday, July 12, 2012

Photographic Vision: Learning to Compose

Photographs are created in an instant, but some images grab our attention and hold on to it. There may be a personal reason for that: the image may depict a place, a moment, or a person we care about. We may be attracted to the quality of the light. Or there may be a structural reason. Look at enough photographs and you will find some that seem remarkably ordered, as if the photographer were able to re-shape the world in a way that makes its image seem clearer, more profound and more fascinating than we are used to seeing it.

Hellen van Meene

The image feels right. It is coherent. There is an underlying geometry and sense of proportion, and sometimes, even grace. Elements align, patterns appear and a beauty exists that is independent of the subject itself. When we have this kind of response to a photograph that is taken in the hustle and bustle of a city street or any moment that comes and goes, a series of questions arise. In that moment of taking the picture, did the photographer see all of those visual relationships? Or was it a matter of luck and numbers, of shooting a lot of pictures just to get that one? When beginning photographers ask these kinds of questions, I think what is unasked is: can I do this too?

Joel Meyerowitz

Alex Webb

Photographic composition is the visual organization of elements within the boundaries of the image. I’m often asked for a book recommendation by students looking to improve their ability to compose, and unfortunately, I haven’t come across that book. There are books about the principles of design: balance, harmony, shape, line quality, positive and negative space, etc., but to my knowledge, they are not directed specifically to photographers. And of the photography books I’ve seen that have a chapter on composition, I think that at best these are an introduction, but usually the material is too basic to be sufficient, and the examples themselves tend not to be particularly interesting as photographs.

William Eggleston

What is the best way to learn about composition? Look at the work of the best photographers (or painters, for that matter) and pay attention to how you see what you see. In other words, note what you look at first when you view the image, then what you see second and third, and so forth. Has a path been created for your eye? What is the mechanism that allows your eye to move through the image? How does the subject fit within the frame? What is the basic geometric structure? Begin to list all the ways the shapes and lines within the image relate to each other. Do this every time you look at a photograph, with emphasis on the best images, and your compositional skills will grow stronger.

Josef Koudelka

This process of visual analysis, if it is repeated often enough, will help to internalize ideas about structure. As you look at and analyze more images, and as you apply what you have observed to your shooting, in time, your ability to order will become intuitive. If you’re familiar with the writings of Malcolm Gladwell, you most likely have come across his concept of 10,000 hours --- the time it takes to achieve true competence in a field or endeavor. To reach that point, in many fields, it is necessary not only to learn the appropriate theory and skills, one also needs to be able to apply this knowledge quickly and decisively. Repetition makes application instinctual. 

Henry Clarke
Richard Avedon

In photography, quick decision-making can be especially important. Getting the shot may require the most rapid of reactions, and there may be only one opportunity. You may have limited access to your subject. Or, even if you are working in the controlled environment of a studio, you might be renting the studio or your equipment, incurring expenses for a model and staff, and therefore want to use your time well.

Mick Rock

One last point: learning to compose well is not a matter of learning and then applying a set of rules. At some point, you might have heard about the “rule of thirds,” or were told never to put the subject in the center of the frame. Forget about that, or any other formulaic approach to organizing an image – it just isn’t a useful way to think about structure. Instead, think about composition as being contextual. What works for one photographer or in one picture may not work for another.  

Paolo Pellegrin

What do the photographs chosen to illustrate this post have in common? Some utilize the center of the frame; others leave it empty. Some have many elements and a sense of layered space; others are relatively sparse and hold a single plane. Some appear the product of considerable thought and refinement; others the result of quick reflexes the moment the image fell into place. You can see various approaches to organization, but nothing that can be applied to all as a compositional rule. However, if you look at multiple examples of each  photographer's work, you'll observe a consistency in how they see. How to compose is variable among all photographers, but becomes standard for each photographer.

Lee Friedlander

Developing your compositional skills is analogous to developing a sensibility. The way you compose is an extension of how you see and what you want to express. The way you compose should cohere with all the other decisions you are making: where to stand, when to press the shutter, what to shoot, and even what aperture and focal length lens to use. So think not about learning rules of composition, but instead, understanding the elements of visual grammar. In time, you will discover your own way to use those elements. You will gravitate to certain ideas and not others, recognizing the type of structure that facilitates your expression.

Let’s conclude with an example of a structural analysis of a specific image. The image above is by Nicholas Nixon, taken in West Virginia in 1982. At first glance, it might appear somewhat casual in its structure. Take a moment to simply look at the photograph before reading further, paying attention to how your eye moves through the frame. You can click on the image to see a larger version.

As I pay attention to my experience of looking at the image, I notice several things happening. My eye tends to get pulled back towards the woman holding the youngest child, and then moves forward to linger on the girl in the middle ground, followed by the boy in the lower right, over to the girl on the left and then back to the mother. After I make that initial pass, I begin to notice an alignment of details which acts as a structural counterpoint to the primary triangle just outlined.

A grid parallel to the plane of the picture is formed by elements of the house in conjunction with parts of the figures: joints, the edges of clothing, and facial features. So we have one mechanism for moving back and forth into the depth of the image and another for moving laterally across its plane. 

Notice that the majority of these lines are not continuous, but instead are formed through alignment. Nipple, shoulder, wrist, elbow, elbow, shoulder, head, and head, if we take as an example the middle blue line running from right to left and extend it to the opposite corner. In fact, there are quite a number of lines created this way. 

Eyes, mouths, and body parts that bend take on such significance that it is possible to discern yet another way of connecting them. If you could attach a device to your retina that records the path of your vision, it might look like sets of related overlapping triangles. I haven't drawn it, but you might now notice that there is a second major triangle with points at the foreground childrens' heads with its apex being the head of the girl drinking with a straw.

I stopped drawing after a few minutes as otherwise the photograph would become illegible beneath all that orange, but I'm sure you get the idea that this photograph is visually complex, having parts that can inter-relate in multiple ways. 

Successful composition provides a path for the viewer's eye to move through the image. It also can help to identify the subject. One could say that the subject of the photograph is all the people on the porch, but I think two are favored visually. Both mother and girl occupy the center, giving them a place of priority. Additionally, the angle at which they lean mirrors each other, forming another point of visual connection. Between the two, who does your eye favor?

I'm not suggesting that everyone compose like Nicholas Nixon or that this picture is stronger than a Walker Evans because of the composition. This is simply an example of how to discern the structure of an image, a way to practice refining the way you see by examining how others do it. Composition is an essential skill. It is not terribly difficult to learn to compose, but in learning, it can help to get pointed in the right direction. And that is the point of this post. Today's specific themes were creating line through alignment, and using multiple lines to create structure. In upcoming entries, I'll return to this topic of learning to compose with examples from a range of specific compositional ideas. Once you know what to look for, you can teach yourself a lot by simply observing.

This is the first installment in a series of posts on composition. The entire series is archived on the "For Students" page, accessible at the top menu. Click this link for the second installment, on positive and negative space.


  1. This was very useful article for me. Arigato-gozaimashita.

  2. Really nice examples, thank you!

  3. Chris This is a great beginning for the composition book that YOU need to write.

  4. Fantastic entry, thank you. Another master of composition is Steve McCurry. Looking forward to the next part of this series!

  5. Very helpful article.

  6. this is awesome Chris...i just started to learn and notice these compositional aspects...thx for giving us the direction by showing us how you see those great images.My biggest thanks to you Chris...