John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

The Big Picture of Composition

artistic composition


“Good composition!”

You’ve heard that comment many times. It’s a nice compliment, but what exactly does it mean?


It's how something is made up

Generally speaking, the word “composition” refers to the way in which something is made up, the way individual parts are put together to construct a whole. In art and music, it is the plan, placement, or arrangement of elements to create a work. While composing paintings and music, artists have carte blanche to add whatever elements they wish to the canvas or sheet music. For traditional photography, the process is more limiting. To create good composition, photographers must carefully frame a preexisting and often visually complex scene, usually by following the three most basic rules of good composition: simplify, simplify, simplify.

Fortunately, the digital age has now given photographers the same flexibility as artists in other media. With the right image processing tools, using what some call image manipulation, you can add and subtract elements as much as you like while creating the image.


The rules (guidelines) about composition

How should elements be arranged to create good composition? That’s a complex, elusive question. Entire books have been devoted to it, including many sections of this one you are reading right now. There are traditional principles to guide us, such as the rule of thirds and the golden ratio. Some people even say there is a kind of grammar and literacy in visual design, just as there is in writing. Mastery of that grammar enables you to create an image that has a pleasing sense of proportions and balance of the individual elements. Always seeking order and pattern, the human mind appreciates a composition that offers it, especially when that design is not immediately obvious, but instead subtle, registering on an almost subconscious level

Although some speak about the rules of good composition, which the masters of classic painting outlined for us, we probably should think of them as guidelines. Compulsivity about doing the “right” thing can lead to compositions that are a bit stiff, predictable, and boring. Following the traditional guidelines will usually result in an image that many people will find aesthetically acceptable, but breaking the rules might produce intriguingly creative compositions that will surprise and delight people, especially those who already know the "rules."

How it all comes together as a whole

I like to think of good composition as more than just how the individual parts are arranged to fit together. At the most sophisticated level, it entails how all the elements of the image – color, texture, shading, lines, perspective, depth of field, etc. -  come together to express the idea, meaning, feeling, or subject matter of the image. When creating an image, it’s always helpful to ask oneself, “Does this element support the idea?” A soft focus portrait will not accurately capture the edgy personality. Regardless of how beautiful low key photography can be, shooting a dark photograph of a party will not reinforce the idea that everyone had fun.

In truly exceptional composition, all the elements come together to create a sense of unity. They support each other in producing a Big Picture where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They complement each other by expressing different nuances of meaning concerning the subject matter.  Great masters have said that in the perfect composition, nothing can be added and nothing taken away. The image is complete unto itself. For the viewer, it just “feels right,” even though they may not be able to verbalize why.

Would you like to read or participate in a discussion about this article in flickr?

Related articles in Photographic Psychology:

The Rule of Thirds
Breaking Rules
Symbolism: What Does It Mean?

Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche