Introduction to composition in photography

Photo of author

Words/photographs: Tony Eveling

The root of all photography is composition.

This post is the first post of a series of articles that will explore and explain that simple fact.

You don’t need expensive gear to take good pictures, what you need is a good eye and good composition.

The good news is that everyone has a good eye and composition is learnable (by everyone).

But if you want to create that classic black and white image, you first need to get the composition right.

Architectural details in Dunkirke, France
Architectural details in Dunkirke, France

This new series of posts is based on my Ebook – ‘Creative Composition’ which was written to explain my personal picture making process so that if you like my photography, that eBook tells you everything I know about composition.

This article is just one of a whole series of articles on creative composition.
You can click here to go to an index page of all these posts in the order that they were written.


Everyone interprets photography in their own original way, and every photographer should develop their own style and originality. Within that there are similarities that span across photographers, genres and styles.

What I will be attempting to do in these articles is to explain my own personal picture making process, how I spot a composition, and then what I do to make sure that what I see in my minds eye is what I end up seeing on my computer screen back home.

There are no absolute rules for any one photograph.

Every photograph is unique as is the photographer.

But a photographer needs an array of compositional techniques that are common between photographers, genres and styles as well as the compositional discipline to create a photograph that make the viewer want to look at it.

I will be explaining the picture making process throughout these articles as closely as possible to the order that the processes take place when I take a photograph, which will, hopefully make things clearer and easy to understand.

How this information is used is entirely up to you. If you’re a beginner you may use the processes described as a template for their own photography, or if you are  more experienced you can cherry pick bits and pieces.

My outlook on photography

I am not a photojournalist, I just take photos, I am not trying to tell stories, I just hope people will like my photos after I’ve taken them.

Collectively though, they do tell stories of the places that I go to and the portraits I take of people do tell a real story of their everyday lives.

Small jetty,Swanage Bay,Dorset,england,uk
Small jetty,Swanage Bay,Dorset,england,uk

If my photos tell stories it is because I engage with the environment that I am in, and that I engage with the people that I am photographing.

If you don’t enjoy being somewhere for whatever reason, then your photography will suffer.

Good photography is obtainable anywhere, so if you don’t want to climb that mountain to get that photograph, then don’t!

If you don’t like getting up early, then don’t get up early!

Find a time of day that suits you as a person.

Find locations that suit you and your lifestyle.

Going to places that you feel you have to go to in order to get good photographs will hurt your photography, and may put you off photography altogether

What is composition?

Composition is the discipline of placing all the visible elements of a scene into a frame in such a way that the viewer sees what the photographer sees, and feels as much as possible what the photographer wants you to feel.

kinder reservoir from pennine way on kinder scout, peak district national park, derbyshire,england,uk
kinder reservoir from pennine way on kinder scout, peak district national park, derbyshire,england,uk

Conveying the atmosphere and mood of a scene in a photograph is down to how the photographer uses composition.

You can have great photographic ideas and originality, but without
good composition your photographs are not going to look great.

Good photography is a combination of compositional skills,
creativity and imagination.

That is good news because you don’t need the most expensive camera and the most expensive gear. You can have a cheap consumer DSLR with a kit lens or a smartphone, and with good composition you can create photographs that have real impact.

So what exactly is composition?

Very broadly speaking, and I say this at risk of stating the  obvious…Composition is the set of rules that determine how you frame a photograph.

These rules are in effect the grammar of photography.

They are rules that dictate composition in the same way that grammar forms the rules that dictate how language should be spoken or written.

If we look at language; grammar consists of a set of rules written after studying a language that has already evolved naturally and organically over hundreds or thousands of years.

Grammar is the distillation of language into a series of components, structures and ultimately a whole load of rules.

Sculpture and church in Hoxter Germany
Sculpture and church in Hoxter Germany

Composition in photography is no different.

Compositional rules have been written down by academic type people after studying photographs and paintings over the centuries.

If you were to study a whole body of work from different photographers and different genres since the beginning of photography there will be similarities occurring over and over again regarding composition.

Those similarities have been written down and are now used as a set of compositional rules.

Those rule do not override your intuitive nature or feeling for a photograph. But they can be used as techniques to help guide you to making the most of your vision.

As an outdoors photographer I tend to compose intuitively, whether it be a portrait, or an urban or rural landscape.

My philosophy is if it looks right, then it is right.

I see a scene, which often occurs in one of those moments where I casually say to myself;

that will make a good photograph

a moment that many people have whether they are photographers or not.

Then I will stop and look, I will see the final image in my minds eye, then I will set about capturing that image using – however intuitively – the rules of composition.

So, what exactly are those rules?

Rules, rules and please no more rules!

In photography there is a tendency to attach the word ‘rule’ to anything to do with composition. We talk about ‘compositional rules’, or ‘the rules of composition’.

A rule is an instruction to do something a certain way (often interpreted as being told what to do whether you want to or not).

Country road in Wiltshire, near salisbury,wiltshire,england,uk
Country road in Wiltshire, near salisbury,wiltshire,england,uk

A technique is a method employed through choice for the
purpose of achieving a result.

Both of these definitions apply to the rules that make up ‘the
rules of composition’

Undoubtedly they are rules because used properly they help
create compelling, aesthetically pleasing images

But…and this is a huge but….you use them as techniques.

You don’t apply them arbitrarily as a rule that must be obeyed (that will stifle you and restrict you creatively).

You apply them to assist in positioning elements in a frame and you choose which ones to use and when and how.

Everything I talk about in these photography composition articles should be used (or not…you choose) in your wider armoury of techniques that can be called upon to assist in the composition of a photograph.

Use the ‘rules’ as techniques, reject them when not required.

For example, I will be looking at the most famous ‘rule’ of all in this book…and that is the ‘rule of thirds’. The rule of thirds should be used only as a technique as you see fit.

Therefore you are free to reject it as you see fit.

Looking out from the Isle of Portland, Dorset, England,UK
Looking out from the Isle of Portland, Dorset, England,UK

And that means that we can all breath a sigh of relief, safe in the knowledge that we can still put horizons in the middle of the frame if we want to….phew!

And sometimes we’ll get it wrong.

Sometimes we will use a technique that in the cold light of day sat at our computer we may have wished we’d used a different rule or technique, or even looked in a different direction.

And that is fine, We should be making mistakes, it’s all part of the learning curve.

Okay, that’s it for now…I’ve probably bored you silly by now, but if I haven’t, feel free to voice your opinions in the comments at the bottom of the post…Don’t be shy!

Anyway, thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it.

So that you don’t have to trawl through my blog posts to find the next one in the series, please visit this page which has all the links to each post in this series.

For your information, these posts have been adapted from my free ebook “creatively Composed”. If you want to read the whole series of articles in one convenient ebook, you can, just follow this link.

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