Definition: Composition (photographic aesthetics)

Definition: Composition | Glossary entry

Composition (photographic aesthetics)

In photography composition is the arrangement of parts of a scene to form a particular visual outcome. Composition can also be about picking a viewpoint to form a pleasing visual outcome. In practical terms, the photog tends to use both “arrangement” and “choice of viewpoint”.

In general composition aims to direct the viewer to see the point of the photograph. The “point” may simply be an aesthetically pleasing scene, or something containing a more complex story. Even a visually disturbing or discordant outcome are the result of efforts in composition.

The finer points of a particular composition relies on a range of “photographic elements” and the “principles of photographic art” for using them.

Elements of photographic art

The visual elements in a photo have attributes which are called the “photographic elements”. These are…

  • Line – lines and edges that the eye follows within the scene.
  • Colour – the variety of colours and individual hues (and intensities/brightness of each).
  • Shape – a two dimensional area, marked out by edges, which exhibits similar textures/colours and may be geometric or defined by organic or natural processes.
  • Form – three dimensional structure with length, width and height.
  • Tone – shade and light variations that define ‘form’ persuading the eye of its three dimensionality.
  • Texture – the surface detail of ‘shapes’ or ‘forms’ that persuade the eye they would have the feel of the real thing if touched.
  • Space
    1. Positive space – the space occupied by a shape or form.
    2. Negative space – the space between shapes or forms.
  • Depth – the viewers perception of distance between ‘foreground’ and the ‘background’ in the picture.
  • Sharpness – the degree to which an object or particular part of the picture is sharp or blurred.
Principles in composition

How the individual elements are used are the “Principles of photographic art”. They may be defined as the organisation of the elements of a picture. They are arranged into a coherent or harmonious whole (sometimes known as the “Unity”). The whole creates the picture and the photogs intended statement for the piece.

The difference between a “photographic element” and a “principle of photographic art” is simple. An example of a line in a photograph could be a road. How that road is shown affects the way the eye moves through the picture. It could be depicted as going into the picture creating depth (by converging edges) and drawing the eye into the distance. Or, possibly, the road could cross the picture creating a dynamic side-to-side impact. These alternatives have the opposite impact created through arrangement alone.

How elements are used is governed by the “Principles of photographic art”. These are…

  • Unity – the concept of the whole piece, how it forms one piece and how well the elements are organised overall.
  • Harmony – a consistent overall theme which seeks to make a well ordered and simple outcome. The aim is to reduce discordant and unnecessary elements.
  • Colour – individual colours act as independent elements in a picture. Overall control of colour, its contrasts and complementary properties make it an important part of the organisation of the picture.
  • Variety – the degree to which different type of things, forms, and shapes are used. This is also about how contrast and emphasis are deployed.
  • Movement – shows action or partially completed action, implied movement into a scene or along a line. Movement can also be through the expression of motion blur. It may even the passive control of eye movement through the scene using elements of composition (particularly lines and edges).
  • Contrast – expressed through light and shade; brightness and darkness; colour differences; texture variations; pattern differences; juxtaposition and so on – contrast has a powerful effect on the eye.
  • Balance – the arrangement of elements to create a harmonious distribution of visual weight in the picture. If an element occupies too much of the picture, or seems too heavy the picture is unbalanced. The eye tends to be drawn to the heavier elements.
  • Proportion – the relative size of shapes and forms; the relative quantity of an element; or the relative quantity of different elements
  • Pattern and rhythm – use of recurring elements in an organised or rhythmic way introduces a dynamic to the picture. Pattern and/or rhythm can be used to imply movement, activity or organisation.
  • Geometry – the way shape and form is organised overall. Is the picture constructed using symmetry/asymmetry, the golden mean, rule of thirds or other geometric principles to organise the final picture.
  • Focus – through the depth of field, focus controls how much sharpness there is at any given point or individual element and where that sharpness is centred. The eye is naturally drawn to the sharpest part of the picture. However the transition from sharp to unsharp can be relatively abrupt. Equally it can be distributed through the depth of the picture. Focus also includes the quality of the unsharp (blurred) areas of the image (bokeh).
  • Viewpoint – often not considered a principle of art. Viewpoint is important in the principles of photographic art. The birds-eye view, adult eye-height view and ground level view offer three very different perspectives and probably different elements of the same scene. The point of view is therefore be an important principle in organising individual elements.
To please or not to please?

A composition is pleasing if the viewer feels empathy with the photograph subject or gets pleasure from viewing it. The aesthetic success of a photo could be measured by the pleasure it gives. Generally photographers work to find pleasing aspects to a scene. They word to draw the viewers eye into the picture and capture their interest.

Aesthetically pleasing outcomes for photographs are not always the intentions. Composition could be deliberately discordant. One possible intention may be to show chaos and disarray. On occasion the composition can be aimed at shock or concern or any of a range of uncomfortable emotions. Ugliness and discord, horror and shock all have a part in art. Photographers are no different to other artists in bringing those things out in a picture.

Messages and ‘Unity’

Every photograph carries a message or story with which the viewer is influenced. A successful picture is a complete and convincing whole. It carries not only the subject but a convincing environment or background too. If the composition is not convincing then the impact is lost. The artist must plan or pick a scene that supports the main idea of the picture. The composition is therefore the arrangement of the elements of the picture through conscious planning. It may involve using the rules of composition or artistic principles. It may also mean building the scene from scratch in a way that creates what we want the lens to see.

A coherent, harmonious unity in the picture will create a story. If successful it will be clear and convincing. Poor composition, discordant elements and inappropriate or complex inclusions break down the message and spoil the unity of the picture.

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Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photographer and editor of this site. He has also run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photogs.
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