Does Composition Still Matter?

Creve Coeur Camera - NewYork City trip, 2017

With the ability to create some pretty striking images within-camera presets, studio magic, and post-processing wizardry, is educating photographers in the boring old art of composition still relevant?

Artistic composition is as ancient as art itself. Artists have long understood how the human eye surveys a scene, naturally gravitating toward the dominant visual elements - human faces and eyes, large or brightly colored or apparently moving subjects - and tends to follow lines laid down within the scene, which can themselves imbue the art with emotion.

Considered creation of photographs which utilize these patterns of perception can result in more powerful, dramatic, and visually arresting images, directing the viewer’s eye toward your selected subject, or infusing your image with feeling.

Traditionally these compositional techniques include the venerable Rule of Thirds, the use of lines and framing, and the need for simplicity and balance.

Creve Coeur Camera -New Orleans trip, 2015

The Rule of Thirds states basically that if a scene were divided by lines into thirds vertically and horizontally, primary subject matter placed along or at the intersections of those lines elicits more interest from the viewer, while subjects centered or placed at the extreme edges really do not. Horizon lines in particular, unless part of a mirrored scene, tend to evoke a sense of leaden boredom in the viewer when placed in the dead center of an image. Like all rules, this one is often deliberately flouted for effect.

Creve Coeur Camera –Kiener Plaza workshop, 2014

The lines within an image can move the eye into and through a scene, and their presence and orientation can evoke specific emotional reactions.

Curving lines are often utilized to lead the viewer toward the subject, the horizon, and around different parts of the scene.

Horizontal lines tend to impart a sense of stasis, stillness, and calm.

Vertical lines imply power and strength.

Diagonal lines convey motion, and tend to enhance the dynamic power of an image.

Converging lines add depth and perspective.

The careful selection of strong lines and patterns when framing your picture can infuse it with meaning and emotion, and will help to emphasize your subject.

Creve Coeur Camera – St.Charles Station 4 workshop, 2017

Framing your subject within physical environmental items isa reliable way to isolate and focus interest in that subject. This framing can also be done with color, shadow, as well as the time-honored vignette.

Creve Coeur Camera -New York City trip, 2017

Simplifying a scene by removing or minimizing distracting objects or colors, competing subjects, chaotic backgrounds, or out-of-focus foreground blobs is critical in producing a clear and arresting image. That graffiti-covered purple dumpster may make an interesting subject, but will surely make a crappy background.

Simplification is a really, really powerful compositional tool, for almost any type of image.

Creve Coeur Camera -Cuba trip, 2018

When there are multiple subjects in a scene, viewers tend to eel more comfortable with an impression of balance and symmetry. People, flowers, rocks, beer cans – photos with groups need a mathematically agreeable arrangement of those subjects. Straight lines, small circles, some harmonious grouping of three or four subjects seems to be inherently appealing. 

Achieving strong and visually arresting composition in your images is still a relevant goal for any photographer, whether achieved through thoughtful positioning of camera and subject, post-processing to remove distractions and emphasize framing, lines, and balance, or some combination of these techniques.