Take Better Pictures Lesson 9

Composition Round up – Beginner and Advanced – Two for one

Good composition is the strongest way of seeing. This famous quote from photographer Edward Weston really sums up the theme of this lesson. Compositional elements are design qualities that make photos appealing (or unappealing) to us.

Why do you stand and stare at some photos, while just panning others? We are drawn to photos through access points (composition, lighting and emotion) and the use of strong composition is one thing that can really pull people in, and it's an easy thing to understand and learn.

Composition Basics - This might be a review

Have a look at the following slide presentation. You've probably seen this slide show on the basic compositional elements. I talk about composition a lot on my blog here also. Bottom line, if your composition is good, people will be more apt to look at your photos.

Here is the list of basic compositional elements that are in the slide show:

Advanced Compositional Elements

These are all gleaned from a couple of design textbooks I own. I used to teach photography to 4th year design students at the Alberta College of Art + Design, so I created this list of advanced compositional elements to appeal to them specifically. If you have a design background, you probably know about these things, but maybe you never thought of them being used in photography before.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it covers some compositional design as it relates to photography.

Here are some visuals

Rhythm - When you think of rhythm, you probably think of music, but photos can have it too, like undulating hills on a landscape, or sand patterns from the receeding tide.




Symmetry - I hope I haven't scared you with the rule of thirds and saying to position your subject off to the side. Symmetrical compositions also work, if you can find them! Usually you need some architechure to help out.



Balance - Even though an image may not be symmetical, it can still be balanced. It's also easy to tell when an image is off-balance. Something just doesn't seem right.


texture pattern

Scale - The relationship between objects' sizes can be distorted and enhanced using scale. You can make things look absolutely monumental, or really tiny. Getting up close using a wide-angle lens works best as you'll get better depth of field that way.



Texture Pattern Grid - These elements are often repeptive. I guess that makes repetition a compositional element too!



texture pattern


Colour - Colour is attractive for for bees to find flowers and for us to find subjects to photograph. People in a landscape should be wearing bright colours, especially for stock photography. I also tell my portrait clients to add colour to their wardrobe. Contrary to popular belief, wearing black near your face makes you look older. Don't be afraid to add some colour to your next client portrait session.

colour color

color blue

Figure/Ground or Positive/Negative - The relationship between the figure and background, or positive and negative features in a photo shapes our visual perception and can add tension and visual energy. Play with black and white versions of your image to practice creating positive and negative space.

figure ground

figure ground

figure ground

Layers and Transparency - Finding layers and transparency in photographs is a lot harder than creating them in Photoshop. Windows are the obvious choice for transparency. For layers it may be a bit more challenging. Look at the paint on the brick wall in the second photo below. I see at least four layers, the brick, the blue and white paint, the stencil of the word utility and the chipped yellow and rust coloured paint showing through.

layers transparency



Last notes on photographic composition

Being a creative person who expresses yourself through photography, drawing, painting or graphic design, you already have built-in compositional skills. Compositional elements are just labels to help make you aware of things you probably already notice in your photos.

Composition attracts you to a scene and also attracts people to your photos like a bee to nectar. Something like a bright blue wall of colour, a great juxtaposition of architectural forms, or an interesting landscape makes your brain scream WOW! When that happens, listen to that scream and take some photos.

Your homework this week

Your homework this week is to practice taking photos with one or two compositional elements in mind at a time! Try some of the advanced elements as well. Don't overwhelm yourself with trying to get every element in every shot! That would be some kinda crazy photo if you could do that!

Get out and hunt for some interesting locations around the city or countryside near your home. Remember that sometimes less is more. You know, that old can't see the forest for the trees thing. Of course it's great to always have a camera with you, but it isn't always practical. I have a decent point-and-shoot that I try to grab when out and about, and if not, I re-visit the location again soon.

Try to ensure that your photo has a subject. Just like in a sentence when writing, your photo needs a noun. Too many nouns though, and you will send a confusing message. That's all part of using photography to communicate and tell stories.

There is one more lesson left in this series, and it will be about camera raw files - just an overview of the topic. It's a huge topic, but one of the most asked about things in my classrooms.

Here is the list of past lessons if you'd like to see them again:

facebook icon twitter icon

Keep in the loop by watching my Facebook page and Twitter stream.

Facebook: ImageMaven

Twitter: @MarleneHielema

If you like this newsletter and find it useful, please tell your friends and Tweet about me. I really appreciate your referrals!

Happy Shooting!