The art of composition

Words/Photographs: Tony Eveling

Good composition is at the heart of all photography, it is the one absolute in the quest for a good photograph!

Even a humble underpass or subway can make a compelling photo when creative composition is applied
Even a humble underpass or subway can make a compelling photo when creative composition is applied

Introduction

Landscape photographs don’t have to be big wow factor dawn landscapes, they can be of mundane things, the skies can be dull or middle-of-the-day bright. There are absolutely no restrictions.

All that is required in any kind of photography is good composition. Without good composition, your photographs will be less compelling to the viewer.

This article discusses some of the elements of photographic composition written to help the beginner and speed up the learning curve.


How to see creatively

The artistic part of a photograph is the instinctive bit, it’s the original idea before your finger gets near the shutter or before you put the camera to your eye. It is the bit that is unique to you and how you see that particular scene.

What inspires you to press the shutter doesn’t have to be big wow factor dawn or dusk landscapes, they can be of mundane things, the skies can be dull or can have bright midday sunshine.

There are absolutely no restrictions. What matters is that you engage with your surroundings, you should feel inspired to take photographs.

Don’t be intimidated – be inspired and encouraged

There is huge pressure from websites and magazines to take those amazing wow factor sweeping vista landscapes.

Those images can feel unatainable by you and you might become disheartened and feel intimidated.

But everywhere around you, in places that you might think are boring and mundane, there are compositions that will help you hone your skills and at the same time create some wonderful and eclectic photography.

Once you have developed those skills, you will become much more confident in attempting different types of photography.  Be inspired by others not intimidated, you need to find your own style in your own time, so make sure you take your time, and be patient.

Composition is king

You still need good composition of course, there is no substitute for that, and that is what photographers really need to work on.  A photograph is nothing without good composition.

Many compositional processes are mechanical and can be learned, which I think is good news for a beginner because it means that composition is a learnable skill and not an exclusive and excluding Jedi mind trick.

Poor photography nearly always result from poor composition, and given that composition is partly mechanical and is learnable, practice will make good photography inevitable, in any area that you may choose to specialise in.

And that means that everyone is capable of creating captivating, artistic photographs.

Let’s have a look at an example of creative composition

This photograph is not one of those wow factor sweeping vistas, neither is it a classic forest shot at dawn with mist. But it is a composition that is personal to me and created wholly by me. It also happens to be a landscape photo too.

An example of good composition that makes the viewer want to look, but at the same time is not a wow factor photograph
I really liked the composition with all those stringy details. Not wow factor, but still requires thought and discipline.

My story for this photograph

I am fascinated by these fallen trees that after they have fallen they provide a habitat for a wide range of flora and fauna.

I saw the possibility for a photograph instantly when I cycled past on a nearby track. It was the huge fallen hulk and the uprooted root system that caught my interest.

The root system contrasts with the leafless branches on the still living trees in the background. Not a spectacular photograph, but one unique to my eyes, and one where the subject fascinated me.

How I composed the shot

I decided to compose the photo as two diagonal halves with the roots in one half of the frame and the background in the other half.

The fallen body of the tree sort of links the patterns made by the roots with the patterns made by the leafless branches in the distance.

The composition struck me intuitively as I walked around the tree.  I also always try to get the exact shot on location rather than ‘recompose’ back on the computer, but that is just my style and you should develop your own little techniques and mechanisms for creating unique compositions.

Where does the art come from?

The artistic part of photography is in your mind, and for an experienced photographer it is often instinct and intuition.

The artistic bit can be the original idea that you have for an image, an image that you may already have in your minds eye of a place that you know very well.

Pre-determined compositions of previously scouted locations. This process is suitable for classic landscape photography of sweeping vistas where you are restricted to very narrow sections of the day, and within that require very specific light conditions. But it does mean you may miss your moment because the light conditions were wrong, or it rains.

It may mean spending long periods away from home on mountains in the dark at four in the morning. Which, whilst being a fantastic adventure…it means that you probably can’t go to work that day, or take the children to school.

But that doesn’t mean that you should ever miss out on capturing unique and captivating compositions, because there is also the spontaneous made up on the spot photograph.

