The perfect photographic composition

For any photographer, finding the perfect photographic composition can be just about the hardest part of any form of photography. Admittedly, a few people have a natural gift for creating great compositions, and hence images, but for most it is a question of practise and hard work.

It is a crucial skill to acquire, of course, because being able to find perfect photographic compositions lies at the very heart of great photography, far more so than any technical knowledge surrounding whatever camera you may be using. For sure, most people who regularly use a camera will stumble upon a great composition by accident from time to time, but what is needed is an ability to keep extracting those great compositions time and again, deliberately and to order. As I’ve already said, it is a skill that lies at the very heart of great photography.

So why is it so darned difficult? This two-part article aims to provide some answers and pointers towards the skill that is so important in finding the perfect photographic composition.

An image with a single subject as its photographic composition

So what’s the problem?

The essential, basic problem is that the photographic image simply doesn’t represent the real world in the way that we see and experience it. When we visit a place we have the real world all around us in 360 degrees and three dimensions, and what we see with our eyes is only a part of the ‘picture’ – our minds are also fed an enormous amount of non-visual stimuli, such as noises, sounds, smells and temperature, that combine with sight to complete our experience of any given scene.

Point a camera at that scene, press the shutter and Hey Presto! We’ve captured a representation that is two-dimensional, covers only a small part of what we could see (and even then restricted within a tight frame), and has thrown away all those non-visual stimuli that were so important in our interpretation of the place. Small wonder, then, that such a photograph frequently fails to convey anything close to what we thought we saw. In fact, it is amazing that anyone ever comes even close to success here!

A single strong subject dominating the frame, with no distractions.

Working towards the perfect photographic composition

Given that when we press the camera’s shutter button the resulting image contains visual information that is just a fraction of what we experienced, we need to make the best use of what remains in the picture to compensate for everything that has been thrown away. In other words, we need to use a host of photographic techniques that take the surviving visual information and change it from being simply a mundane representation into a fantastic composition with impact, style and some kind of message that elicits a reaction in anyone who looks at your photos.

In the remainder of this first article on photographic composition, I’m going to talk about what I consider to be the most important of these photographic techniques: keeping the compositions simple.

A photographic composition containing one single strong subject and a simple backdrop.

Keep it simple!

One of the biggest mistakes people make when using a camera is to try to fit too much in the frame. Everything looks great to the eye, so they want to try to record it all at once, cramming everything into a single frame. The result, more often than not, is an image with no visual impact, filled with clutter and everything quite small. The eye skips around the image, unsettled, dissatisfied and unable to find anything to home in on.

The solution is always to keep the compositions simple: just have one single subject dominating the frame (though not necessarily filling it). This gives the viewer’s eye something to really latch onto, so instead of skipping aimlessly around the frame it comes to rest on that subject, generally ignoring anything else in the frame. The result then is an image that communicates a message to and has an impact on the viewer. An image that stimulates an emotional reaction in a viewer is a successful image.

Everything else in the frame (the ‘negative space’) should either disappear from conscious view, through being either out of focus or a very simple backdrop, or should in some way support the main subject, helping to guide the viewer’s eye towards it. More on this supporting role in the second article.

What you absolutely don’t want in the negative space is anything that distracts the eye – random clutter or any elements that draw the viewer away from the main subject. As soon as this happens, the image’s impact is weakened.

To get some ideas of what I mean in my photography feel free to take a tour of the image galleries on my website. Click on the link below:

See photo galleries:

A strong subject in this photographic composition dominates the image frame.

Seeking out those simple compositions

Of course it’s one thing to say that you should aim to produce such simple compositions, but quite another to spot them within the chaos of our world, and yet another to successfully extract them from that chaos and distil them into great photographs.

The search for those simple compositions within our environment has several major implications, which are:

  • Generally speaking, really wide views of a scene risk both introducing too much clutter into the image frame and making the intended subject too small, and if not handled very carefully will result in weak, chaotic images;
  • As a result, most of the time the search for the perfect photographic compositions involves picking out little cameos, vignettes from within the wider scene, those elements that we recognize can be arranged through careful choice of lens and perspective into a great, simple compositon;
  • The previous point leads us to recognize that even when we’re in a scene that all looks beautiful to the eye, most of it just will not work photographically. We need to find those few cameos that happen to do so. Just because something looks fantastic doesn’t mean that it will translate directly into a great photo;
  • Famous views and sites may or may not translate into great photos. Just because a place is famous doesn’t automatically mean that it is highly photogenic. However, it is also true that a place may become famous simply because it is widely photographed, generating some great images because it does happen to be photogenic;
  • Many of the greatest photographs can be generated from very mundane scenes, places that most people – including a lot with cameras – would normally just walk past without a second glance;
  • We all see the world rather differently. As a result, two photographers shooting the same place at the same time will spot and extract great compositions that are surprisingly different. In the courses I run I am constantly surprised by the great compositions that my students come up with, compositions that I myself had not spotted;
  • The very first point in this list might imply that we don’t, or shouldn’t use wide-angle lenses much for good quality photography. Nothing could be further from the truth – I use wide-angle lenses most of the time – but they have to be used with care and in a certain way. This will be covered in more detail in the second article.
A tropical coral forms a superb single subject in this photographic composition.

Final thoughts

As this article has described, one of the first and biggest steps towards creating great photos is to keep the compositions simple, with a single strong subject, and nothing in the frame to distract the viewer’s eye away from it. It is something easier said than done, of course, but hopefully the few points given in the list will help start you along the road.

The next article

In the next article, to be published in two weeks’ time, I’ll go into rather more detail, explaining – among other things – situations where you might have more than one subject in a frame, how the negative space can be used to support the main subject, the importance of diagonals, and the use of wide-angle lenses.

Please enjoy.

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