What is Composition?

Previous article: Photography and Composition

In the visual arts, ‘composition’ is the arrangement of elements within a work. In photography, good composition supports the subject and makes it more visually appealing.

Islanders on Inisheer bringing a bullock out to Dublin built steamer, the Dún Aengus, on 31 May 1939 for transport to Galway. This is how livestock had to be transported from the island between 1921 and 1958 until a pier was built on Inisheer (Inis Oírr) in 1997.

Islanders on Inisheer bringing a bullock out to Dublin built steamer, the Dún Aengus, on 31 May 1939 for transport to Galway. This is how livestock had to be transported from the island between 1921 and 1958 until a pier was built on Inisheer (Inis Oírr) in 1997. (National Library of Ireland)

Depending on the motivation of the photographer, different styles of photography will call on different compositional skills. For instance, in a previous article, I listed various approaches to insect photography, from spur-of-the-moment impulse shooters through scientists to dedicated artists, all of whom have different goals. This applies to most subjects in photography: where you want to sit along this range will help determine just how much knowledge of composition and technique would be helpful.

Curragh on Innisheer

Curragh and dog on Inisheer 2014

Anyone hoping to improve their compositional skills must also have a willingness to place a value judgment on the composition of a photograph: how could it be better? Judging that will be dependent on the nature of the subject and what the photographer is trying to achieve.

The subject is not the image.

I want to draw a distinction between the subject and the final composed image. At its simplest, the subject may seem obvious: for instance, “that mountain”. However, the subject could be more refined, such as, “the light on the mountain” or “the waterfall on the mountain”, or “the barrenness of the mountain”, or it could be more loosely seen as, the idea of “solidity”, or the more intangible suggestion of, say, “resilience”. Once you are clear on your subject, the supporting arrangement of elements (which is composition) produces the image we view. Part of making a value judgement on an image depends on how well the composition supports the subject or the idea.

St Patrick's Purgatory is an ancient pilgrimage site on Station Island in Lough Derg, County Donegal, Ireland. (National Library of Ireland)

St Patrick’s Purgatory is an ancient pilgrimage site on Station Island in Lough Derg, County Donegal, Ireland. (National Library of Ireland)

The composition is only one aspect (other factors include the subject itself, the use of light, the vital moment, framing, viewpoint, the use of colour and narrative) of what makes a great image. This is not to say that the photographer’s intent with an image will always be understood or appreciated by the viewer, yet the image may still be appreciated in other personal ways. The interpretation or value we place on an image is a reflection of who we are. There is no recipe for universal approval when so much of what we appreciate is subjective and often dependent upon a person’s life experiences and the history of their exposure to images and the arts. However, good composition is one way to help make your image more likely to have appeal and to be memorable. I am developing this course because–for those who want to learn–visual literacy can be enriched by expanding the diversity of life’s experiences and by encountering and learning about art.

The wall is composed of local stone. Some seems to be laid with thought, others more randomly, and still others are merely space-filler. The strength of this wall comes as much due to gravity as it does to careful composition. Can you see a pattern? Stone wall. Inisheer, Aran Islands, Ireland.

The wall is composed of local stone. Some seem to be laid with thought, others more randomly, and still others are merely space-filler. The strength of this wall comes as much due to gravity as it does to careful composition. Inisheer, Aran Islands, Ireland 2014.

This is the first part of what I hope will be a full series on composition. Although not a trained artist, I have been looking at images since my teens, and I have always wondered what contributes to making an image memorable, and why some images, despite having a good subject, fail to stir that same appreciation. Due to copyright limitations, I will use historic photos, my own images and sometimes even non-photographic art reproductions to help make sense of all the words. Many of the images will be in Black and White to avoid the visual distraction of colour. This is a self-learning project for me, that I hope will have value for others who choose to follow. It will be based on traditional visual design concepts, but hopefully brought down to earth so that they become more easily applicable when in the field when facing the subject with a camera in hand. Once past the introductory posts, I will suggest projects to pursue with each lesson, projects that I will also be participating in.

Please feel free to ask questions or contribute your own relevant ideas in the comments.

First post in this series: PHOTOGRAPHY AND COMPOSITION

Next post: Assessing the Subject

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One Comment

  1. Ms S 2 August, 2016 at 9:40 am #

    Looking forward to more!

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