Composition in Photography: Design Elements Part I

In this article, I will take up a VERY easy topic in photography that might be very well ENORMOUSLY difficult for some. And there is absolutely valid reason for it.

Photography is a wonderful mixture of science and art. The science part can be intriguing and is an important aspect but not the whole of it. Techniques like depth-of-field control, slow shutter speed effects or motion freeze are all cool but they only compliment one of the core concepts of photography which is closer to art:


A photographer is an Artist and a dreadful fate of an artist is “predictability”.

And it is this area where we are all set apart from each other. We see things differently, perceive differently and of course think differently. Although biologically we are all human, all these contribute to the “uniqueness” of one person and hence to his/her creation in any field of art.

So am I saying only a specific people can become a photographer? Absolutely not. We, humans, have an excellent gift of learning. We learn by imitating, we learn by reading and collaborating through communication. Same applies to photography. We first have to imitate the best works from legendary photographers, try to “see through” their work, analyze it, appreciate it and follow it before we can innovate our own styles.

After going through a bunch of photography works from distinguished photographers like Ansel Adams, Edward Curtis and Irving Penn and many others… I noticed “few” patterns and commonalities that make their work extraordinary. And then after researching on internet and library books, I found there are a LOT of concepts and ideas behind those “few” patterns. Somehow the patterns were “deliberately” introduced to be noticed and CREATING new ideas for the rest of the photographers (like me) to learn and adore.

Here I am going to share some of my insights combining already available plethora of information on this topic while throwing in some of my examples in this engaging discussion of COMPOSITION: How to make a photo more “appealing” and “pleasing” to our eyes. Like good food is not a direct outcome of cooking in a good utensil, it’s the photographer’s decision that makes a photo great and hardly the camera itself. Of course you must know the technical part of taking the photo or you will land up ruining your best shot due to incorrect camera and flash settings.

This discussion is very subjective, slightly controversial but informative as well. Please understand, real artists are not confined into any set of rules. But I can guarantee you that they are MORE aware of these “rules” than us and thus are able to consciously take a superior decisions to either follow the rules or break them. So I would suggest that my tips are mere guidelines and are not meant to be followed diligently in EVERY situation.

Sounds kind of a disclaimer, huh… well it’s a message from a photographer to a photographer. Most of the time we THINK that we are limited by what is presented to us for taking photos, but little we REALIZE that it us who choose WHAT we photograph, in what ANGLE, from what POSITION. and WHEN we press the shutter, click!
Now let’s jump right in. For simplicity I have broken the material into four easy key elements to remember and understand and I will cover two of them in Part I of this article:

I. Choose the subject

Be a miser when choosing your subject. Do not try to include EVERYTHING you see in a SINGLE photo. I got a great advice from one my photographer friend that I am going to share with you –

While Painting a picture we start from a blank canvas and “add” objects and colors on it to produce a finished painting. With Photography, we start with a scene already full of objects and colors and we consciously “eliminate” unwanted distractions and focus on a subject resulting in a good photograph.

Quite an “a-ha” moment.

Like good literature, a choice of subject should be concise, and to the point. Find an “interest point” in what you are seeing in front of you. While writing this article, my eyes see a glass of half-filled water. Is this an interesting subject? Why not? What about just the edges? Or maybe vertically from top, when you can see a circle and a magnified image of what is beneath the glass. Seeing photographically involves having artistic taste. And then comes aesthetic composition.

Example of a simple photo of candles:

Composition in Photography

If you find that “interest point” in the scene, try to keep only ONE central interest point per photo, if you have more, the viewer’s eyes will naturally hover around. The viewer’s brain tries to make a decision of what to look at and concentrate and in this process of searching loses interest because we tend not to think too hard just to figure out what the photo is all about. All this happens very quickly and at a sub-conscious level.

Example photo:

Composition in Photography

The central point of interest can be a color, an object or shapes. A central theme can be a rhythm, pattern or even chaos. Do not confuse with “one” central point of interest with “one” object in the scene. It can be one object or combination of many objects, the key is to search for pattern or relationships (more to come in the next section)

Examples of a pattern:

Composition in Photography

Example of color:

Composition in Photography

Example of shape:

Composition in Photography

Example of chaos:

Composition in Photography

II. Choose the environment to compliment the subject

You can have multiple or all of the themes (from section I) in a scene. It’s a photographer’s task to identify what needs more attention and what doesn’t. Keep one, eliminate others. The process of elimination can be either completely removing them out of the frame of your photo or optionally making them “out-of-focus” or blurring out the unwanted elements.

Example photo:

Composition in Photography

You can also have a frame to enhance the focus on the subject. A frame can be the outer edges of your viewfinder or anything from the ACTUAL scene, like an arch or tree branches or a window. Find something in the scene itself that can provide a frame to your subject.

Here’s an example photo:

Composition in Photography

Draw attention of the viewers to the detail of the subject. Don’t let distractions dominate the composition. Remember: Less is more.Define your subject so strongly among it’s backgorund that the eyes of the viewers get locked on it.

Example Photo:

Composition in Photography

Have (or make) a contrasting background, either Dark on Light or Light on Dark. Also place other objects in the environment keeping in mind the relationship with the main subject.

Here’s an example of a red tree:

Composition in Photography

and a beach photo:

Composition in Photography

Remember the concept of a subject does not always apply to conventional “subject” notion that comes to our mind like a person, a structure or a mountain. It can be even be a part of the conventional subject like a dress on a person, eyes of a person, a corner of a structure or a rock on a mountain. Choosing a specific details of a subject generally tells a story and keeps interest among the viewers.

Example photo:

Composition in Photography

In the Part II of this article I will discuss about the last two elements: “Positioning the subject” and “Breaking the rules”.

The last element might seem quite counterintuitive, and actually that’s the key to mastering any form of art.

Talk to you soon

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Sudipta –

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