We often talk about composition as though its something that can be done right or done wrong. When you look at it in those terms photography is not about expression, but about following the rules. The best thing I ever learned on the photographic journey was this: there are no rules. None. Nope, not even the rule of thirds. No such thing.
We make compositional decisions for all kinds of reasons, but if “following the rules” or “doing it right” are among those reasons, the resulting images will be just like all the others. They can be sharp, free from chromatic aberration, and made with the best glass in the world, but totally lifeless. Forget right or wrong. Forget perfection. Thinking in terms of what you can do to make the image stronger, or more aligned with what feels good are more helpful guides, even if they feel a little vague.
So how do we learn to compose? That’s a good question. In fact, I think that’s the answer, right there: questions.
If what you long to do with your photography is more than mere technical proficiency, if you want to find your voice and express yourself, then questions will be more helpful to you than any list of tips, rules, or the parlour tricks we use in post to make up for weaknesses made in the camera.
Here are some of the questions I find rattling around in my own head while composing my photographs:
What do I think and feel about this scene? If you don’t have ideas about this, composing a photograph that speaks about these thoughts and feelings is going to be tough!
What must I include and how much can I exclude?
What devices can I use to exclude the unnecessary without diminishing the necessary? For example, should I use a longer lens to isolate my subject or keep the wide angle but move closer, perhaps shifting my position and changing the image’s perspective? There’s more than one way to skin a cat (but try not to let the neighbors see you doing it).
What are the relationships between the elements, and can a shift in my position (and change in perspective) make that relationship stronger?
Where are the lines in this photograph and would a change in framing (vertical or horizontal), aspect ratio (square frame, 16:9, etc), or lens make that stronger or weaker?
What is the light doing? Light contributes to composition, creating shadows, depth, and mood. Ignoring that shadow means missing a chance to allow it to make the image stronger.
What kind of moment is present? Timing is everything. Imagine there’s a kid running across the yard – some moments will be stronger than others – some showing his stride more clearly, others when there is nothing in the background behind him. The decisive moment is not just about which moment you choose, but about how that moment contributes to the geometry of the composition.
What is the relationship between the foreground and the background?
Is there depth in my image? Could there be more? Would it benefit from less? Changing lenses and perspective can deepen or flatten the scene.
Are there repeated elements in the scene that provide a visual echo or rhythm to the photograph? Could I pull out a little and include more of them, or tighten up a little and include fewer?
Do my lines lead the eye into the frame or out of the frame and could I change that to better direct the eye?
Are my chosen settings (aperture, shutter speed) going to change the look of certain elements, and do so in a way that helps me tell my story? For example, what elements will be less focused because of depth of field, or blurred because of a slower shutter. That blur or lack of focus will change the shape of things and change the way we compose the image.
It would be great if there were rules. So much easier just to not think about this stuff. But it’s the fact that we ask the questions, wrestle with them, and come up with different responses one day than we do another, that keeps us making photographs that are reflections of who we are, photographs that keep us interested and curious, and experiencing something more than just visual formulas and homogeny. It’s the questions that keep our photographs human.
A couple years ago I wrote PHOTOGRAPHICALLY SPEAKING as a way to to have this conversation with more people. If you’re looking to learn more about what we say with photographs and how we say it (isn’t that what composition is, afterall?), you can find that book on Amazon here. You should also read Michael Freeman’s excellent book, The Photographers Eye. You’ll never lean on the rules again.