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The Best Way to Learn About Composition

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Read Time: 10 min

Composition is one of the most important skills a photographer can learn. But the basic concepts can be a little hard to grasp because the topic is so subjective; what one photographer may perceive as good composition another may hate. The good news is that there are certain principles that you can use to build your understanding of composition.

I'll outline some of them in this article, and give you some creative exercises to try out, but let's not be too serious about it all. Treat them as a series of ideas for you to explore and utilize in your own way. There are no 'rules' here, just guidelines that you are free to interpret how you see fit.

Shoot in black and white

Working in black and white is an ideal way to learn about composition. The reason for this is simple. Color is a strong element within any image, and used well it is a powerful compositional tool in its own right, but it pulls attention away from the basic visual building blocks of all good images such as line, tonal contrast, texture, shape and pattern.

If you work in black and white, even if it's not where your true passion lies, you can see the underlying elements of good composition more clearly.

Color is such an attention grabber that it can hide poor composition. In black and white however, there's nowhere to hide, and that's a good thing when it comes to learning about composition. If you work your way through the ideas in this article you'll become a better black and white photographer, and the lessons you learn can be applied when you work in color to make your color images stronger, too.

Take a look at the two photos above to see what I mean. In which one is it easier to see the lines in the wall in the background? Or the texture of the wood and the girl's coat? Or the contrast between the darkest and lightest tones? Don't worry if you don't understand what I'm getting at yet. It will become clear as you read through the article.

Shoot for line

Lines are an important part of many photographic compositions. There are three basic sorts:

Straight lines such as horizons that stretch across from one side of the image to the other. They tend to impart a serene feeling, that is emphasized further if you use the panoramic format (which is one of the reasons some landscape photographers like using it).

Diagonal lines that move from one part of the image to another. These pull the viewer's eye through the image and create a sense of movement and dynamism. They are energetic as opposed to peaceful.

Curved lines that meander through the image. Curved lines and S-curves are kind of like chilled out diagonal lines. They help create movement in the image but they do it in a peaceful way. You often see them in landscapes.

Steen Doessing and Xavi Fuentes make good use of line in their black and white landscapes. Pay attention to the way they use both horizon lines and diagonal lines in their compositions.

Creative exercise: Using the work of these two photographers as inspiration, go and take some photos where line is an important part of the composition. Think about visiting interesting stretches of road. Head out to where a rail line comes through your town.

Photograph texture

Texture is another element that plays an important role in some photos, and that is more prominent in black and white than color. If you look at the work of the two previously mentioned landscape photographers, you will see that the textures of rocks, water, wood and stone are an important part of many of their compositions.

Also important is lack of texture, and there is a strong contrast in many of their images between areas with texture and areas without. You'll see this most clearly in long exposure images where the smoothed out water balances the strong textures of rocks and other objects in the sea.

Texture and lighting go hand in hand. Bright, direct sunlight flattens texture, while raking side light emphasizes it. Shooting near the end of the day, when the sun is low in the sky, will help you emphasize texture. Oddly enough, texture also stands out in soft lighting such as that found on overcast days (I took the previous photo in overcast light).

Creative exercise: Put this into practice by taking some photos that emphasize texture. Natural scenes full of texture, so go out for a hike or a canoe trip. Bark, grass, leaves and water all create great subjects.

Explore tonal contrast

Tonal contrast is the difference between the lightest and darkest tones in your images. It is very important in black and white photography because when you take away color, tonal contrast is all that's left.

But it's also important in color photography, it's just that we're not as aware of the tonal contrast because of the strength of the colors in the image. Learn to compose with tones and not only will you be a good black and white photographer but you'll dramatically improve your color images as well.

There are a couple of interesting ways to use tones. Both make good creative exercises.

Creative exercise: The first is to create an image with a small amount of light tones amongst a lot of dark tones (see the example above). You can use this technique to create quite dramatic images. The viewer's eye goes straight to the lightest tones, then moves around the image to take in the rest of it, before moving back to the lightest tones again.

Creative exercise: The other exercise is to create an image that is mainly light tones with a few dark tones. It's the opposite approach to the previous one. If it's snowing right now where you live this is an excellent opportunity to create images like the one above. Making silhouettes against bright skies is the most extreme situation for this.

Take a good look at the work of Josef Hoflehner to see both techniques in action. You'll notice that a lot of his compositions are quite simple. This helps emphasize his use of tonal contrast.

Emphasize the negative space

Negative space is the use of largely empty areas in the image to surround the subject. You'll see negative space used well in the work of all the photographers mentioned above.

If you read many articles or books about photography you'll probably come across the quote attributed to Magnum photographer Robert Capa: "If your photos aren't good enough, you're not close enough." This is true enough, you can often improve your images by getting closer to your subject. But sometimes you need to stand back a little and think about the space surrounding the subject.

Creative exercise: Take some photos where negative space is an important part of the composition, such as in the example above. Head to places with large white walls. Go to a place where there's a crest of a hill to use the wide open sky as a background. When framing you image, place the subject at the very bottom or very top the frame.

Find shapes and forms

If your subject has a distinctive shape, you can work this into your composition. Shapes are two-dimensional, and sometimes you will want to show depth by showing the form of your subject. Try including visual clues that indicate the depth of your subject.

The pagoda in this photo is silhouetted. It has a strong shape – but it's two dimensional and has no form (that's not a bad thing, that's just how silhouettes are).

In this photo of a building, you can see that one side of the building is brightly lit and the other is in shadow. The lighting shows that the building is a three-dimensional object. This is form.

Light play an important role in form, just like light and texture. The angle of the light can dramatically shift whether an object looks flat or not.

Take a look at the work of James Thornbrook to see how he uses shape and form in his photos of flowers. There is a mixture of black and white and colour in his portfolio, and you will see how shape and form work in both mediums.

Creative exercise: Flowers are a great subject for exploring shape and form, and you will learn a lot by buying some from your local florist and taking some photos like these. Think about capturing the depth of a bouquet or the shape of a stamen.

Focus on pattern

Pattern is another element that helps create a strong composition. If you spot a pattern, see if you can find a way to use it to make a strong photo. The pattern of the roof tiles in the previous photo, creates an interesting abstract image.

Creative exercise: Create some abstract images like the one above using patterns that you find in everyday life. Even pocket change can make a good subject. Look for any repeating shapes. Architecture can also have some great repeating forms.

Other challenges of composition

I talked about simplifying composition earlier in the article, but as your photography improves you will find that you can introduce more complexity into your images in ways that add interest and don't detract from the strength of the composition.

The photographers I've listed so far all use fairly simple compositions, so to see images with more complexity I suggest you look at the work of James Nachtwey and Charlie Mahoney.

Both are photojournalists and are trying to tell stories with their images. While you are looking through their portfolios consider the following: How does their use of composition differ from the landscape photographers mentioned above? How is it similar? Also consider how can you use this approach in your images.

Studying the 'old masters'

Many of the 'old masters' of photography started in black and white. Indeed most of them worked almost entirely in monochrome throughout their careers. I suggest you take a look at the work of the following photographers, all of them known for their compositional skills. As you're looking at their work, think about how they are applying the principles of composition outlined above, and how you can do so in your own images.

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