Understanding Composition

Understanding Composition

by David Taylor


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781781450512
Publisher: Ammonite Press
Publication date: 05/01/2015
Series: Expanded Guides - Techniques
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 1,246,229
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

David Taylor is an award-winning landscape and travel photographer.

Read an Excerpt

Understanding Composition

The Expanded Guide

By David Taylor, Chris Gatcum

AE Publications Ltd

Copyright © 2014 AE Publications Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78145-207-3



Camera technology improves each year. However, despite increasing automation, one thing cameras can't do is compose an aesthetically pleasing image. This is still very much dependent on the photographer holding the camera.

What is composition?

Composition is the act of creating something new from other preexisting materials or elements. Composition can be applied to many different creative endeavors. Music is composed by arranging a series of notes in a pleasing or interesting way (what constitutes a pleasing piece of music is, of course, entirely subjective). Prose is composed by choosing words and ordering them into coherent and (hopefully) lively sentences.

Photographs are also said to be composed. This is often thought of purely in terms of how the various elements in a scene are arranged. For good reason, since this is indeed an important part of composing a photo. However, the success — or otherwise — of a photo is due to many other factors too. These include (but are not limited to) the quality of the light used and even the timing of when the photo was made.

A photo is only as good as its weakest part. A potentially interesting photo can be marred by neglecting one aspect during its making. This book will give you an overview of everything you need to think about before actually pressing the shutter button, and what can be done afterwards in postproduction to improve a photo.

First steps

The composition of an image can be broken down into a number of steps. Mentally running through these steps before pressing the shutter button is a habit that will help save disappointment later.

Step 1: What should be in the image?

An image is an abstraction of reality. We don't see the world in a rectangular frame. Composing an image is an act of imposing order on the world, to fit it within the confines of the image space. The first step is therefore to choose what should fit within the boundaries of the image. Typically this will be the subject of the image, either filling the frame or shown in the context of its environment. The subject of an image can be as real as a person or a building, or as conceptual as a particular mood or abstract idea.

Step 2: What shouldn't be in the image?

Oddly enough, just as important as deciding what should be in an image is the decision about what shouldn't. This means being ruthless. Anything — whether it's a person or an inanimate object — that doesn't add to an image shouldn't be included. Something which appears to be an afterthought or is there purely by accident will detract from the main intent of your image. A pleasing image will work because it is a considered whole, with no elements to jar or distract (though there is nothing to stop you including elements that do jar or distract as long as that's your intention). There are several strategies for excluding elements. The main one is choosing the viewpoint. Often just shifting the camera's position slightly will make a big difference. The simplest way to change a viewpoint is to move the camera left or right. This statue was in the middle of a cluttered and visually distracting urban environment. By selecting a low viewpoint, I was able to cut the clutter and simplify the image.

However, you should always consider making a vertical movement too. Finding a viewpoint above your subject so that you look down on it is a very effective way of simplifying your subject's surroundings. Looking up at your subject will have the same effect — particularly if this allows you to shoot it against a less distracting background, such as the sky. The lens you choose will also have a bearing on how well you are able to exclude distracting elements. Longer focal length lenses are generally easier in this regard. Wide-angle lenses often include too much. Arguably more care must be taken when composing with a wide-angle lens than with a telephoto.

Step 3: Where should my subject be in the image frame?

Where you place the subject in the image determines a number of factors. One of these factors is image balance. Another is the dynamic qualities of the image: does it feel static or energetic? We'll return to these factors in Chapter 3.

Step 4: How will a viewer's gaze wander through the image?

When we look at an image our eyes don't keep still. They're attracted to certain elements such as vibrant colors and areas of contrast. Strongly directional elements such as lines (whether real or implied) help to guide a viewer's gaze through an image. More negatively, elements that dissect an image can interrupt the flow of a viewer's gaze as effectively as a physical barrier.

A viewer's gaze ideally should remain within the image. Elements that direct the gaze out of the image will be distracting and make it feel somehow incomplete. Bright highlights act like visual magnets. This is acceptable if they're part of the subject, but less so if they're in the background and prove distracting.

Step 5: Am I holding my camera in the right orientation?

A vertical image has a different dynamic to a horizontal one. Deciding to shoot horizontally or vertically is an important aesthetic choice. Unfortunately, most cameras tend to sit more easily in the hand when held horizontally than vertically. However, you shouldn't allow this to be a deterrent.

Step 6: Is this the right time to make the picture?

