Evening on the Balcon de Europa, Nerja, Costa del Sol, Malaga Provinve, Andalucia, Spain

Composition: Look around most “how to” photography websites and you’ll frequently see references to the “Rules of Composition”. Well, there ain’t any rules, never ever have been. How can there be rules about the creative process? The reality is that it’s an intuitive feeling of knowing when composition is right…

I’d suggest that “internet photography guru’s” find it easier to explain composition by making it formulaic, but composition can’t be reduced to a formula. In fact the oft quoted rules were a set of design principles developed by Italian artists during the 15th/16th Century Renaissance to assist in the organization of their work.

I can’t teach you composition. No one can, it comes from within – helped by looking at the work of accomplished photographers, and lots, and lots, of shooting.

But an awareness of the guidelines may help, so here’s my selection of principles with sample images shot on my smart phone. And I was probably thinking more about a cold beer, than the guidelines at the time. So here goes…

Thirds: A guideline that’s quoted as a “rule” to a degree of nausea. Imagine that an image divided into thirds by two vertical and two horizontal lines. Positioning the most important elements in the scene along (or close) to the lines, or at the points where they intersect adds balance. If it leave space that feels empty, it can be balanced by including another object of lesser importance. But don’t shy away from leaving space on occasion, negative space can add emphasis to the main subject.


Symmetry: Usually means locating the subject in the middle of the image, so if the photograph is folded in half, it would produce two virtually identical photos mirroring each other. Which the observant will immediately see is a dichotomy with the above thirds guide.


Leading Lines: The eye is naturally drawn along lines and their positioning can pull the viewer into the picture, towards the subject. There are many different types of line – straight, diagonal, curvy, zigzag, etc – and each can enhance composition.


Pattern: We are surrounded by natural and man-made patterns, that can make for eye-catching compositions, particularly in situations where they are not expected. It utilizes repeated elements like lines, shapes, tones, colour and detail.


Viewpoint: Viewpoint can greatly affect the message a shot conveys, eg children or animals shot from above appear diminished. So rather than just shooting from eye level, consider photographing from above or down at ground level. It could also be from the side, behind or at a distance.


Depth: Because photography is a two-dimensional medium, a sense of depth can be created by including objects in the foreground, middle ground and background.


The Golden Ratio: Used as a powerful design tool for centuries and can assist in creating images that have a strong composition.


The latter would be particularly difficult to utilise while out shooting. I’ve always felt that guidelines are probably more useful explaining why a photograph works after it’s been taken, rather than as a guide before. It’s just my opinion, but I’m not the only one, as Master Photographer Edward Weston says…

“To consult the rules of composition before making a picture, is a like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk”.

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