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One of the things that I find fascinating about photographic composition is that for all its complexity many photographers take a simplistic approach to design in their photos. There are lots of magazine and website articles about the rule of thirds, but very few that go beyond that idea.
It seems to me that there are some very useful and interesting things about composition that you should know, but that nobody is telling you. Why is this? Maybe photographers who have figured this stuff out want to keep it to themselves. Or maybe they have no interest in writing about it. Regardless, here are five things that nobody ever tells you about composition that you really should know.
1. Great composition is the mark of a great photographer
If you want to learn more about composition, go study the work of Steve McCurry. The beauty of the composition of his images often leaves me speechless. His work shows a mastery of design that most photographers can only aspire to.
Sadly, I feel a little less confident giving this advice than I did a few years ago, thanks to the recent controversy over McCurry’s work and the revelation that photos that some of his journalistic photos have been heavily retouched. But there’s still a lot you can learn from his photos.
The same applies to every great photographer. Go and look at the work of the photographers you admire most. Two things will stand out. One is the mastery they have over their craft, the technical aspects – exposure, aperture choice, post-processing, and so on.
The other is their mastery of composition. This is much harder because it involves learning to see, and to arrange an often chaotic subject into a pleasing and interesting composition.
If you’re looking for somewhere to start when it comes to looking at the work of other photographers, then I recommend these interviews that I’ve done. Each one has something interesting to teach you about composition when you study the photos.
2. Composition takes years to master
Seeing and composing great images requires a lifelong commitment to learning and improving. Don’t read a single article, or a single book, no matter how good, on composition and think that’s all you have to do. You should read as much as you can on the subject, then apply what you learn. There’s always something new to discover, a different author’s perspective to absorb. It may not be what you want to hear – but I’m telling you now because no-one else will.
3. The rule of thirds is overrated
As I mentioned earlier one of the reasons that the rule of thirds is written about so much is because it’s simple. Every good photographer knows that the rule of thirds barely scratches the surface of what there is to learn about photographic composition. Some photographers tell you that the rule of thirds is wrong and that you shouldn’t use it. Michael Freeman, author of one of the most well known books about composition in print, The Photographer’s Eye, has this to say about the rule of thirds:
“…we’re doing photography, not engineering, and rules are designed to make things accurate, predictable and repeatable—pretty much the opposite of what you’d want from an interesting, surprising photograph.”
“…this rather silly instruction to make divisions a third of the way into the frame has been followed with mediocrity by artists and photographers who lack imagination.”
“It should be obvious that if all photographs were composed like this, they would just be similar and boring.”
“It’s probably the worst piece of compositional advice I can imagine.”
So, if you think that all you have to do when it comes to composition is use the rule of thirds, think again. Composition takes years to learn and master. Not many people want to hear this, so that’s probably why nobody tells you.
Take a look at the landscape photo below. At first glance it appears that I composed it according to the rule of thirds. But look closely and you will see that there are more complex compositional techniques in action.
For example, you may notice the way the smaller rocks balance the larger rock, or the way that the three largest rocks make a triangle. Or the way the sea has blurred during the long exposure, or how the aerial perspective created by the humid air helps create a sense of depth. There’s also an interesting color contrast between the blue light of dusk and the remains of the sunset in the sky.
These more subtle nuances of composition are the ones that take many years to fully appreciate and build into your photos. But these are ones that good photographers are thinking about and using, not the rule of thirds.
4. Working in black and white tests your composition skills
If you really want to test your composition skills out then work in black and white. The reason this works so well is that subtracting color reveals the underlying structure of the subject’s tonal contrast, texture, line, shape, space, and pattern.
These are your tools for creating good black and white images. Once you learn how to use them, you can return to color and learn how to integrate color with other elements of composition mentioned above.
This is a kind of open secret that good photographers understand but rarely tell anybody else. If you can compose strong black and white photos you can transfer this skill to working in color. But, if you don’t have a good understanding of composition, you will struggle to create strong photos in black and white.
The photo below works well in black and white because of the textures in the hand made broom and the stone floor. It’s much more difficult to recognize and work with elements like texture in color.
5. Light, subject, and composition work together
The final thing that nobody tells you about composition is that it doesn’t work in isolation. Light and subject are just as important. Great photos have an interesting subject, photographed in beautiful light, and composed in an interesting or dynamic way.
Light, subject and composition go together, but please remember this is an ideal. Photography, like life, isn’t always straightforward. You won’t always be able to make light, subject and composition come together in the way that you would like. The good news is that composition, unlike natural light, is always under your control. Get better at composition and your photos will improve naturally.