What Does “Composition” Mean?

Cat & Rule of Thirds  White horse in field  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life offers itself to you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative.”    I included that quote by famous French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, because he used the word “composition”, and it is that word and how it is currently being used that I have been recently thinking about.

The word composition gets thrown around a lot when discussing photographs.  I’ll read forums where responses to posted images might say something like, “great capture, good composition,” or sometimes, something as meaningless as “I love your composition”.

I know the posters don’t actually mean composition as a photographic technique. I think it has just become an alternative word that means “picture”.  Modern photographers seem to hesitate referring to a photograph someone has posted to an online site as a picture. They want a more modern word, and I guess using the word “composition” instead of “picture” has become that word.

That came to mind, when a young photographer said to me, “I don’t really know a lot about photography, but what I do know is that I am really good at is composition.”  That was one of the few times I have been left speechless.

Photographic composition is defined as, “the selection and arrangement of subjects within the picture area.”  And unlike those who replace the word picture with the word composition, I use composition and compositional guidelines to help me enhance a photograph’s impact.

Photographers are limited by the actual physical appearance of the subjects they are photographing, and depend on camera position, the perspective created by different lense’s focal lengths, and the elements that make up a picture to communicate to viewer’s what they saw when they made the photograph.

I think about what is important and how I want to arrange my composition, and I consciously subtract those elements that I think are unimportant or distracting. When setting up a composition I usually think about and apply the ‘Rule of Thirds’ wherein we divide the image into nine equal segments with two vertical and two horizontal lines. The Rule of Thirds says that you should position the most important elements in your scene along these lines, or at the points where they intersect, and by doing so, adding balance and interest to one’s picture.

I looked up composition online where there are page after page of composition tips. I decided I’d add my own, “apple technique to proper picture making and composition”.  Here goes!

While driving along and finding an inspiring scene.   Don’t just point the camera out the car window!

1. Stop the car.

2. Get out.

3. Leave the camera in the camera bag.

4. Get an apple and eat it as one looks at the inspiring scene. Think about what is likeable about it, and make some choices as to how compose, or arrange, the features within the picture area you photographing.  Photographers should ask; what would someone like to say about the scene to the viewer?

5. Finally, go back to the car, get the camera, and make the picture.

Elliott Erwitt, American, documentary photographer wrote, “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

My website is at www.enmanscamera.com

12 responses to “What Does “Composition” Mean?

  1. Your apple technique is so much healthier than my cigarette technique.
    I think I probably fit into this crowd of new photographers, and their misuse of the verbiage. Photography has become hip, and everybody’s “good at it”. Everybody’s also talking about it, and the lingo is getting abstrusly re… rather, undefined.
    I find myself misusing the term “POV shots”. I use it to label any picture that has an interesting POV.
    It strikes me well that you seem patient with us despite some of the silliness.


    • ha….well said my friend. I can’t add anything to the thoughts you wrote down..Other than, I’d like to wander down your way some year in the future – so please trade the cigarettes for apples so you’ll be there when I do.


    • I am surprised that a writer like yourself would be disappointed to find a word or any word for that matter is being misused. That is the way the english language has always been.
      Of course you would use command correctly – I would have been dismayed if you didn’t.


  2. I think if we all took your advice we would find we would really enjoy photography a lot more and feel more confident about our photos……I think I’ll go outside with out my camera, eat an apple and study my sunflowers before the frost pulls them down! Thanks


    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Nancy. Linda and I picked up a few apples in Kelowna and gosh, It has been a good year for ’em……And absolutely get that Nikon Macro working on those sunflowers!


  3. I agree with you about the distinction between composition and picture. The composition is really the arrangement of elements in a picture. You mentioned the rule of third which is, as a matter of fact, a simplification of the rule of golden ration. This and other compositional rules derive from thousands of years of experience from painters. These compositional rules can guide you when arranging your elements in a picture in order to lead the viewer’s eye in the direction you want to and to emphasize the atmosphere or emotional content in the picture. But it can also become a straitjacket if you just follow them without considerations. The important thing when composing is really to ask yourself what you want to achieve with your picture.


    • Thanks for commenting. those that want to be good at any medium must study, learn and experiment. That is why we go to grade school, middle school, high school, college and university. Studying the medium of photography is the same as any other art and I write about that. One can point and shoot and hope for the best, or learn how to produce interesting and creative images.
      I am pleased you have taken the time to read my article on composition and were interested enough to comment. I do like that – and expect you are more of a student than you let on.


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