Henri Cartier-Bresson believed that the composition of a photo could be drastically changed by the tiniest gesture—a slight turn of the head or a minor bend in the knees.
Diane Arbus thought some of the best compositions could come from “funny mistakes.” Edward Weston insisted that following the “rules” of composition led to predictable photos.
When it comes to composition, there aren’t nearly as many fixed rules or guidelines as we might imagine. Composition is subjective and elusive; what works in one situation won’t work in another, and artists can spend a lifetime learning how to frame a shot.
We asked more than a dozen talented photographers about how they taught themselves the principles of composition—and how they wield them to their advantage. These aren’t your typical composition tips; we’ve included everything from foundational elements to offbeat exercises.
1. Consume a lot of art
Consuming as many pictures as possible, from paintings in museums to stills from classic movies, was one of the top tips among the photographers we interviewed. “I am always consuming imagery that broadens my visual literacy,” the photographer and stylist Lauren Vied Allen says.
Photo by Lauren Vied Allen for Jeddah’s Tea Room (@jeddahstea) in Durham, NC
“Look at images and break down the different compositions. Study how artists use the rule of thirds, the golden ratio, layers, framing, leading lines, angles, etc., and that knowledge will inform your work.
“I use composition to direct my audience’s eye around my photograph, and I learn by challenging myself and practising constantly. Take your time composing your photos and pay attention to the details. It is always best to do as much work in-camera, so your post-production process isn’t as time-consuming.”
2. Get low (literally)
“Sit down in a comfortable seated position, and you’ll find a new dramatic point of view opens up,” the Iowa-based multimedia artist Barry Phipps advises. “Then, try lying on your back and on your stomach and photographing from these positions. Finally, stand up and take a photo from your original vantage point.
Iowa City 2/2020 © Barry Phipps
“Doing this over and over again will inform the way you photograph from your default standing position. You will find that your final photo will be influenced by those other three vantage points, and you will have four completely different photographs to choose from of the same scene. I almost always find that my standing photo looks lame compared to my sitting position.”
3. Create depth and leading lines
“When composing a photo, I often consider adding layers, as incorporating a foreground adds depth,” the Copenhagen-based photographer Christina N. Andersen tells us. “I also look for leading lines. Ask yourself, ‘What lines do your eyes follow along a photo, and how can you make them work to your advantage?’”
The concierge © Christina N. Andersen 4. Use light and colour
“I use light and shadow to create contrasts and add drama,” Christina says. “Our attention is drawn to the part of the image where there is a large contrast in tones. As you use colour in your compositions, and you will also notice how different hues can create a certain mood. Blue tends to be calm and moody, whilst yellow, orange, and red are often associated with feelings of warmth and comfort.”
5. Watch yourContinue reading