I’ve been thinking a lot about composition— what it is for, and why it is important in photography:
1. Composition directs the eyes of your viewer
First of all, I think composition is important because it helps direct your viewer’s eyes in your photo.
For example, your composition should tell your view what to look at (or what not to look at).
For example, by having a simple background, you can better direct your viewer’s eyes to the main subject.
Another tip: by having leading lines, you direct the viewer’s eyes to the main subject.
Also, if you shoot triangles in composition, you create a ‘visual hierarchy.’ Which means, you tell the viewer which order to look at the subjects in your photo. For example, if you have three people in your frame (one is very close to you, and the two others are a little bit further away) — we generally look at the closest subject to us, then start to look at the subjects in the background.
2. Good composition is pleasing to the eyes
I also think that having a good composition is pleasing to the eyes. I think there is something in our DNA which is drawn to the beauty of lines, shapes, forms, curves, light, colors, hues, contrast, and art in general.
‘All art is an imitation of nature’ as one ancient philosopher said.
We try to re-create the beauty we see in nature (through landscape, nature photographer), or try to capture the beauty of our fellow human beings (street photography, documentary, reportage, portraiture, etc).
I think there are some compositions that are a delight for our eyes. For example, the fibonacci spiral appears in nature (shells, and certain plants).
Nature also likes symmetry (to a certain point). We are generally attracted to faces which are more symmetrical (we see these as more ‘beautiful’). This is why we like symmetry in photos, paintings, and other compositions.
This is why humans also have symmetry in terms of body parts (legs, arms, eyes, kidneys, etc).
3. Composition gives us a ‘Visual anchor’
Also composition gives us a visual anchor— to keep our eyes from drifting away in an image.
For example, I think each great photo should have at least 1 strong ‘visual anchor’ — a primary subject that is of interest to the viewer.
So that means if you are shooting layers in photography, try to have at least 1 subject that sticks out the most. That your eyes can rest upon, without drifting away too much.
4. Avoiding composition for composition sake
I love the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, but I feel a lot of his photos were ‘composition for composition sake.’ He sometimes forgot that he was photographing human beings, not just still lives, or paintings. We need to add more humanism in our photography, especially in street photography — in a world where we are often too focused on nice compositions.
Composition is important, but for me, emotion, mood, and soul are far more important. A composition can show the viewer what to look at in your photo, but a composition can’t show your viewer how to feel in an image.
A nice composition can teach us leading lines, but composition can never teach us how to get closer to our subjects, connect with them, and open up our hearts.
A nice composition is important— to a certain degree. For me, I would take an emotional and soulful photo over a lifeless composition any day.
5. Learn more composition
Of course, composition is important. So if you want to learn how to compose better, check out these articles:
Improve your compositions in photography:
- Composition Lesson #1: Triangles
- Composition Lesson #2: Figure-to-ground
- Composition Lesson #3: Diagonals
- Composition Lesson #4: Leading Lines
- Composition Lesson #5: Depth
- Composition Lesson #6: Framing
- Composition Lesson #7: Perspective
- Composition Lesson #8: Curves
- Composition Lesson #9: Self-Portraits
- Composition Lesson #10: Urban Landscapes
- Composition Lesson #11: “Spot the not”
- Composition Lesson #12: Color Theory
- Composition Lesson #13: Multiple-Subjects
- Composition Lesson #14: Square Format
For distilled lessons on composition and street photography, download my free ebook: “The Street Photography Composition Manual.”
Some more compositional theory:
- Why is Composition Important?
- Don’t Think About Composition When You’re Shooting Street Photography
- How to Use Negative Space
- Street Photography Composition 101
- The Theory of Composition in Street Photography: 7 Lessons from Henri Cartier-Bresson
Learn more: Photography 101 >