Composition


Confederation Bridge from New Brunswick side


The 20th-century American photographer Edward Henry Weston is quoted as saying.

Composition is the strongest way of seeing.

In photography, a composition forms the underlying basis of an image – it is the "Gesture Drawing" equivalent that informs and captures the essence of the photograph. A good composition is quickly recognized by the audience long before the viewer can make out the details of the photo - it is your chance to capture the viewer's attention and bring them in for a closer look.

small mushroom with grains of sand on it

If you Google "photography and composition," you will get thousands of hits, most of which explain things like the rule of thirds, leading lines, foreground vs. background, etc. Unfortunately, much of this information is useless as we are creating art and not baking a cake. And while many will say these are guidelines and not hard and fast rules, far too many people end up religiously following these so-called guidelines, often to the detriment of the work as it becomes more like photography by numbers.


To properly understand Composition, it is essential to understand the foundational pieces in the visual arts, which we refer to as the Elements and Principles of Design. Talking about Composition in photography without talking about the Elements and Principles of Design is like talking about breadmaking without discussing the ingredients that make up the dough – it limits the conversation to generalities and personal preferences. Also, sometimes referred to as a banana debate (You like bananas, I don't, and no matter how much you tell me I should like bananas, I still won't because it is not my preference.)


So, what are the ingredients of Composition?


Old weather posts from a wharf with water in hills in the background

First, at the most basic level, we have the Elements of Design, which are your building blocks – you can think of them as the fundamental design blocks used to create a work of art. They are the simple and familiar terms from the everyday language used to describe elements such as (Shape, Space, Line, Texture, Light, and Colour.) However, these elements often take on an expanded meaning beyond everyday usage when used to describe art.


Second, the Principles of Design. These are the how-tos or the organization of a piece of work. The aesthetic considerations for the general ways of organizing a work using (Repetition, Variety, Rhythm, Balance, Emphasis, Economy, and Proportion.)


I strongly believe in correctly using technical language to describe better what we see. It allows us to discuss what we see in an image more accurately and helps us pinpoint specific techniques and focus more deeply on the details.


In this light, Composition becomes about how we use the Principles of Design to organize the Elements of Design to best express our vision's intent.


Old cabin in front of a mountain with snow falling

The blogs I am writing about Composition will combine examples from my work with the various Principles and Elements of Design and show you examples of how to incorporate these ideas into photography in ways that will create more substantial and compelling photographs.


To create a solid foundation, the early blogs on Composition will cover the Principles of Design, i.e., how we organize stuff within the frame, followed by Elements of Design - which is the stuff we put in the image. Once we have that behind us, we will have a much more accurate and descriptive way of talking about Composition.


Therefore, I recommend you go through the blogs in the suggested order. Then, with the technical language and hopefully a better understanding of the basics, future blogs will combine the various ideas and discuss how combining the foundational pieces can further strengthen an image.