Similarly to exposure, people tend to throw around the idea of composition without understanding much about it. Before I began looking into the subject, the only thing I knew about composition was the “rule of thirds,” a very common trick to easily compose photographs by dividing the frame in thirds, but I quickly discovered that there is so much more that goes into composing an image than just offsetting the subject from the center.
Fundamentally, composition refers to the organization of all the graphical elements within a frame, which makes photography similar to painting and drawing in some ways. The only difference is that artists have full control over the composition of their work, while photographers do not since they merely capture an instant of an ever-evolving scene, which poses a unique challenge. In either case, however, the intention of composition remains the same—to provoke an emotion or communicate an idea for the viewer. While exposure can serve the same role, composition completes the other part of the puzzle, and together, they can create a form of visual poetry. In order to effectively communicate a message through a picture, the composition must play off the viewer’s psychology and what they already know about pictures.
When a person looks at an image, an interesting phenomenon called “saccades” occurs, where both eyes jump from one point of interest to another over the span of twenty to two hundred milliseconds. Because only the center of the retina produces a high-resolution image, the brain uses a rapid succession of saccadic movements to create a more holistic image in its short-term memory. So photographers can effectively manipulate these saccades through composition to create the desired effect by constructing a deliberate journey for the eyes.
Not only that, but effective composition keeps the factors of equilibrium and harmony in mind. By nature, the human eye always looks for balance in every picture since God created us with a mind that always chases after beauty. Humans like perfect equilibrium, consistent patterns, and textures, but giving into this desire will produce very boring photography. However, given more thought, effective composition will consider the balance between symmetry, a state of perfect balance, and eccentricity, a state of total imbalance. A balanced picture will have more symmetry, and a “tense” one will have more eccentricity. With enough tension in the frame, the task of finding a state of balance becomes more difficult, which renders the image more dynamic and visually satisfying.
With all of this in mind, let’s analyze a few fall pictures.
Here, you see a picture that I took at a park of a playground and a nearby tree followed by my best guess of the viewer’s saccadic movements. Because the tree dominates the majority of the frame, it naturally draws the viewer’s attention. Then the viewer’s eyes move onto the playground itself and the fallen leaves before scanning secondary elements in the background. Though the sheer size of the tree with its branches stemming in random directions seems to harshly clash with the rigid lines of man-made structures, the frame attains a certain level of harmony due to all disparate elements of the foreground having a yellow-orange hue, providing stability to the chaos and rendering it dynamic.
Meanwhile, when scanning this image, the eye naturally draws towards the writing — which in Italian means, “take me away”— because of its assumed importance in our writing-based culture. Then the eye proceeds to observe the deformations of the Coke tin, the horizontal lines produced by the wood, and the placement of the leaves. Interestingly, the Coke tin straddles these horizontal lines, breaking up their regularity and providing a bit of tension that eventually becomes resolved once the viewer attempts to associate the tin’s possible meaning with the writing. While the leaves don’t add to the Coke tin’s anomaly, the viewer perceives them as visual noise that becomes filtered out and adds texture to the frame as a whole.
As you can tell, a lot of thought goes into producing a well-composed image. Very similarly to creatively correct exposure, it almost never comes out perfectly on the first try and may require you to think outside the box, but I discovered patience to be my best friend in my pursuit of effective composition. When I was strolling around the park taking these pictures, I often stopped to think for a few minutes about the scene, how to frame it, how to expose it, and what kind of message I wanted communicate. Sometimes, it’s best to slow down and take in your surroundings, patiently learning the language of photography and how to view the world through a different lens.