Uji-Kyoto, 2017 #cindyproject

Composition vs Aesthetics in Photography

A thought:

What is more important, composition or aesthetics in photography? And are the two things totally different– or related?

1. Composition

Downtown LA, 2019
Downtown LA, 2019

First of all, what is composition in photography?

Composition is how you put together your visual elements in your frame.

For example if you’re out on the streets, how you decide to frame your photo is how you compose a photo.

Little Saigon Selfie, 2019
Little Saigon Selfie, 2019

You decide where to put the subject in the frame. You decide when to click. You decide what to include in the photo and what not to include in the frame.

So it is evident that composition is intrinsic in photography. Without composition there is no photography or visual art.

2. Aesthetics

Aesthetic: Dull orange color, with textures.

Now aesthetics is how your photos look. The tone, dynamic range of light in your photo, the grain, the colors, the monochrome tones, the contrast, brightness, etc.

The aesthetic is determined by:

  1. The camera and lens you use
  2. The type of sensor (or film) in the camera
  3. What time of day you shoot the photo (will determine the color of the light)
  4. Whether you shoot with a flash or not.
  5. If shooting digitally, whether you shoot in RAW or JPEG
  6. How you decide to post-process your photos.

For example, the photo below was shot on RICOH GR II, positive color film JPEG preset, with a flash, further added contrast in Lightroom.

Kyoto, 2017 #cindyproject
Kyoto, 2017 #cindyproject

The aesthetic is an integral part of photos, because you can shoot a very similar composition, yet how you process the photos and the settings you use will totally change the photograph:

3. Why is the aesthetic important?

Kyoto, 2017
Kyoto, 2017

The aesthetic in photos is important because:

  1. The colors, tones, and look of your photo will determine the mood and emotion in the photo.
  2. The aesthetic of the photo will determine a sense of time/place (for example, gritty black and white photos remind you of a nostalgic past– whereas a more ‘digital’/clean looking color photograph will look more present/modern.

Aesthetics in photography are interesting, because when people say ‘image quality’, I think they are referring to aesthetics. There is no such thing as ‘better’ image quality, or “high image quality”. They just look different. And aesthetics are all personal to the viewer — what looks beautiful to you won’t look beautiful to someone else.

But it is evident– the aesthetic of the camera you use makes a massive different. Let us compare the aesthetic of a phone camera versus a digital medium format camera:

a. Phone camera

Photos shot on Samsung Galaxy phone, processed in VSCO:

b. Digital Medium Format

Photos shot on Pentax 645z digital medium format camera:

4. Does a digital medium format have a ‘better’ aesthetic from a phone camera?

Eric kim selfie. Pentax 645z
Selfie in mirror with Pentax 645Z

It is evident that digital medium format photos and phone photos look different.

But is there a ‘better’ aesthetic?

Selfie in Kyoto with Necus 6P and HDR+. Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Selfie in Kyoto with Nexus 6P and HDR+. Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

There certainly isn’t an ‘objectively’ better aesthetic. It is all taste.

The question you must ask yourself is:

Which aesthetic do I prefer?

5. How to create your own aesthetics in photography

Saigon, 2017 #cindyproject #lumixlx100

Now this what I have discovered:

The most important thing in photography is for you to make photos that YOU like to look at! This means making photos that YOU consider beautiful in your own eyes.

This makes post-processing extremely important. And of course, you cannot post-process a poorly composed photograph and suddenly make it a strong photo. Even a photo that is purely “aesthetic” must have a strong composition:

6. Composition and aesthetics are BOTH important, but different things.

Kyoto, 2017 #cindyproject
Kyoto, 2017 #cindyproject

Thus I believe that composition and aesthetics are two separate things– but you need a strong composition and a beautiful aesthetic to make a great photograph, which means:

  1. When you are shooting a scene, experiment with different angles, perspectives, distances, exposure-compensations, flash/no-flash, and different framing. Don’t just shoot 1-2 photos, “work the scene” (ideally shoot 30, 40, 50, 100+ photos of the same scene to shoot the best possible composition of the scene).
  2. Experiment with different cameras and photo-equipment, to create an image that you consider beautiful. Then you must also figure out how to create a good recipe in your post-processing (create presets) to apply to your photos.

7. How to make a great photograph

Uji-Kyoto, 2017 #cindyproject
Uji-Kyoto, 2017 #cindyproject

The simple formula:

To make great photos:

  1. Use a camera and lens which has an aesthetic you like,
  2. Shoot the scene a LOT and make the best possible composition of the scene,
  3. Post-process the photo until it looks beautiful in your eyes.

This means:

Never stop experimenting with your equipment, and never stop shooting photos, and never stop processing new photos.


NYC, 2015
NYC, 2015


  1. Study composition (not in just the masters of photography, but also in painting and other forms of visual art).
  2. When you see interesting photo scenes, work the scene (shoot a lot, linger longer– and shoot more).
  3. Keep experiment with your camera equipment and post-processing techniques, and keep painting photos that you consider beautiful (I liken post-processing to painting your photos).

And summed up:

Just keep shooting it.