Photography Concepts & Techniques: Composition

Articles provide explanations of the various rules of photography composition

Basic Guidelines of Composition

3 guidelines for good composition

Anyone can take pictures and photos but as a hobbyist of the art of photography, you need to develop the skill of knowing what to look for and how to produce beautiful photos that other people can appreciate. Believe it or not, there's actually guidelines that you can follow that will help you produce a properly composed photograph. Have you ever seen photograph from magazines or even from professional photographer's websites and say to yourself, "Wow! That's a beautiful photo!". You have probably seen hundreds of beautiful photographs and wished you can take photos like that. Experienced photographers learned to know what to look for and how to compose a photo so it comes out beatiful. This article will give you the basic guidelines that will give you the tools to produce a photo that will engage your viewers.

  1. Guideline #1: Does your photo tell a story? Does your photo have a clear subject that your viewers can see? Does your photo communicate an idea with your viewers? A good photo should have a clear subject and it should tell a story about the subject. A good photo should have a theme.
  2. Guideline #2: Does your photograph emphasize the main subject of your photo? Does it focus on the story you wanted to convey about your main subject? A good photo must emphasize your main subject and the main idea of the story you wanted to tell in your photograph.
  3. Guideline #3: Does your photo include only the necessary elements that gives emphasis to your main subject and story? Are there any extra elements in your photo that does not related directly to the main subject and story? A good photo must be simple and it must have only the necessary elements to convey your story? You should remove or minimize the unnecessary or unrelated elements that do not contribute to emphasize your main subject or convey your story.

If you follow the 3 guidelines provided above, you can begin to develop the skill of knowing what to look for and how to compose an engaging photo.

Guideline #1: A good photograph has a main subject and a story about it

Every one of us can tell a story. Since we were kids, we've learned to make up stories and photography is not much different. You can tell a story in your photo and if you can clearly show your story through your photographs, then you are on your way to becoming a good photographer. The story doesn't need to be overly complicated. Most of the time, a good photograph conveys a simple story.

Figure 1 has an example of a photograph that tells a story.

Photo Story: Child reading a book
Figure 1: Child reading a book

What kind of story do you think I wanted to tell in this photograph? The story I wanted to tell is about a child reading his favorite book. The story is a simple one but it is easily identifiable. The main subject is easily identified as the child and the main story is also very clear - the child is reading a book, his favorite book. That is the theme of the photograph in Figure 1.

Guideline #2: A good photograph focuses on the story and emphasizes the main subject

In Figure 1, what are the supporting elements that makes the story of the child reading clear? Well, there's your main subject which is the child. Next, there's a book that the main subject is looking at and lastly there the element of the child's hand holding the edge of the page as if getting ready to flip to the next page. That too, is an essential element of the story telling process.

So what happens if we remove an essential element of the photograph? Will we still be able to identify the story? See Figure 2 below.

Photo Story: Essential element removed
Figure 2: Essential element removed

The photo in figure 2 shows a close-up of a book so the main subject has changed. The main subject is now the book. What is the book doing? Well, nothing really. So, with the book doing nothing there's essentially no story that is being told. So, although you have a main subject in this photograph, there is no accompanying story.

Guideline #3: A good photograph is simple

What do I mean by A good photograph is simple? What I mean by that is that a good photograph has elements in it that only contribute to emphasizing the main subject and telling the story about the subject. There cannot be elements that distract from this main goal. Let's look at a photo below and examine it.

Photo Story: Child us reading (but has many distracting elements)
Figure 3: Too many distracting elements

Here we see the child is reading a book. We see the child sitting in a chair intensely looking at and reading a book. So the main elements are there that emphasizes the main subject (the child) as well as contributing to the story (child reading a book). However, if you look at the photo completely, there are other elements that do not relate to the main subject or the story. Do you see television in the background? Does the televison serve a purpose? Does it emphasize the main subject? Does it contribute to the story? No, it does not. Therefore, the television is a distracting element in the photo.

The guideline states that we either eliminate or minimize distracting elements. Below are a couple of solutions presented that comply with the 3rd guideline. First, we eliminated the distraction by removing the television from the background - we cropped the photo. Another way to eliminate the distracting elements is by physically removing them and moving them out of the camera's view. Of course, this works only the elements can be moved. The second photo shows us minimizing the distracting element by using a shallow depth of field and blurring the television from the photo so it is less distracting.

Photo Story: Child reading a book (cropped)
Figure 4: Crop to remove distractions
Photo Story: Child reading a book (blurred)
Figure 5: Blur distractions

Lastly, you can also remove distractions by simply moving your subject and choose a background that has no distractions or minimal distractions. However, this is not always possible so this article offers different sets of tricks for removing distractions.

Related Topic
  1. Online Course #2: How to compose a Photograph