The Three S's of Composition

The Three S’s of Composition


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 With the publication of my new ebook Beyond the Camera I thought it would be interesting to explore some ideas that help you make better photos, no matter which camera you use. It’s all about putting the most important tool of all, your mind (and your unique creative instincts), to use.

For example, I get a lot of questions about using the rule of thirds in composition. The rule of thirds gives you a framework for thinking about composition, by getting you to think about where to place the main subject of your photo (or the eye of a model in a portrait). But what if you look at composition using a different framework? That’s where the three S’s of composition comes in. It gives you three simple things to think about when composing your photo – easy to understand principles that any photographer can use to improve their composition.

Simplicity in composition

The first principle is to make your photos as simple as possible. Think about what you want to include in the composition – and what to exclude. Simplicity involves thinking about shapes, forms, patterns and lines. You need an awareness of light, shadow, color and tonal contrast. It takes time to learn to see these things. You need discipline and practice and is a natural part of the process of developing your creative vision.

Whenever you take a photo, ask yourself if you can simplify the composition by leaving anything out. The easiest way is often just to get closer to the subject, but you may also use techniques such as selective focusing or switching to a longer focal length. You can also simplify by removing color and converting to black and white in Lightroom Classic.

Let me give you an example. I came across this scene in a a remote village in Bolivia. South America is full of old vehicles like these, especially in remote places. This is the first photo I made as I approached the scene.

Simplicity in photographic composition

Then I started thinking about the composition more. I liked the way the wheel on the old truck had been covered. And of course I liked the texture and patina of the paintwork. So I moved in close and made this photo, making sure to include the number plate to add a sense of place.

Simplicity in photographic composition

Space in composition

Simplifying the composition makes your message clearer. The exclusion process makes the visual elements you keep more important. You can simplify the composition by getting closer to your subject. But you may also need to provide some space around the subject, to provide context and give the eye something to look at. Sometimes the subject simply needs room to breathe. You can see that idea in action in both photos below. In the first (left) the patina and color of the metal makes the photo more interesting to look at. In the second (right) the red wall behind the shrine adds texture and color.

Space and photographic composition

Space and simplicity often go together. I’ve included space around the subject in both photos but the composition is simple because the background doesn’t contain any distractions.

Subtlety in composition

We are often attracted to high contrast, colourful images. They have impact and an instant wow factor. But do they have staying power? Often the answer is no. Bright colours and high contrast are relatively easy to create, but they can also be a sign of a lack of creativity, or artistic vision. Subtle images often lack immediate impact but their presence lingers in the mind.

Subtlety takes time to appreciate. It’s an indication that the photographer has taken the time to think about the creation of a photo.

This photo of an old sofa is subtle. The light is soft and diffuse. The blues and browns of the deck give a simple, limited color palette.

Subtlety in photographic composition

The composition is also simple.

Let me finish with another photo that shows all three ideas in action together.

Black and white landscape photo

In this photo you have a simple composition, with the sea and sky giving space around the rock stacks. I’ve simplified further by converting it to black and white. It also has lots of subtle gray tones, it’s not a high contrast black and white image. The three ideas are working together.

That doesn’t mean that every photo you make should use all three S’s (simplicity, space and subtlety). There are times when a complex composition is the best choice, or that the subject doesn’t need much space, or that the composition needs to be strong and bold. The three S’s are tools, or ideas that you can use when appropriate. They give you a new way of thinking about composition that’s different from traditional concepts like the rule of thirds.

Further reading


Mastering Composition ebook

Mastering Composition

You can learn more about all aspects of creative composition with my ebook Mastering Composition. It has 20 heart-felt lessons that take you on a journey beyond the rule of thirds, exploring the other aspects of composition you need to understand to create beautiful photos.


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Composition ebooks

About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer with a camera. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He lives in south Devon in the UK and is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

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