Composition is the backbone of photography

The avalanche-like popularity of photography and intensive circulation of photographic information before our eyes is being converted into the qualitative changes of pictures taken, as the classics of half-forgotten doctrine forewarned. No matter how much the skeptics grumble, the level of photo contests and things displayed on websites today is incomparably higher than it was ten years ago. And as a result once abstruse truths on which photography education was based are rapidly eroding.

Composition as an organism

Naturalness is such a difficult pose.

Oscar Wilde, “The Perfect Husband.”

At first glance, this shot seems to violate the most important composition tip that any “dummies” book has: the horizon line divides it in half. In fact, the call to avoid symmetry is a desire to make the frame more dynamic, since the delineation in the middle in most cases makes the frame static. But here the statics were overcome by the contrast between the calm lower half and the piling mountains above, and in addition by the exuberant color I had to correct the white balance: it was on automatic, and the camera brain obviously could not conceive that such colors could exist in nature. Shooting in RAW format helped, color adjustment is much easier there .

Framing a frame where the longitudinal division by a line in the middle is complemented by a square in the corner indicated by the orange mountain on the left is the simplest way to indicate a spiral, a very important compositional figure.

By the way, it is not necessary to fight vignetting of the lens in wide-angle position: it often serves as an excellent frame element.

Canon 5D, Canon EF 24-105 mm f/4L IS USM, 1/200 c, f/5.6, ISO 400, focal length 24 mm.

Composition as an organism


This is most evident in understanding the essence of composition, which has been discussed more than once, and will always be, since it is the supporting framework of photography. No one needs to explain that compositional rules are conventional and not obligatory, and that memorizing them does not guarantee creative growth, although it helps to understand mistakes, and if you try, you can avoid them.

Composition finally began to be perceived adequately as a little-predictable sum of many factors, explicit and implicit, and from there I have no further insight into the very notion of composition, slippery and multi-faceted. Dry academic definitions, although good for textbooks, are of little help to a photographer in everyday practice, and more figurative descriptions will not be understood by everybody – only by those who through long and hard work of head and eye have come close to their own understanding of composition and are looking for their own personal formulas. Focusing on such a fellow hobbyist, let’s try to make a contribution to the common cause.

What to say

It is interesting that the more experienced a photographer artist, designer , the less he argues about composition in general, about its general principles. For a specific shot, he will be glad to analyze its successes and failures, tell about his current or former composing tendencies, and in general, irrespective of what you say? The composition is either successful, or not at all, or so-so, nothing special. But if one ventures into general speculation, one realizes to what extent the words “an uttered thought is a lie” are true: any statement which seems obvious at first sight is immediately refuted by practice, which gives us many cases of its successful violation. This is not surprising: composition is a non-verbal language, unlike stories about it, and these phenomena live according to different laws.

Perhaps the only thing to say is that any discussion of composition, like its analysis, is a reflexive activity that takes place after the fact even if it concerns possible versions of a still image you have not yet shot, you are analyzing already formed compositional projects. That is, in some unknown ways I wonder which ways! is formed in the brain, and only the end result is up for discussion.

Composition as physiology

When I asked an artist, who teaches painting, about composition, he answered that it makes no sense to discuss it theoretically, but it is more correct to compare it with a pose which a person assumes unconsciously or deliberately. What rules can we talk about here?? Of course, if one really wants to, one can deduce laws and recommendations here too for example: if you feel homeless, shrink into a ball, if you feel aggression, be bullied , but is it possible to do this in your right mind?? Or try to describe a karate chop with words: it’s possible, but meaningless.

It is much more reasonable to try instead to train your photographic body so that it should form itself beautifully there are whole professions based on this . And from practical point of view it is much more convenient to talk about composition in this way: it is photo practice that makes a person a photographer, not cramming theory. Likewise, an athlete needs a coach more than a film about the structure of muscles although that won’t hurt either , but training is even more important. You haven’t been shooting for a long time, you’ve had enough practice, and you’ll see it in the shots, even if you read a whole book on the theory.

The parallel is also convenient because the acceptance of body position as well as the composition is largely dictated by the subconscious mind and personal characteristics there’s nothing about it in the photography textbooks .


There are two well known methods of practical training of composition skills and both of them come from cinematography where the relationship between time, professionalism and money is the strongest and both can be warmly recommended to all photographers. The first is the classic act of carrying around a small black frame and framing everything you come across. The second is the arrangement of interesting compositional figures from a given number of matches inside a rectangular grey cardboard which acts as a frame at one time it was a routine exercise in film schools . Interestingly, these basic exercises approach the training of compositional construction from different angles, militarily gripping the student in ticks: matches develop a subjective understanding of harmony, the “inner eye,” the frame the “outer. The union of these two eyes forms the photographer’s.

