Elements of Composition in Photography: Taking Photos for Effect

Monkeys At Kruger Park

I have taken photos for a long time, some of them with good cameras. For most of that time I was merely snapping away, glad at the result if pleasing to look at, or disappointed if I felt the result was horrible to look at. In those early days I had no cogent explanation for the result. My reactions were more intuitive than scientific or based on the full knowledge of what I was doing. Elephant in Kruger Park

The pictures were merely “good”, “great”, “pleasing”, or “bad”. If I considered them bad, I quickly deleted (thanks to digital SLRs) or I lived with the result forever (in the days of film). The photos were good, great, pleasing or bad probably because of their composition, a concept in photography that I have come to appreciate.

This article explores some elements of composition in photography to understand what it means. We define composition in art; what it means in photography; and some types of composition.

What Is Composition In Art?

We compose a work of art to please or we compose it to disturb. Writers do this in writing; musicians do it in music; and filmmakers do it in movies. All do it quite effectively because they are artists and each of their work is unique, stamped with their personalities. Jack O Lanterns

The style of the artist, how the elements of the work are arranged, determines the purpose s/he intends to convey. That is composition in art: the relative arrangement of elements or objects in a work of art, with just enough detail to convey the artist’s intended impact.

It is rigorous work that requires careful planning before execution, with the right tools. More importantly, it requires forethought about the outcome, which greatly assists the planning. The outcome is etched in the artist’s mind before it is indelibly sketched on canvas, paper or frozen in a sculpture.

How About Composition in Photography?

The definition of art above applies to composing a photograph. While the jury is still out about whether photography is pure art, there is little argument for the serious photographer that it is more than just picking up a camera to snap a picture. Equally, the photographer has to imagine how the world should see the picture given the objects in the scene, whatever the purpose of the photograph. Composing

The photographer then arranges the objects in accordance with the intended image in her mind, physically moving them if the picture is a portrait. Sometimes the process may require anticipation (in street photography) for just the right moment to snap away. It may also require changing one’s position (in landscape photos) to capture the effect you want.

Like composition in art, serious photography requires preparation: finding the right scene and getting the right gear and ‘visualizing’ the outcome. Then comes the act of composition in the camera and just the correct settings (focal length, aperture, angle, lighting) which contribute to the composition of the photo.

Applying Composition: The Act Of Imagination

What we say above about composing a photograph requires the photographer to take a number of steps before taking the picture. This is particularly the case in portrait photography (individuals, groups) and landscape photography (the open fields, layering, forests, etc.). Capturing fast moving events and scenes (the streets, sport, concerts, etc.) will, with some variation, require the same steps too. Here are some important steps to consider. Volcanic Mr Ngaruhoe

  • Prepare Appropriately. This may mean lugging all the photographic gear if the intention is to spend time scouting for the appropriate scenery to capture. It may also mean taking along only the gear for a particular occasion. But, most importantly, do not leave home without the camera. You never know what may catch your fancy.
  • Apply Your Imagination and Arrange the Scene. What are the objects of interest in the scene for the type of photograph you wish to capture? Let those be the elements that attract the viewer to linger a little while by placing them in the foreground or incorporating them as center points for the whole picture. They may be lines, patterns, a road, a reflecting medium, or a silhouette that lead the viewer to look at the entire picture.
  • Set the Camera to Appropriate Settings. This requires intimate knowledge of the appropriate camera settings for the conditions of the day: ISO, aperture, speed. I have struggled with this aspect as a budding photographer and the frustration can be enough to drive you from photography, especially if you prefer to be in full control of your camera by using the manual priority mode. Practice and experimentation is the answer.  Delicate Arch 2
  • Use the Rule of Thirds. There is some controversy about the efficacy of this rule. I have used it as a guideline to assess my photos for aesthetics. The more I use the rule as a yardstick, the better my photographs are becoming and the better I will learn to be flexible in using it; that is, dispensing with it when the need arises.

The Goal of Composition In Photography

The goal, ultimately, depends on the reason for the photograph. A seasoned photographer will apply the elements discussed above and some sophisticated variations of composition that are subjects for other articles. But of importance in the composition is that the photograph is balanced when we look at it. What this means is that all the elements to compose the photo are arranged to direct the eyes equally to the left and right halves. Yellow Stone River

I mention this as an element of aesthetic importance to rendering the photo an attractive piece of art to gaze upon. It is not as frequently discussed. But it is an important feature to consider, along with simplicity. Simplicity, quite simply means removing all the clutter that takes the eyes away from the focus of the photograph, during the composition of the photograph or at post-processing.


I hope the article has been helpful in enhancing the understanding of composition in photography. I believe following the basic elements outlined above will make your photo taking not only easier but a joy to take your camera and head out looking for a fascinating scene to capture.

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Author: Mojalefa

Father and grandfather. Semi-retired executive leadership coach and change management practitioner living in Pretoria East, Gauteng. I have had no less than forty years service in higher education both at teaching and executive levels and wish to plough back while the health and strength hold. I work consistently hard to attain this.

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