Is your composition in photography up to scratch?

Composition in photography :: Image: River Bokeh

• River Bokeh •
There is more to composition in photography than simply placing the subject on a third. The concept of “composing” pulls in many aspects of Photographic work.

Composition in photography – science or art.

Many photographers struggle with composing a picture. Composition in photography seems seems difficult to define. Starting with a few simple ‘rules’ helps. If you want to develop your work you must go beyond the rules and understand some of the other principles in photographic art.

A lifelong adventure

The Definition: Composition (photographic aesthetics) in our Photographic Glossary is up to date and helps to explain the idea of the Elements of photographic art. It would help to read that definition before the rest of this article.

Construction or deconstruction

I have thought about the traditional elements and principles of art for a long time. I find myself dissatisfied with the traditional view with respect to photography.

Composition from a photographers viewpoint is, I think, a different situation to say a painters viewpoint. We could be side-by-side with a painter and both create an image of the scene which is broadly alike. Alternatively we could produce something totally different. They could be worlds apart.

I think there is something different in the approach to a scene for a photographer compared to an artist. A painter constructs a picture from scratch. They can create something that is like the scene they see. They my paint something that differs from that scene so completely it is unrecognisable. Whichever it is, they are able to construct the scene, element by element.

In this “construction” mode an artist has used their knowledge of the “elements of composition” and done an analysis of the scene. Then, using their imagination they put the elements together using the principles of art to create a rounded composition which is aesthetically pleasing, well proportioned, organised and representative of the scene.

A photographer has to approach the scene from a different perspective. The scene has attributes which are elements of art. While the photographer sees the textures, proportions, colours and other elements the way these are used differs to the ‘construction’ work of the artist. A photographer has to take a ‘viewpoint’ in using composition in photography. We look at a scene and are faced with less artistic license in the placement of the elements or how to colour, texture or use them. Instead the photographer has to consider what not to include in the picture – to make it simple. Photographers consider using the natural attributes of the scene to pick out the compositional elements. We use the principles of art. But we consider them in an existing context to create an aesthetic outcome. This is done through our viewpoint of the scene.

In other words, photographers tend to work in a “deconstructive” mode. Simplification and point-of-view are compositional tools. They derive from the principles of photographic art. This helps make it easier to express the desired outcome. But essentially our efforts at composition in photography are about ignoring elements of the scene (leaving them out of the image). And also to emphasise others (or keep them in the frame) in order to develop the message or ‘point’ of the picture.


All art is complex. So there is plenty of ways that this analysis can be knocked down by a whole range of “what if” arguments. Nevertheless I feel that photographic art does have this deconstructive approach to a scene compared to other creative arts. To a lesser or greater extent it applies to all scenes. There will be more construction in a still life; less in a landscape. So this is not a simple concept to be applied in all situations.

However complex a scene, however it is approached, the outcome will be unique to the photographer or the artist. It is in this variation and infinite use of interpretation that photography is an art. The use of our knowledge of composition in photography allows an analysis of the scene which may seem like the same analysis made by an artist. I question that the principles of art are the same as the principles of photographic art. I think they are deployed differently.

Think about the contrasting models of the artist and photog. Construction (artist) verses deconstruction (photographer) is one way to bring out how a scene can be approached. This analysis is one more way to think about composition in photography.


You may feel that you need more background on the subject of composition in photography. If you do, here is a slide show to provide some insight into the basics of composition in photography. Please also read the Definition: Composition (photographic aesthetics) and look up the Composition resources on Photokonnexion

Comments, additions, amendments or ideas on this article? Contact Us
or why not leave a comment at the bottom of the page…

By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has 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 photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.

2 responses to “Is your composition in photography up to scratch?