This is where you create a unique and original composition that suits the moment. It is the creation of a one-off made up on the spot composition that suits the light conditions and subject matter.

This way of taking photographs does not  require early mornings or neglection of family duties. It only requires that you have a camera – any camera – an open mind and a creative eye for a photograph. So you may be walking home from work, or just walking to the shops for some milk. You may be walking the dog.

These photos might not be taken in utterly spectacular surroundings, but they can be beautiful and compelling – if the composition is right.

Photographic Inspiration

Photographic inspiration can strike at any time. That is partly to do with visualization, a topic that I deal with here.

From a compositional point of view, you have to work out what it is you can see. After all, you have a near 180 degree field of vision along the horizontal, so you have to stop and ask yourself…what is it exactly that is catching your eye.

That means that you have to slow down and ask yourself some questions…The first thing is to try and determine the actual subject of the image.

What is the photo of?

A wide angle 15 mm lens will have a field of view of around 114degrees (therefore cropping your natural field of view).

A 50mm lens has a field of view around  50degrees and a 300mm lens has a field of view around 10 degrees.

Remember, your eyes have a field of view not far off 180degrees, so think carefully how you are going to crop that 180 degrees down into the phototographic composition that you want, using your lens

Part of composing an image is deciding what ‘field of view’ is wide enough or narrow enough to only include the elements that make up your composition, which, prior to pressing the shutter will exist only in your minds eye.

You achieve that by controlling the field of view, using lenses of differing focal lengths, or walking backwards or forwards, or getting higher or lower.

For me, what I do is decide what the subject is, make that my main element, then position everything else in the frame aesthetically.

Another example of creative composition and the art of composition.

I was waiting at the ferry terminal in Calais on a drizzly day in winter.

Another example of the art of composition by the application of creative composition. This is an image of an underpass in Calais in France.
Creative composition requires the photographer to see beyond the boring and mundane, and see the shapes and patterns in a landscape scene.

This part of Calais is not the most picturesque place in the world and when the weather is so dull there is not too much to inspire the photographer.

Or is there?

I was wandering aimlessly and walked under this overpass, and immediately I looked up and saw these very graphic shapes.

And I said to myself..…”I bet that would make a good photograph”.

What I saw was the graphic shapes, the curves and the contrast against the dull grey skies.

First, the art of composition…

That became my moment of inspiration.

I stopped and looked and slowed down and worked out in my minds eye, using my imagination, what this would look like on a computer screen or in print.

I then set about composing it accordingly. And yes, anyone could do this. You just have to ‘tune in’ with your environment, have that moment of inspiration and then think in terms of the final photograph.

…then apply the mechanical aspect of composition

There are also a number of purely mechanical aspects of composition too that ensure that elements in a frame are defined and separated from interference so that the viewer can see and understand what the photographer has seen, and wants to convey.

In the fallen tree photograph we talked about earlier, and pictured here, I saw the leafless branches against the bright cloudy sky, and I saw similar patterns made by the root system.

An example of creative composition. Fallen tree in Epping Forest, Epping, Essex, UK
The artistic part of taking a photo happens inside your head, then you need the discipline to mechanically frame that in a photograph.

So I wanted to create a kind of symmetry in my photograph to show off equally the roots in the foreground and the leafless trees in the background, which made me think of a square format.

Due to the positioning of the elements I put a diagonal line right through the center of the image with the root system filling up one half and everything else in the other half.

That forces the viewer to see what I had seen when I was there.

I then allowed the leafless trees to leave the top of the frame so that there was no empty sky above the trees, this has the effect of enhancing the pattern effect created by the trees.

These processes can take seconds, and sometimes minutes or more, depending on the environmental conditions and the subject matter. With street photography it is seconds, and with landscape photography it can be as long as you like or need.

With the fallen tree image I had as long as I wanted to take the picture, and with the dawn landscape (Pictured below) I had only a few minutes before the sun hid behind the clouds and shrouded the valley in shadow.

Of course, practice makes perfect, and all of the above is difficult when you are just starting out. And everyone has to start somewhere.  Take your time, be patient and success will be inevitable.

Another example – classic sweeping vista landscape shot

This is an example of a classic landscape shot.

