Modern Photography/Composition

Composition is simply the arrangement of elements within an image. It could further be said that composition is, beyond the raw selection of subject or subjects, one of the key tools that the photographer has in crafting an image. Composition has been the subject of extensive thought long before the invention of photography, with Renaissance artist and architect Leon Battista Alberti credited with the earliest surviving text on the subject, Della Pittura (On Painting). American photographer Alfred Stieglitz was one of the most influential practitioners to consider composition extensively, with the arrangement of lines in his Steerage focusing his attention much more than the human aspect of the image.[1]

Alfred Stieglitz's The Steerage is a good example of the use of leading lines and the dynamism of diagonals in an image


Composition considers the way the image is likely to be perceived. The placement of lines and shapes should be considered in terms of their expression (dynamic, static, monumental, etc.), balance, symmetry and the way they lead the viewer's eye around the image.

Lines and shapesEdit

Lines, along with shapes, are some of the most basic compositional elements in photography. They can establish the mood of the photograph and used well can lead a viewer's eye around an image. As a general rule, diagonal lines and curves create a sense of motion, while horizontal lines tend to feel static or restful. Verticals, in turn, add strength and monumentality. Shapes are fields of generally uniform tone or color. They can add "weight" to certain areas of a photograph, and interact with other shapes and lines to create balance or dynamism. They can also act as centers of focus, especially aided by lines leading into or away from them.

Color and toneEdit

Color and tone are basic considerations in photography. They can make a shape strong or weak, can make it appear to come forward or recede into the background. Two shapes of different colors will appear to have completely different weights within the image. Likewise, a small but strongly colored element can easily offset the impact of a much larger but weaker one, either achieving balance or striking a discordant note.

Symmetry and balanceEdit

Symmetry, the placement of similar elements on opposite sides of a real or imagined axis, plays an important part in photographic composition. While it's usually an element that adds balance by equalizing the weights of a picture's various elements it can also add dynamism, depending on the placement and number of axes of symmetry. A diagonal axis can result in a dynamic composition despite almost complete symmetry of the basic elements.


Because all of us are people and we are conditioned to react to other people, a lot of the above considerations can be radically thrown off by the addition of human elements into the picture. For instance, an eye within the frame will draw most viewers' attention much more strongly than another item of equal size and shape. A human figure will likewise tend to become the center of focus despite being of relatively insignificant size compared to other elements. This is not something even the most abstract thinker can overlook.

Popular guidelinesEdit

There are plenty of composition guides for photographers, both in print and online, none can compare with the influence of Kodak's seminal "Guidelines for Better Photographic Composition". Often derided for having spawned millions of "correct" but boring and unambitious photographs, the booklet does give a useful outline of the very basics of photographic composition that can be used by creative photographers as a jumping-off point.


Kodak's first "rule" of composition is to not overload the image with extraneous information. It's better to focus on the main subject than to lose it among a lot of surrounding objects or people.

Rule of ThirdsEdit

Example of the rule of thirds

The much-abused and often-ridiculed rule of thirds is a simple guideline creating dynamism while keeping a measure of order in an image. It states that the most effective place for the main subject is at the intersection of lines dividing the image into thirds vertically and horizontally (see example).


Images tend to lead a viewer's eye around an image, and that's why it is important to pay attention to them when composing a photograph. As a general rule, diagonal lines crate dynamism, horizontal ones calm, vertical ones a feeling of monumentality or power. Curves can also add dynamism and add interest to an image.


In its guide, Kodak advocates creating balance within an image by arranging the main subjects in a way that doesn't look "lopsided", while refraining from putting them in the middle by using the rule of thirds above.


Kodak further advises readers to use foreground elements to "frame" images, to provide interest and context.

Avoiding mergersEdit

Sometimes background or foreground elements interfere with the main subject, such as a background tree "growing out" of someone's head. Often with SLR cameras, in which focusing takes place with a fully open aperture and therefore very shallow depth of field, this is hard to avoid, since objects that during framing are out of focus end up much clearer in the final image.



Composition operates within the selected format limitations of the camera and recording medium, so an awareness of their basic properties is generally required. Format is generally expressed as a ratio based upon width by height in some measure, e.g. 4x3 inches, 1920x1080 pixels, 36x24mm or 8688x5792 pixels. The important thing is the shape of the frame, not the units it is measured in. Many cameras allow you to alter this format within the camera, for example by changing the film type or altering a setting within a digital camera. It is always possible to crop (cut) a photograph down to a smaller format (permitting for some loss of quality), though it never possible to retroactively step outside of the bounds of the format at the time of capture. Composition is about fitting all the elements within that frame.

Lens and apertureEdit

Many lenses are sharper in the center than at the edge, particularly when used under wide-open apertures. This is due to the optical properties of the lens, and may be a concern during composition. For example, if you have chosen to shoot at an aperture that results in a loss of clarity to the edge of your image, and the most important subject is placed there, then you will be very seriously influencing the overall aesthetic of the resulting image.

Modes of compositionEdit

In more considered modes of conception, such as studio photography, complete control may be given to the photographer to experiment with different composition options. In more spontaneous photography, such as event photography, the photographer may have very little time to achieve a composition for capturing a moment. In the former cases composition may be approached formally and in conjunction with other shot parameters such as camera position and perspective, aperture, shutter speed, lens, lens zoom, lighting, and recording medium sensitivity. In the latter cases, the photographer may already have an eye squinting through the viewfinder, and only a fraction of a second to re-frame the subject in order to capture some important moment.

Common criticismsEdit

The most widely criticized choices for composition are the following, though it is important to emphasize that they all have their place and can be effective and justified decisions at times, they are usually the most common failings within early amateur photography.


Moving the main subject off center takes a wee bit of forethought but it's well worth the effort. Most photography and videography follow the classic "golden mean" which divides the "frame", viewfinder or monitor, approximately into thirds vertically and horizontally (think tic-tac-toe grid). Main subjects and points of interest are best placed at or near the intersection of the lines. In scenics, place horizon either above or below but not through center.

Too farEdit

Allowing too much in the view, such as legs and feet in portraits or group shots makes your subject too far away and small while including more distracting background. A famous quote states: If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough! Think about composing from the hips up, or better waist up. Most people hold their camera horizontally and almost never think to turn it vertically. The general rule of taking portraits of one person (or pet) vertically and two or more horizontally, along with the idea of "filling the frame" as professional photographers know it, will help achieve more intimate, powerful photos.

Distracting backgroundsEdit

Using the portrait setting on point and shoot cameras or, on SLR's, using the larger apertures (the smaller numbers) allows the background to go out of focus and hold interest in your main subject. Also watch for poles, trees, etc. coming out of your subject's head or torso.

Lack of depthEdit

The most common method is to include foreground such as close, aesthetically pleasing rocks or flowers “anchoring” the photo. Tip: Eliminate flat subjects and "see" like your camera by closing or covering one eye. This should help you watch for clues and angles that suggest depth and counter flat lighting and busy subjects that meld into a confusing mess.


  1. Stieglitz, Alfred (1942). "How The Steerage Happened". Twice a Year (8–9): 175–178.