What is Composition in Photography?

By Amy Renfrey

If you look at all the great masters of photography you can often feel like they knew a secret. Well, this is not far from the truth. The fact is the greats like Sebastio Saldago, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham (just to name a few) did indeed know how to frame and compose their photos.

So how did they do it? The secret is that they know how to design and structure their photos long before pressing the shutter button.  Design elements are applied to photography which creates the arrangement and formation of your subjects within your photo. This is the difference between a beautiful photo and a photo that doesn’t work visually. These guys knew how to structure a visually appealing photo. Let’s look at some of them now.

Photography composition basics

A good photo is one that forms a strong story. It is clear and provides a good structure for us to base our assumptions on. There are a number of design rules that allow us to do this and as a result, create some powerful imagery.

Basic photography composition is not only working with the rule of thirds, which I’ll explain in a moment, but it’s understanding why we need to photograph things from certain angles. Lines and shape are the basis to this understanding.

The elements of visual design

To begin with let’s look at tone. Tone, very simply put, is a variety of brightness and shadow. The variation is referred to as tonal range. If something has a large tonal range is has many variations of brightness and shadow. Think of a really nice black and white photo. What makes it so beautiful? It’s often because it has a wide tonal range. This means there are many variations of bright and shadow in the photo.

These variations enhance the photo because highlights tend to “move” forward and dark areas tend to look as if they are further behind. This makes it look like the photo is more three dimensional. The more that a photo looks three dimensional the better it tends to appear.

Always think about how your brighter areas work with your darker areas to make shapes look the way they do. Consider if you can make them stronger and give them more contrast to emphasise lines and shape.

Let’s look at the lines within a photo and what they mean. Every single photo has shape and much of that shape consists of lines within your photo. Whether it is the horizontal line of a horizon in your sunset photo, the vertical lines of a street sign or curving lines of a beautiful shell you find on the beach, you will still need to place those lines in certain areas of the photo for maximum visual appeal.

The great thing about a little bit of knowledge is that it can yield powerful results. Lines can be used to direct the viewer’s attention to a specific part of the photo. Horizontal lines represent stability and calm. Vertical lines represent strength and power, and a sense of firmness. Diagonal lines represent energy and motion. Curved lines represent beauty and sophistication. Converging lines represent depth and perception. Crossing lines represent complexity and rapid movement.

So how do we compose our photos with such specific structure like this to create beautiful images? There’s no hard and fast way, but the rule of thirds might help you further.

Photography and the rule of thirds

The rule of thirds relates to the placement of interesting parts of your subject on areas of your photo. For example, it might be a little bit uninteresting to place someone’s smiling face right in the center of the photo. If you moved the camera and positioned their face closer to the edge of the frame it might be more interesting. It might give a more positive message and captivate your audience a bit more.

The rule of thirds is an imaginary grid that we place over the top of an image. We place the interesting elements of our subject close to the junction points. This gives the opportunity to deeper and more meaningful photos for years to come.

You can create beautiful photos anytime. Start by looking at your lines and tonal range. These two things can prove to be powerful visual elements for creating beautiful photos.

You can create abstract photography this way too, as I have done here below. Abstract is primarily where the subject itself is used to emphasize shape and form only with the intention of creating a mood and a feeling.

 Composition in photography

Photo above titled “Mess” by Amy Renfrey.

1/60th of a second, F8, ISO 100, 70mm


Photography composition

Photo above titled “Into The Future” by Amy Renfrey.

1/500th of a second, F4, ISO 100, 24mm.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II


Rule of thirds photography

“Concrete” by Amy Renfrey.

1/1250th of a second, F8, ISO 2500, 53mm.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

All Photos by copyright by Amy Renfrey.

About the Author

Amy is an multi-award winning photographer from Australia. She teaches enthusiast photographers how to take beautiful, professional photos in easy, plain English. She has a monthly photography emagazine and ebooks to help you create stunning images every time.

Comments (2)

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  1. Angie says:

    Thanks for an awesome ezine Amy. I love it. It’s helped me with my photography a lot. Best wishes to you and your family! Angie. xxx

  2. Kris says:

    Love these photos. Excellent article Amy.

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