The role of the viewfinder

Some of the practical implications of what has been said are interesting. Note that both basic exercises are based on active interaction with the framing frame, not in the sense of a perimeter, but in the sense of a living field in which compositional life takes place. In a camera this is the viewfinder, you have to interact with it, and it dictates certain conditions. In particular the scourge of modern DSLR “figures” is a tiny viewfinder, which European photographers tease with “tunnel” however the situation has improved a little lately, partly due to more advanced eyepiece design and partly due to introduction of Live View . It’s very hard to imagine a photographer with average eyes being able to compose a frame with a baroque abundance of fine detail and fine texture in such a viewfinder, at least purposefully. This leads to a “large-block” composition based on the interaction of large details in the frame. As Gogol wrote about Sobakevich’s face: there are many faces which nature took a little time to wise up over, waving the axe once or twice, picking at the eyes with a rough horn and letting them go into the light, and saying “lives!

At the same time it is hard to imagine that a normal photographer composing a frame through, say, a medium format viewfinder would refrain from temptation and not play a juicy little detail in an important part of the frame giving it multidimensionality and compositional diversity. It’s not necessarily all done consciously – nevertheless it’s how the hardware affects the final image. That’s why so much attention is paid to the viewfinder in specs of serious photo cameras.

In this connection we should applaud modern cameras’ equipment with Live View mode. Let it not be a panacea or an ideal, and, for my taste, you could come up with a small removable eyepiece for a magnifying screen like on a classic mine, but in any case you have choices and additional possibilities.

The role of the print

Another interesting thing is how the scale of the picture which is largely set by the photographer at the moment of taking the picture is realized in the final print. Gennady Grikov, when teaching his students, had such an experience: he gave them a small print and asked what they saw in it. Answered: “Fool’s Glade.”. And seeing the same frame, but printed in a larger size, noticed the butterflies in the clearing, which were the main ones who “made” the frame. You can “enter” into a large print, it is proportional to the person. But even that is not always necessary – there are many excellent photographers especially those with a philosophical view of the world who hardly ever print their works in formats larger than about 20×25 cm, or even smaller. This size of a print dictates a certain distance between the photograph and the viewer, compressing the world to a single image.

Scale tools

But in addition to deliberate printing, there are purely compositional means of setting the scale in the frame, primarily through the object – background relationship. In its simplest form it looks like a ratio of the size of the object and the frame as a whole or the object and large passive parts of the frame which form the background. Without going into details like tonal and color activity of an object this ratio is pretty simple, on the level of arithmetic luckily in photography there are usually a lot of factors at work, so we are not threatened by wholesale simplicity.


An infrequently mentioned but exceptionally powerful aspect of composition is the ways in which it sets the flow of time in the frame. Time is special, photographic: all temporal events-before, during and after the moment depicted-are implicitly and explicitly contained in the frame simultaneously, in a compressed form, and can be read sequentially, as in the movies in any order, with any desired number of repetitions. Compositional aids have a major role to play in this process.

The thing is that usually we, having glanced at a photo and become interested in it in general, begin to examine it in parts, lingering at some fragment, returning to some other fragment and passing from one to another. The complex trajectory of our gaze which is the subject of a great deal of research determines the direction of movement of this frozen time – now forward, now backward, now in a circle. Let us say, a moment as simple as the necessity to leave some empty space in the frame in front of the face of the person looking forward “for the viewer” is already a miniature lever which directs time in the frame in a certain direction. By the way, the study of photographic time is already on the verge of literary fiction which threatens to scare away any amateur who wants a quick result. Let’s try to think of composition as a harmonious, comfortable or expressive, at the level of human posture, arrangement of parts of the frame – this seems to be a perspective approach.

Have a nice shoot!


A good example of what a powerful compositional tool the wide angle lens can be. Here the super wide zoom shot at 14mm full frame literally sucks the space into itself, turning it out like a funnel. The contrast between the heavy land filled with all sorts of natural details and the leaden and textured sky brings to mind the Ukrainian song “I look up to the sky…”, even though the hero of the shot is a Hasid pilgrim it seems that the archetypes are common to everyone . A small, bent figure against the vast expanse of landscape is an excellent illustration of the notion of scale in the frame.

An important practical detail: if your frame has details of different close-ups close-up, distant , then try to choose a point of view so that they slightly overlap, as here the pilgrim’s head comes in on the dark reflection of the forest in the water. This way the plans are conveyed more clearly and it’s just more beautiful.

Photo: Dmitry Serebryakov.

Nikon D3, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G ED AF-S Nikkor, 1/640 c, f/4, ISO 400, exposure correction -2/3 EV, focal length 14 mm.

Photo: Dmitry Serebryakov

It often happens that in one frame there are two or three plot centers, united by complicated plot imaginary and simple geometrical connections. In my opinion there are three such centers: certainly the cross in the background that dominates the frame, the pile of stones stacked under it not in real life, but according to the subject “legend” looking up at the cross from below, and the least designed center – the complex sky looking down at it all with a developed imagination one could say that swirling clouds form a kind of eye . All together they form a complicated structure resembling a dumbbell or an hourglass.

The color frame was originally put in B/W just because the color variety obscured the graphic structure of the juxtaposition, and the even gray color collected the entire frame into a single canvas, not making a difference between the yellow earth and the blue sky.

