The Elements of Composition in Photography

In this article, we wanted to introduce you to the topic of photographic composition and put forward our top four most basic and easy to understand compositional elements (and tips) to improve your photography that will hopefully assist in taking your craft to new heights resulting in your creation of more compelling images.

The elements of composition in photography can refer to so many different aspects of an image from patterns, symmetry, and depth of field to framing, sharpness, cropping, and light and there can certainly be many other elements to consider when taking a photo.

Always remember, however, that these elements can be subjective to the actual photographer and to the viewer of the image alike, as one person may love an image whereas another person could well dislike the exact same image despite how good the composition of the piece may be.

What is the Definition of Composition in Photography?

Composition, in general, can refer to almost any creative process itself and pertains to the way something is pieced together or arranged by utilising a combination of associated parts or elements.

Within photography and simply put, composition means arranging those parts and elements within your image that suit the end goal of your work to its best ability. Those elements are more often than not parts of a still life scene and are immovable, such as buildings and mountains, etc. so it’s up to the photographer themselves to be able to place those elements in such a way in their shot as to ultimately produce an enthralling image.

Bad composition can ruin what might have otherwise been a fantastic scene no matter how enticing the subject matter and conversely, good composition can see even an extremely dull subject given interesting life. Use too few elements in your photographic piece and the resultant picture could well be devoid of the necessary detail to make the image “pop” so to speak, but use too many elements and the image could well look “cluttered” distracting the viewer’s eye from any intended subject.

The basis of good composition in photography is to guide the viewer’s eye towards the most important elements within your shot, which is why giving thought to your choice of compositional elements before taking a shot is a process that should almost always be adhered to in photography.

Ultimately the end goal of elements of composition in photography is to assist the storytelling expression of the artist by what subject matter is at hand and by necessary means.

Leading Lines

Of all the elements of composition in photography, the technique of using leading lines is one of the simplest to grasp with most amateur photographers already employing the technique subconsciously as it is a very natural way in which an eye would formulate any image.

The premise is that a viewer’s eye is almost always automatically drawn to any lines contained within a photo whether they be straight, curved, zig-zagged, horizontal, radial, diagonal, or vertical. Each of these lines can enhance a photo when positioned well within a frame, and they almost pull the viewer into the picture strengthening the relationship the viewer has with the image.

Generally, a good leading line composition will direct your eye around an image from one point to another and often to the main subject of interest or anchor point within the picture.

Leading lines can be a very simple yet powerful composition technique, especially in landscape photography, creating interest, focus, and depth to a shot and really taking the viewer on a journey.

Consider the following s-curve leading line via this garden bed and road which takes a viewer right from the bottom all the way to the top of the shot

Tip: There are literally unlimited opportunities in photography to showcase leading lines in your composition and following we list a few easily identifiable examples to look out for:

  • Buildings
  • Roads
  • Waterways
  • Pathways
  • Fences
  • Bridges
  • Treelines
  • Garden Beds

Symmetry

Symmetry is all around us and can be an awesome technique that works well in conjunction with leading lines to great effect. Symmetrical based images almost always stand out to us as they are essentially harmonious to humans who are naturally drawn to visual perfection, especially when that symmetry provides engagement in often the simplest of subjects.

There are four common types of symmetry in photography those being Horizontal, Vertical, Radial, and Reflective and each of these types have their own attributes that ongoing photographic practice will enhance. Any of these types of symmetry can add clarity, vibrancy, and creativity to any shot.

You absolutely don’t need specialist equipment to be able to take a great symmetrical shot but if you are worried about shaky hand movements spoiling your shot then a Tripod could well work in your favour.

In our example below you can see the symmetry both top and bottom and side to side along with leading lines drawing you to the main focal point in the centre of the picture.

Tip: When you are actively taking photos and you spot an opportunity for a symmetrical shot you should take two photos of the subject. One photo with the focal point in the middle and one with it off-centre using the rule of thirds photography technique, as often the best symmetrical shot cannot be identified on a small viewing screen.

Sharpness and Focus

There are two ways of approaching this technique.

  1. Ensuring that everything in your photo is in focus OR By selectively getting in close to the subject focussing on specific details and pushing other parts slightly out of focus.

Ensuring a shot where everything is perfectly focussed forces the viewer to travel on a journey all around the image whereas when you make a conscious decision as to which particular part of your photo you want to focus on, it really gives you the control to take the viewer to where you want them to look and can isolate the subject from its surrounds.

Sharpness and focus can be a challenging technique, especially in low light so experimentation and perseverance could be the key here in ensuring you take a great photo when attempting to use the technique.

The central sharpness of the below rose image creates a fantastic contrast to the blurred surrounding flowers really accentuating the intense clarity of the picture.

Tip: Almost all devices permit shooting in a burst mode where several shots are taken at a time. Making use of this mode can often result in some fantastic results if you are struggling to get your subject in proper focus. And of course, sharpness is one of the attributes that can be very easy to manipulate if you use editing software.

Framing

To use the framing technique to the best of its potential it’s recommended that you have either a strong subject or an interesting contrast between the frame and the rest of the picture. Finding a window, doorway, tree tunnel or arch to shoot through is only half the battle. The exception to this, of course, would be when the frame you intend using is so awesome that it carries the image by itself.

Like leading lines and symmetry, frames are found everywhere both in the man-made and the natural worlds, and many budding photographers use them without even being aware. Framing can be both a subtle as well as an “in your face” technique so to speak and it’s not only physical elements that can produce good framing opportunities for your photos. Consider opportunities to use light as a framing source where lighter versus darker sections of an image could be used to isolate a frame about a subject.

Utilising this elemental part of your photography composition can be challenging but very rewarding as frames are often easy to find but the shot containing the frame can be often hard to achieve.

Using frames can be a really good tactic when using over photographed subject matter – consider a cat on a sofa or a cat framed peeping in a window – which would you find more interesting?

Tip: Try using contrasting colours between an image frame and its subject as this can really make the subject stand out and attract the viewer’s attention easily.

Composition in Photography Easily Explained

Josh Katz is a photographer from the US who has a fantastic YouTube Channel packed full of great videos on photography including this simple explanation of the elements of composition.

You should check out Josh’s work on his website and on his Instagram as well where he takes you on an image inspired journey through New York City and beyond.

Josh has been shooting photos and videos since he was 9 years old and has worked with some big names such as Canon, Adobe, GoPro, and more so he knows what he is talking about.

A Final Word about Composition in Photography

There are literally dozens of elements that compose any work of art and we certainly don’t presume to know what will work best in your journey as a photographer but taking on board these four basic compositions should certainly put you on the road to improvement.

As with any artistic rules though you should look at them as guidelines only as your creative inspirations could end up both aligning with and also breaking these “supposed” rules of photography composition anyway.

Photography is a very personal craft so trial and error – as with many things in life – will be the path to betterment.

Please stay tuned to this blog for more articles on photography, associated techniques, product reviews, and recommendations, and much more from the Photo Croc crew of writers.

For now, take care and happy snapping everyone!

Written by Mark Minehan – Traveller, Digital Marketer, Photographic Enthusiast, Sports Fanatic, and doting Father of two wonderful daughters.