Why You Should Begin Your Photography Journey With Composition


Composition could be seen merely as the arrangement of elements that construct a creation, or it could be seen as the very soul of any body of work.

It doesn't matter if you have a romantic way of seeing images or not, the important thing here is that you understand why composition matters, and why it should be your prime learning concern instead of deciding which camera or lens you should buy.

When is started studying photography, I was the only student with a Point and Shoot camera, and my teacher made a very wise move. He didn't ask me to buy a big DSLR like the ones my peers had. What he did was something I'll thank him for the rest of my life, and is something I'm doing with my students in my classes nowadays.

He told me to stick to my small camera, and to study composition, just composition, and then I could worry about everything else.

Photo by Federico Alegría

He made me see details, settings and different environments in a way the other students weren't seeing because they were dealing with so much information about exposure metering etc, that they didn't have the time to think about what was going on inside their frames.

Quick Tip – Learn Rule Of Thirds First

When I started out with photography, the first compositional element I really learnt was the rule of thirds and I recommend you practice this one too. The rule of thirds is a simple but effective approach to placing the subject in a photo.

All you need to do is divide your chosen scene into three equal parts – take a guesstimate or you can use the gridlines on your camera’s display. Then just place the focus of your image along any of the four intersecting points.

The results that the rule of thirds gives you is that your image feels balanced – of course, once you've mastered the rule, you can break it.

Photography is a Lie

Wait, what? Really? How dare you? Well, that's how some great thinkers of our day have called it. And if you think about it, it is true that photography is a lie, because it is a rendered image of reality, in a two dimensional format.

Our brains, since the day we were born, are trained for seeing the world in three dimensions, not two. And photography (or at least good photography) tricks us so well, that we don't perceive that they are two dimensional representations of our world.

Of course, there isn't only the rule of thirds as mentioned above, there are many composition elements that  ultimately allow photographers to make things look more like reality, including:

  • Lines
  • Shapes
  • Simplification
  • Negative Space
  • Framing
  • Rule of Odds
  • Rule of Space
  • Rhythm
  • Sub framing
Photo by Federico Alegría

Composition is important in photography for several reasons, but the most important of all, is the path that it builds through a photograph.

The path is the way the image is read by your viewers, and if there's no easy to follow path, the message that the image is trying to convey won't be delivered unless you explain the photograph.

Your images need to be able to speak by themselves, if they need you to explain them, then you haven't captured your subject successfully

Composition is a valuable place to start learning about photography, but it is a vast topic, so to begin with I suggest taking a look at understanding composition which will give you a complete understanding of composition fundamentals. 

About Author

Federico has a decade of experience in documentary photography, and is a University Professor in photography and research methodology. He's a scientist studying the social uses of photography in contemporary culture who writes about photography and develops documentary projects. Other activities Federico is involved in photography are curation, critique, education, mentoring, outreach and reviews. Get to know him better here.

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