Composition Rules

Forums All About Photography Composition Rules

This topic contains 3 replies, has 3 voices, and was last updated by  ajroyle 2 years, 2 months ago.

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    E M Forster was one of the twentieth century’s greatest novelists and a popular broadcaster and thinker yet he didn’t “get” pictures. Even though he visited galleries in the company of luminaries such as Roger Fry he was just left cold.

    Then he realised a trick. You looked for a diagonal. It was there to see clearly in a Titian masterpiece he saw and he became very pleased with himself. For a while he felt he understood pictures. Then he gradually realised that his trick failed in some cases, in fact, to be honest, a lot of cases and he was back to relying on his illustrious artistic friends to explain.

    We had an excellent talk from Ian about Henri Cartier-Bresson using a “trick” in his compositions. I now call it the painter’s armature because it was a classic starting point which his painting tutor advocated and Henri was used to. There is no “rule” or “rules” as such and I think it was Edward Weston who said that the compositional lines come after the picture and not before it – whilst Henri’s training did produce the opposite effect somewhat I think Weston had a good point.

    Composition just refers to making a pleasing arrangement of things within your picture and is influenced by what you want to communicate, what you want to give emphasis to and what you want to suppress. Sometimes composition is of no importance at all, though whether such pictures would do well in club competitions is another matter (I do believe that club judges should be challenged!).

    Poor Forster made the mistake of thinking that there had to be some line, pattern, structure to the work and he wasn’t looking for the art.

    Compositional lines, tricks, advice, whatever you want to call them are useful but think of them as advisory and don’t give them prority. As you get more practice at balancing the elements in your picture you will be surprised how many of the compositional rules you have unwittingly obeyed!


    Pete Robinson

    You make some good points there John. Sometimes I look at a photograph and wonder why it ‘works’ so well. Then I realise that it’s due to the composition. However, for me it needs to have a subject matter that interests me.


    Ian McNab

    Peter >>> I think Winogrand would have agreed with you: he talked about framing to include whatever content you were interested, and allowing the form of the picture (the visual design or composition) to result from that. (I posted a long article about it on the forum a while ago.)

    Be aware, though, that unless your photographs look how pictures “ought” to look (i.e. not like Winogrand’s) you won’t win many competitions with them! 😉



    Yes, I think we are all saying “content first”. I remember when first started out with photography I quickly found that what you saw was definitely NOT what you got – until you had learned to look at the whole frames worth of image. Apart from errors of focusing and exposure it is easy to not really see what you are about to shoot – you concentrate so hard on the subject that you do not see the whole. Small bird on the lawn would be a classic case. We forget these things.

    Today you should be able to learn faster because you have instant feedback, even while your subject is still there in some cases.

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