Overview

An overview of photographic composition is in order:

Sadly, too many people will spend many thousands of dollars on a smart new Nikon D850 and will never graduate beyond pointing it at children and pets and pressing the shutter button without any thought other than getting the subject in the frame.

There is so, so much more !

What makes a good photograph ? Sometimes the subject is so powerful that is makes no difference how badly a picture is composed. First contact with aliens ? A huge disaster ? Your picture will be talked about and reproduced until the end of the internet. Your name will live on forever in any list of influential photographers.


The Hindenburg disaster, photographed by Arthur Cofod Jr.
The Event is so overwhelming that any technical or compositional shortcomings are irrelevant.

At the other extreme, can you take a photograph in your local supermarket that will be remebered for ever more ? Probably not, unless your composition and lighting are exceptional.

William Eggleston: Los Alamos

Composition is an elusive concept.

For hundreds of years artists have sought to discover basic rules of composition so that (they hoped) anyone could, with minimal training produce beautiful paintings. They evidently failed and today, most art is still rubbish.

Why, then, do I suggest it’s helpful to understand these archane “rules”? From the moment we open our eyes at birth we are bombarded by images, paintings and tv programmes, all of which have been designed And framed by people who were also taught these rules. We’re comfortable looking at pictures where the subject is placed on one of the intersections of the thirds because we’ve seen it tens of thousands of times before.

Once you’ve learnt and digested these rules how do you apply them ?

This is a question often dodged by the photographic composition community.

If you’re a still life or landscape photographer you have time to set up the camera, consider background, balance and lighting.

On the street you have no such luxury. A photographer who reacts to a situation has no time to compose and check the background. So why bother learning composition techniques ?

Two reasons:

Firstly, after a while, these compositional guides seep into your subconscious. As you react to a sudden situation you may start to instinctively take a small step to the left or right to clear the background; or move your camera a fraction to make a diagonal where none previously existed.

Secondly, many good street photographers eventually graduate from hunters to scene directors. You do, then, have time to set up your shot and incorporate some elementary design techniques.

This is only the briefest of an overview of photographic composition – the real meat is in teh following pages.

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