To get the right amount of contrast, I converted the frame to monochrome in Photoshop with the Channel Mixer Red Filter preset , and then moved the lower tonal boundary to around 10 in Levels.

Canon 5D, Canon EF 24-105 mm f/4L IS USM, 1/160 c, f/14, ISO 100, exposure compensation -1/3 EV, focal length 35 mm.

The cat

The compositional formula for this shot is a combination of diagonal track + cat and parallel verticals gutters, windows . The dark spot of green had to be drawn away to the edge of the frame, so that it remained in a secondary role and did not disturb the conversation of the main elements.

By the way, “Photoshop” can playfully handle many of the problems of film this is a scan . In particular it is interesting to use the “Blunt Mask” filter with the settings approximately : Radius 14-20, Power 55 – it enhances the local contrast and gives more depth to the image.

Pentax 67, 90/2.8 lens.

The street

Two quite independent subjects can peacefully coexist in this picture, though neither of them separately would be enough for the whole picture: a couple of stalled boats by the empty Venetian wall and, in the background, a young lady vigorously stomping over the bridge. The frame lives on their opposition. Truly, there is one more universal helping hand here – the mirror-like water surface. The reflections of the water mirror can liven up almost any scene and add significance to it just by the vicinity of a perceptible original and a shaky copy. I should also add that stone and water make excellent models.

Pentax 67, 90/2.8 lens.


Very often a frame “works” when its elements as if by themselves and sometimes really spontaneously add up to interesting figures. In this case, the contours of the two mime women’s dresses form a quite recognizable semicircle, which is inscribed into the frame’s rectangle in about the same proportion as the fountain in Monaco. The direction of her hands and fans as well as the slope of the figure display diagonals in the frame adding expressiveness, and the unobvious fact that the girls stand on stilts and seem to hover above the ground adds a touch of phantasmagoric effect to the picture.

It’s easy and difficult to shoot against a black sky: it looks great as a flat background without any distractions, the only problem is not to make it take up too much space in the frame here it’s on the border and make interesting shapes, outlined by the contours of the main objects and the frame. In this case, neither the texture nor the color of the background can save you. What matters is the general outline.

Canon 5D, Canon EF 24-105 mm f/4L IS USM, 1/40 c, f/4.5, ISO 3200, focal length 24 mm.


This is a scan of a narrow frame, and compositionally it is remarkable only because it shows the power and dynamics of a slightly sloping vertical line which, however, is still far from being a diagonal. The obvious role of the angle is also interesting: shooting from upwards imitates the head raising and therefore the whole range of feelings of looking at something big and tall even though the mannequin is quite standard . This foreshortening is recommended for giving a sense of monumentality.

Canon EOS 5, Tokina 28-70mm f/2.8 AT-X 287 PRO SV AF.


Part of the construction of a pedestrian bridge in London perfectly fulfilled the role of the frame. Compositionally, the frame is “framed” by the faintly visible horizontal parallels and, less noticeable, by the fact that the two dark figures – the compositional center of the frame – divide the dark background behind them in almost the same proportion, from the left side, as the entire wide aperture from the right side.

Canon EOS 5, Sigma AF 70-200 mm f/2.8 EX HSM.

spherical fountain

An unusual object, especially a simple geometric shape which is often more expressive than any complex one , may in itself become the basis of a composition. Inscribing any geometric figure into the frame rectangle, you should pay close attention to their size ratio. Zooms in this respect save a lot of muscle energy. The photo, by the way, is absolutely true, no miracles of retouching: it’s a mirrored spherical fountain on the square in front of the casino in Monaco, honestly reflecting everything around it. I had to move the telezoom almost to the extreme teleposition to fill the frame the fence made it difficult to get closer . You could say it’s a superimposition of reflection on the original, but for me this shot primarily works by combining simple geometric shapes: a circle, a crescent moon the reflection of the sky and a rectangle.

Canon 5D, Canon EF 70-200 mm f/4L USM, 1/400 c, f/9, ISO 125, exposure compensation -1/3 EV, 175 mm focal length.

artist's house

An example of arranging a composition with mostly large and medium sized elements. The flat, monochrome background and restrained color scheme are very important here, which emphasizes the conventional, abstract nature of the image, perfectly realistic nevertheless: this is a shot from a series taken during the dismantling of an antique showroom in the Central House of Artists. The tables and chairs are already gone, the paintings have been taken down, but the picture lights are still on, bringing philosophical associations.

Pentax *istD, Sigma 18-50 mm f/3.5-5.6, 1/8 c, f/3.5, ISO 1600, exposure compensation -2/3 EV, focal length Eq. 28 mm.


Two more or less “parallel” arcs crossing the frame diagonally are a no-holds-barred way to quickly organize the shot. Suitable for the cases when the shot is made only for decorative purposes color and or texture play . In this case the arcs were successfully supplemented with the elements of contrasting colors along the perpendicular diagonals. This image makes use of the enormous depth of field inherent in compact cameras. It’s unlikely the shot would have benefited if some of the details were rendered blurry.

Fujifilm FinePix F30, 1/160 s, f/4, ISO 200, exposure compensation -1/3 EV.

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