Composition is literally the art of “putting things together” in your photograph. It is one of the fundamental principles of not only photography, but also art, and good composition can be the difference between a mediocre or a stunning image. You can think of it as “design” or “visually ordering” what you see in front of you.
Depending on what you want to achieve in your photographs, composition can be simple or complex. There are “rules” of composition you can follow, that were derived from ancient mathematical principles, or there are no rules. There are elements you can use in a myriad of combinations, but either way, the possibilities are endless and the choice is entirely yours!
As long as there is light and a single object in any scene, then there at least 3 visual elements that can be used to compose your photograph. These are shape, colour and space. A black square painted on a white floor has all three of these elements for example. If we take this a step further and we replace the black square with a solid red box, then we have more elements available to us in the form of lines, shade and texture. Sticking with this, if we move around the red box then we have position, perspective, width and depth and from this we can achieve different compositions from the same scene.
A list of the key elements are below.
Colour – the various values and intensity of their hues
Form – depth, length & width
Lines – visual lead ins or paths
Movement – blur or displacement of an object
Shape – organic or geometric shapes defined by their edges
Texture – surfaces being rough smooth etc
Space – negative and positive space
Value – light or shade used to emphasize an object’s form
The image below shows these in a landscape composition.
Colour consists of brightness, hue and saturation and may be associated with a particular mood. For example, blue for cold and orange for warm. Colour may be used in simple compositions such as the abstract image of a green field against a blue sky.
Form may be used in your composition to depict the 3D look of modern architecture or a wide expanse of sea.
Lines are actually optical illusions that are created visually when they either move away from near to far or converge into a point in the distance forming a linear perspective. There are many examples of lines in composition from the converging tramlines in a field of corn to the lines made by the movement of waves across a lake.
Movement can be depicted in your composition by way of blur or displacement. The shimmering of leaves on a tree or the blur of water in a stream.
Shape is all around us. It can be used in composition such as the silhouette outline of a tree against a clear sky.
Texture may be used in your composition to convey feeling or create abstract views. The texture of wheat blowing gently in the breeze or the abstract closeup of a tree bark are good examples.
Space can produce very powerful yet simple compositions. The starkness of a single tree in a lone field is one such powerful image often used by landscape photographers. Negative space between two objects may draw the viewer between the objects. Positive space such as a building that occupies the majority of the image can depict power or dominance in a scene.
Light and shade falling on an object give the object its value. For example, take a white box in a white room. Without shade or light falling on it’s surfaces it’s not possible to tell it’s a box.