An example of the art of composition using a classic sweeping vista landscape. This photo was taken at dawn in the Hertfordshire countryside, in the UK.
A classic sweeping vista landscape shot. The same rules and techniques apply to all types of photography regardless of the subject matter. And that is the art of composition.

I scouted this location the day before, predicting that the morning sun would fill the valley with warm light.

All that I needed was a cloudless horizon so that the sunlight would do as I wanted. And the weather duly obliged.

I actually only got a few minutes of sunshine, but that was plenty of time as I had my tripod set up beforehand.

This is what I call a classic composition, completely pre-determined beforehand. All I have to do is scout the location before hand, turn up and wait for the light.

You will find this pre-determined classic composition applied by photographers worldwide to beaches and mountains and every landscape in between.

The sweeping vista classic landscape composition

It’s a great composition to use in order to hone your technical skills.  In the picture above I used a 30mm lens which worked for this shot, but you can get very striking images if you go wider, especially on beaches when you have large rounded rocks or bedrock in the foreground.

15 or 20 mm allows you to get very close to foreground object on beaches, and the dawn/dusk light can really show off the textures and shapes when you go wider and closer.

The eye is then led via a foreground object into the middle distance until it reaches the horizon.

Some brightly lit clouds and a colourful sky add the icing to the cake.

The sweeping landscape/seascape vista like the image above is a very popular composition. These compositions have a wow factor, and when all the planets align, you can achieve stunning results.

Images like these are surprisingly easy to take, once you tune into the component parts of this type of photography.

The advantage to the photographer is that once you understand the mechanics of this particular composition you can apply it to beaches and mountains and valleys all over the world.

The sweeping vista is a permanently popular with enthusiasts and still has high commercial value. It will never go out of date, The sweeping Vista composition for landscape photographers. Opens in new tab/window.

Building the classic landscape composition into my wider armoury of compositions

As for me, I do take sweeping vista shots at dawn/dusk when I get the opportunity, but I got into photography ‘accidentally’ through backpacking around the world and became naturally tuned to spotting compositions spontaneously in places that I have no previous knowledge of.

Whether I have a camera on me or not, I am always seeing viewfinder shaped rectangles and squares in my minds eye when wandering around.

Photographing spontaneously such as in street photography, life can end up being be a catalog of missed photographic opportunities.

The good thing for me though is that many of my photographs are taken this spontaneous, off the cuff way, and whilst I probably miss more than I get, the satisfaction of taking a captivating photograph of an unexpected moment in time can be very rewarding. There is always an element of surprise

The world is full of photographs that only you can see

The world is full of photographs that only you can see

You just have to keep physically moving around until you see something you like and then compose it in a way that shows off what you saw in your mind.

It’s very satisfying to take a classic landscape shot that ticks all the boxes.

but it is also fun, exciting and equally satisfying to capture something original that only you can see at that particular moment in time, spontaneously when walking the dog, or walking back from the shops. And it really is true, the world is full of photographs that only you can see.

  • Hi Tony,

    Really enjoyed your article on composition on the train this morning.

    All the Best,

    John

    PS your photos are fantastic

  • Hi Tony,

    Thanks for following my blog. Really enjoyed your article on composition on the train this morning.

    All the Best,

    John

    PS your photos are fantastic 🙂

  • Nice to be in contact…I enjoyed your discussion on composition. That is a word that has taken on so many definitions as of late.

  • Most efficiently written . Kudos !!! Just loved your inspirational attitude and the way you approach the Art of photography.Can’t help but start following you.
    All the best,
    Doda

  • You’ve been to Bulgaria, Varna I see … Nice! It’s a whole adventure trying to find where I can leave comment on your posts, but I think this time it should work! I love all of your images! Regards!

  • You have wonderful photos indeed! I really liked the one of Varna! I’m from Bulgaria and I live in another town situated next to the sea, Bourgas. But you’ve taken an absolutely amazing shot! 🙂

  • You say so eloquently why I love photography and why it never gets boring. One personal challenge (as well as one I give students) is to see how many different ways I can photograph one subject. But equally amazing for me is nature’s artistic, creative skills. Thank you for sharing your beautiful photographs and your insights.

  • Love your site… fantastic post here and fabulous photography!

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