What Makes a Great Photography Composition?

Great photo compositions are dynamic, motivate you to move, have a dynamic balance/harmony of proportions in the frame, and simple+elegant.

I have a passion for composition, ever since I started photography.

For myself, composing a scene is so insanely fun.

When I see something I want to photograph, the game has always been this:

How can I compose and frame this scene to make the subject and scene look as beautiful, interesting, and dynamic as possible?

This led me down an interesting rabbit hole.

I studied and learned about the rule of thirds, figure to ground, triangles, Fibonacci spiral, the golden section/rectangle/triangle, and more recently— the arabesque.

What makes photography unique?

The difference between photography and painting:

With painting, you’re not bound to the rules of reality and perspective. With photography, you are.

For example when studying Picasso’s work above, note the lovely layers in the photo, but realize that there is no need for “realistic perspective”.

Or when looking below at this early painting of Piet Mondrian, it almost looks like a street photo of three people walking by a barn. But once again, the freedom of the painter is that they’re not required to follow the rules of “realistic perspective”:

The fun challenge of composition in photography

For me, the notion of a great photography composition is this:

How can we best compose, arrange, and frame a scene given the fact we have a “creative constraint” of perspective, light, and reality?

To study what makes a great photo composition is simple:

Break it down, dissect it, deconstruct it — and figure out what are the elements which appeal to you — what you think makes it tick.

This means study the work of the master photographers, and trace, draw, sketch the photos which speak to you!

Some masters who I love:

Principle 1: Three subjects

One compositional principle I find fascinating repeated over and over again:

Three subjects is a lovely dynamic balance and harmony in a photo.

Not only does this apply to photography, but also art/painting in general.

2. Dynamic/kinetic energy/movement

A classic Henri Cartier-Bresson photo:

Note the dynamism of the woman’s hand gesture pointing up-right (optimism and strength), with all the dynamic converging lines in the background.

3. Curved composition

Another principle —

Movement in a picture is good — it gives movement to our soul.

4. Dynamic tension/opposition

Another observation:

Images are interesting when there is a dynamic tension/opposition.

For example the above HCB photo — I see there is a dynamic tension between the crying couple (anchor weight of the hat), as opposed to the men on top looking triumphant pointing to the top-right.

And the compositional tension is this:

Red arrow pointing to the bottom left corner, and the yellow orange pointing to the top right corner.

It is two vectors (arrows) pulling apart one another — like the tension of a rubber band being pulled in two different directions.

5. Arabesque

The arabesque as a “squiggly line” that draws the eyes of the viewer through the entire frame.

To me, it is all about “connecting the dots”— and the dots are generally the heads of people.

I’ve also noticed the great thing about how Henri Cartier-Bresson composed so well to include the arabesque composition was this:

Make sure you have someone in the foreground looking upwards, or towards the center of the frame.

6. Surrealism (going beyond reality)

Art as going BEYOND reality.

So even street photography — street photography as more interesting when you take parts of reality, and make it look UNREAL (surreal street photography). Like the man below, who looks as if he’s been shot in the head (and the water trail below him is like blood):

Remind me of a fun composition by Bruce Gilden — looks like the man is dead (but just getting his hair dyed):