  1. I can’t say I agree with your supposition 100% but I do see how you are perceiving a difference in the way an artist produces a picture as opposed to how a photographer produces one. But I don’t think the differences are really based in how a picture is produced- constructively or destructively. I think they are produced with the same results, but in a different order. It is true that the artist can manipulate the picture as he paints, but with post processing editing, so can the photographer- his comes after the fact instead of before. A photographer also has the freedom to manipulate the perspective, point of view, color, composition and light as does the artist in the moment he captures the picture. And just like an artist can look at a landscape let’s say, but end up with a picture that does not look exactly like it (as in he paints it abstractly rather than realistically), a photographer can have the same outcome if he chooses to use editing and effects on his shot rather than staying with the sooc rule. Art, as in paintings, can’t be relegated to one style. It is not just realism, still life, abstract or cubism (to name but a few). And neither is photography limited only to one style as in street, candid, portraiture or action/sports etc. Each style brings its own nuance and form (contrast the Dutch Masters to Monet and Renoir) to the picture. I think there is a tremendous amount of common ground between artistic principals and photographic ones and the way they are accomplished. But as stated before what the artist sees when he is first inspired to paint and how he paints his subject follows a different path to accomplish his vision than the photographer who might choose the same subject matter and with the same artistic style/approach (i.e. abstract, etc.), but the photographer will accomplish that “look” in the “darkroom” or in the photo editing program. Additionally the artist or photographer is also interested in “saying” something in their piece and to do that they will “shape” the picture with an emotional element- something within the composition that evokes a response, draws the observer into the feeling of the picture. I think these things make photography and art (and you could also add sculpture and architecture into that mix) more alike than different when it comes to creating a picture.

    • I don’t disagree with your idea that there are so many aspects to this that any generalist argument loses its power when covering so much ground. It is a weakness in the argument – as I pointed out with my comment about “what ifs”. However, I was trying to help people understand that there is, as I see it, a difference in the initial approach to composition.

      You used the term destructive. I was not so cavalier. In fact quite the opposite. Deconstruction is a methodology, an analysis, not a chaotic break-up.

      When we teach composition to photographers we tend to help them see the scene in terms of analysing it. That is to try see the scene by the types of composition tools that would be appropriate to element seen within it. It is true that in many scenes we can change our viewpoint and our angle to the scene as can a painter. But in fact the principle issue that our analysis shows is what is the most powerful compositional tool to use to leverage the scene most effectively in the camera.

      Deconstructing the scene is not a destructive act. It is an act of reconciliation between potential tools for composition in a scene and the scene the photog wants to work with.

      The opposite is true for many painters. Lessons from great painters of the Renaissance and from modern art theory is that artists plan their pictures. The use of compositional tools is aimed at teaching the artist to create classical proportions, proper balance and perspectives and so on… in other words, to recreate the scene using the most aesthetic principles available. And, they have the artistic licence to do so because they can adjust the scene to fit the plan. Photographers do not have this degree of discretion and cannot plan a scene like a landscape (although they can a still life).

      You are absolutely right. This argument would have to be fleshed out in order to justify the full impact of my view. I was hoping to make the point, which you picked up, that this is about an approach methodology, rather than an attempt to discredit our use of compositional tools. My basic idea is that where artists are able to build a scene from scratch they use what they know about composition to plan an aesthetic outcome. Photographers come from the other direction and use deconstruction to find the best compositional tool to suit the scene – and incidentally – to simplify the scene. Once they have an approapriate tool they capture the scene using that as the major compositional framework. The rule of thirds is perhaps a good example of this.

      Of course your point about the message in the scene is not diminished by my point. If an emotional context is important (as it is in all art) that can still be included, in fact more so with good composition. I am saying that composition in photography is about fitting appropriate compositional rules to the scene. That would allow for any type of content or story to be appropriately enhanced by the right tool.

      I am not arguing that we as photogs should abandon composition. I am arguing that we undertake the task of composition from a different viewpoint to an artist.

      Finally, yes, I take your point about post-processing. Anything goes and anything can be the result. That is a different arena and one that the model does not work within. I think that the constructive model works better there. The photographer in post processing becomes like the artist. They are building a new reality. So, yes you have a point there.

      Thanks for the interesting response. Keep ’em coming!