Basic Elements of Photography: Composition

The heart of a photo is its composition—the position of different elements within a frame.

Compose simply. Remove all nonessential elements. Zoom in or move in. Photo above Fort Edmonton Historic Park, Edmonton, Alberta. Each part offers a unique look and feel. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Photography is about seeing—how we COMPOSE what we see.

WordNet Search defines composition as “something that is created by arranging several things to form a unified whole”.

The composition of a photo is the combination of elements coming together to create the whole image.

Many beginners are so focused on the fascinating subjects before them that they forget about the basic rules of composition that make for a great photo.

Good photos are rarely created by chance.

To make the most of any subject, the photographer needs to understand the basic principles of composition. The way you arrange the elements of a scene within a photo catch the viewer’s attention, please the eye, or make a clear statement are all qualities of good composition.

By developing photographic composition skills, you can produce photos that suggest movement, life, depth, shape, and form, recreating the impact of the original scene.

You may have a technically perfect photo that is sharply focused and has great exposure, but if it doesn’t have a strong composition, it may not be worth keeping.

Composition is the balance of all things in a photo—the elements, the way the light interacts with those elements, and the way those elements are arranged.

Remember that less is more and remove all nonessential elements in your photo. Photo above Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park near Superior, Arizona. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The art of composition has its roots way back in the Renaissance. It is interesting to note that composition guidelines for creating a photo were established centuries before the first camera was invented.

Visual Perception has been studied for centuries and during the 1930s and ’40s Gestalt psychologists raised questions about vision and perception that are still being studied today.

According to the Gestalt Laws of Organization there are several main factors that determine how we group items based on our visual perception of them. These laws of organization have played a significant role in studies of how we see things, and how our eye moves through an image.

When we first look at an image we notice certain things before others, and our eye follows a predictable path through the image. This path is influenced by compositional elements, and the better our understanding of these elements the better our ability to influence how people view our images.

Make Photos, Don’t Just Take Photos

For great travel photos, think like an artist—not a tourist.

Photographer Camille Bonzani once stated, “There are two types of photographers: those who take pictures and those who make pictures.”

Simple as it sounds, there is a big difference between “taking” a travel photo and “making” a photo. Only one letter separates the words “take” and “make” but their meanings are worlds apart.

When you take a photo, you simply point and shoot. You’re merely reacting to a situation, waiting for an inspiration to guide you to a picture worth taking.

On the other hand, when you make a photo, you’re more proactive, you think about all the elements in a scene and how they interrelate and complement each other.

The path our eye follows in an image is affected by the arrangement of the elements in the photo. Photo above “made” at Ocmulee National Monument near Macon, Georgia. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You think about the lighting and the background and the foreground. You think about how the eye will move through the photo. And you think about the mood you want to create with your photo.

In the process of making any photo, there are two important decisions to be made:

  • What to include in the frame
  • What to exclude from the frame

Remember that less is more. Compose simply. Remove all nonessential elements. Zoom in, move in, and find a position to eliminate the fluff that does not contribute to the composition.

Ask yourself: “If I were painting this scene, what would I include? What would I exclude?” Treat the camera sensor you’re about to expose as your canvas.

Please Note: This is the sixteenth in a series of stories on Digital Photography and RVing

Worth Pondering…

In photography, you point your camera at a scene and start eliminating information.

—William P. McElligott

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