Some images are very time-dependent: your subject may be moving and will only be in the right place for a split second; the sun may be in the wrong position; or there may be any number of other reasons. Therefore you need to think about whether this is the right moment to make an image or whether it would be improved by waiting.

Step 7: Is this the right light for my subject?

There is no such thing as good light, only light that is right for your subject. The light you use determines a number of different factors that could enhance or detract from your subject. The direction of the light will have an effect on where the shadows are in relation to your subject. This will also have an effect on how three-dimensional your subject will look in the image. The softness or hardness of the light affects the density and sharpness of the shadows. Finally, the color of the light has a big impact on the emotional impact of your image. There's more information about the various qualities of light in Chapter 4.

Preparing the mind

Making pleasing photographic compositions isn't an ability that only a select few can master. Anyone can be a creative photographer with patience and dedication.

Slowing down

There's a lot to be said for taking photography at a slow pace, particularly when learning the art of composition. In many ways composition is a lot like working out a puzzle. You need to take the three-dimensional world and fit it into a box, arranged in such a way that it makes perfect sense as a two-dimensional image. This requires a lot of visual processing by the brain. There are some people who can do all this in a split second, seemingly without conscious thought. The rest of us have to work at it. "Snapping" just doesn't give the brain time to figure out the composition puzzle, therefore it's worth setting plenty of time aside for your photography sessions. This extra time should be used to look at and assess thoroughly the compositional possibilities before setting up your camera. This is preferable to randomly shooting tens or hundreds of images in the hope that one of them will work. Quality rather than quantity is ultimately more satisfying.

Practice makes perfect

Figuring out the composition puzzle does get easier and quicker with practice. This is mainly to do with becoming more familiar with your equipment, particularly the angle of view of your lenses. After a while it becomes possible to previsualize a scene and know exactly what focal length is necessary to achieve the desired result. The only problem with practice is that it takes time. It also, if you're doing it right, generates a lot of images that then need to be edited and processed. This again takes precious time.

One surprisingly effective way to practice composing images is to carry a piece of card around with you. This piece of card should have a hole cut into it that is the same size and shape as the sensor in your camera (see the table on page 25). If you hold the card at the same distance away from your eye as the focal length of a lens for your camera, you'll see exactly what you'd see using that lens. For example, if the hole was 36 x 24mm (the same size as the sensor in a full-frame camera) and the card was held 50mm from the eye, the angle of view would be the same as a 50mm lens. The benefits of practicing in this way are that it can be done during an idle moment and that it encourages you to be always on the lookout for potential images.

Viewfinders and Live View

Successful composition involves looking critically at the entire viewfinder or LCD before you press the shutter button.

A successful image is one that's a pleasing whole. The first time this is assessed is when you look at your camera's viewfinder or LCD. When first starting out in photography many people look only at the center of the viewfinder and forget (or don't realize) that there's more to an image than this. Assessing whether a composition has worked means looking not just at the center, but around the edges too — in fact, particularly around the edges. It's all too easy for something unwelcome to creep into the image space without your realizing.


Unfortunately, seeing the entire image is often easier said than done. There are cameras that show you a 100% view in an optical viewfinder (OVF), but these tend to be at the "professional" end of a manufacturer's camera range. More common are OVFs that show you a 95-98% view. Fortunately, losing 2-5% of the actual view isn't too drastic a problem and there are workarounds. One solution — if you have a zoom lens — is to compose and then, ever so slightly, zoom in. Another solution is to crop the image in postproduction to the view that you saw originally. Alternatively, you could make a final check by switching to Live View, which will usually show you a 100% view.


Live View has its problems too, however. Many Live View displays are cluttered with icons and shooting information by default. This will obscure important details that can be overlooked. Some of this information is useful before you make your image. When composing, however, it should be switched off so that you see the Live View image unimpeded.

LCD screens can also be difficult to see in bright light. Before making a composition decision you should try to shade the LCD as best you can (particularly if the LCD is the only method you have of composing an image). There are commercial shades for LCDs that are effective in reducing glare on the screen. However, it's easy enough to make your own out of stiff card. All you have to do is make an open-ended box, with the base slightly larger than the size of your camera's LCD. Alternatively, a black cloth draped over your camera will work just as well, which you would then duck under. Rather fittingly, this resembles the hood of a view camera, the glass focusing screen of which needs shading for similar reasons.

One excellent feature that is generally available in Live View is a grid overlay. The most common grid type is one that dissects the screen with two sets of equally-spaced horizontal and vertical lines. This is helpful when composing using the "Rule of Thirds" described in Chapter 3. Grids are also useful for checking that horizontal or vertical lines within the image are straight. One example when this is invaluable is when shooting bodies of water. A visual check that the horizon is level at the time of shooting will save precious time in postproduction.


