Elements Of Good Composition

 by William Lulow

Photography classes always speak about composition. But what, exactly is it and how do you know when a composition is effective? Basically, a composition is the placement of objects or subjects within the frame. Different compositions can be achieved by:

  1. Moving the camera up, down or side to side
  2. Tilting the lens up or down
  3. Moving closer or further away from the subject(s)
  4. Using lenses of different focal lengths

An effective composition is one that keeps the viewer’s eye attending to the part or parts of the image that the photographer deems most important. If you intend to communicate your feeling about a particular subject, you want to capture your viewers’ attention and hold it.

There are several tried and true methods to achieve this:

  1. Create lines that lead the viewer’s eye into the image.
  2. Create interesting enough subject material to hold a viewer’s interest.
  3. Include a subject that will serve to bounce the eye back to the initial interest lines.
  4. Divide your image into thirds, like a grid.
  5. In most Western societies, when we read, we scan left to right. We do the same for images. Therefore, if you place an important object on the right side of the image, our eyes will tend to bounce back to the left side after seeing it.
  6. Any type of “circular” placement of important parts of an image, will tend to hold the viewer’s attention more.

Here are some examples:

Here, the train tracks lead the viewer’s eye into the image and the largest object is placed near the middle of the composition. The veering out of the tracks on the right serve to keep the viewer’s interest focused on the tracks in the middle, which reinforces the interest in the tall building.

Here, the lines created by the blue sky, the puffiness of the clouds, the contrast of the palm trees against the grey of the clouds and the low horizon create interest in this image. The lifeguard’s small house on the left of the scene serves to keep the viewer’s eye concentrated on the image as a whole.

Generally, anything white in a composition will attract the viewer’s eye before the black areas. By placing the white areas on the right side of the image, the eye is attracted there first. Then it is free to wander to the shadow areas and back to the highlight, thus keeping the viewer’s attention.

In this image (shot from a very high angle), the roadway itself, makes an “s” shape that naturally leads the eye from the bottom left to the top right of the frame.

Here is yet another image with a slanted line that runs right to left within the frame. Because it is lighter in tone than the rocks, it tends to catch the eye and takes it to the center of the image. Then, because the rocks are the largest object in the frame, our attention is drawn to them afterwards, leading to the “circular” compositional element spoken of earlier.

These are just a few elements of good composition. Remember, as photographers, we are dealing mostly with rectangular limits to our compositions. So, think about where you place your important objects within that frame and how you might direct a viewer’s eye to see what you want them to see.