A successful photo requires the balancing of a number of different factors. This photo — although just a handheld "snapshot' — still required me to think about which lens focal length to select, which combination of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO to use, and which white balance preset was required.


One of the key skills it's necessary to learn is visualizing what you want the final photo to look like before you press the shutter button. This involves experimentation and practice so that you understand what your camera equipment is capable of.



It won't come as a surprise to you that photography requires the use of a camera in one form or another. However, your choice of camera and lenses will have an effect on your thought processes when making images.


It's often said that the camera doesn't matter — it's the person behind it who's important. To a certain extent this is true. All cameras are tools and they can be used well or they can be used badly. A good photographer will be able to create interesting images no matter how basic the equipment they use. However, cameras are important. If you don't like the ergonomics of a camera you're unlikely to want to use it. Ultimately getting the best out of a camera means using it as often as possible and understanding how well (or otherwise) it works in different shooting situations.

Cameras also have a subtle effect that's little appreciated. They can change how you see the world. You're unlikely to shoot the same type of image with a cell phone as you would with a fully-featured system camera. This is because you unconsciously adjust your photographic vision to suit the camera. Switching between different types of camera is an interesting and challenging way of expanding your creative potential.

Digital sensors

Although digital cameras are alike in theory, there are important differences between individual models. The greatest difference is arguably in the size of the sensor inside the camera.

Size matters

Digital sensors are fabricated on disks of silicon. The smaller the sensor, the greater the number that can be fitted onto one disk. Small sensors are therefore less expensive to make than larger ones. In an ideal world we'd all be using inexpensive cameras with tiny sensors. However, reducing the size of a sensor has unavoidable consequences.

The first consequence is that image quality is often compromised. Photons of light are essentially units of information to a digital sensor. The greater the number of photons a digital sensor can sample during an exposure, the more information it will have to enable it to create an accurate image afterwards. A smaller sensor will always struggle to achieve this aim compared to a larger sensor. Cameras with smaller sensors are more prone to image noise, suffer from a restricted ISO range, and often have a compromised dynamic range too. In many respects using a camera with a smaller sensor is more difficult than using one with a larger sensor. More care has to be taken with exposure as there is generally less scope for adjustment in postproduction without image quality deteriorating unacceptably.

The "standard" sensor size is known as "full-frame" and is based on the dimensions of a 35mm film image. However, smaller sensor sizes are more common, with APS-C frequently used in less expensive system cameras and 1/1.7-inch sensors in compact cameras. Another consequence of sensor size is that the field of view of a lens is altered (often referred to as the "crop factor"). This is described later in this chapter, in the lenses section.

Aspect ratio

Sensors don't just differ in size, they also differ in shape or, more specifically, their aspect ratio. Aspect ratio defines the proportional relationship of the horizontal size of a rectangle to its vertical size. A rectangle with an aspect ratio of 1:1 has horizontal and vertical dimensions that are proportionally equal: in other words, a square. There are no digital sensors that are currently made with an aspect ratio of 1:1, though it was a popular shape for medium-format film cameras, notably those produced by Hasselblad.

Digital system cameras typically use sensors with an aspect ratio of 3:2, which is a relatively long rectangle. The Four Thirds camera system, however, uses sensors with a 4:3 aspect ratio (hence the name). This is a far squarer rectangle and is the same aspect ratio as an analog TV (it's also closer in shape to the 4x5 and 6x7 film standards than 3:2). If you regularly shoot movies with your camera you'll also encounter 16:9. This is the standard aspect ratio of HD TV and is a semipanoramic shape.

Learning to work within a particular image shape is one of the keys to successful composition. However, you don't have to be tied to the aspect ratio of your camera's sensor. Many cameras offer a crop facility (typically in JPEG file format only) or grid lines so that you can compose a shot with the intention of cropping later in postproduction (see Chapter 6).


Excerpted from Understanding Composition by David Taylor, Chris Gatcum. Copyright © 2014 AE Publications Ltd. Excerpted by permission of AE Publications Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1 Introduction, 6,
Chapter 2 Equipment, 20,
Chapter 3 Composition concepts, 48,
Chapter 4 Light and color, 94,
Chapter 5 Practicalities, 134,
Chapter 6 Postproduction, 166,
Chapter Glossary,
Chapter Useful web sites,
Chapter Index,

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