The Importance of Composition in Photography

by : Graham Baylis

Correct composition is without doubt one of the most important factors when seeking to take that perfect photograph, composition being most critical when taking landscapes.

But what is "composition" and why is it so important?

In essence, composition is all about putting together objects in your viewfinder in such a way as to emphasise the bits you want to, making them stand out in just the right way. These objects include anything in the foreground, the background, those that "frame" the picture, and most importantly light. I'm sure you've seen many landscape photographs with so many objects in them that you've honestly had no idea what the subject actually was? Was it the mountain? Well, it could have been, but it's sort of obscured by that tree. No, how about the waterfall, but that's not very centred, and anyway I've never seen a sky that colour before.

The truth of the matter is that most successful photographic compositions are in fact quite simple, there may be numerous objects but there is never any doubt as to what the subject actually is.

Another great truth is that no matter how expensive your camera equipment is, that without a knowledge of composition, you'll never be able to "capture" the essence of the image you see. Worse still, someone with a cheaper set up, and who knows about composition, will more than likely be producing better photographs...

Annoyingly, some people seem to have the knack for creating well composed images, while others have to shoot and shoot whilst they hone their composition skills. The important thing to remember is that wherever you start, you will only get better with practice.

With landscapes the challenge is to capture an image so that the subject is presented in the way that you want it to be, which for many means learning new ways of seeing what is in front of you.

Besides the subject, there is of course "light", it can make all the difference between a fantastic picture and a dull and uninteresting one. Make sure you note the lights direction, intensity and colour (yes the colour of light changes quite dramatically, e.g. at the beginning and end of the day).

Besides the colour of the light, the position of the sun in the sky also has a major impact on a photograph, as when the sun is low it produces marvelous shadows that enhance the subjects shape and give it that important 3d effect.

There is another thing about taking photographs when the sun is low in the sky, as this means that it is either early or late in the day and thus its intensity is not at its height, which in turn means that the range of contrast (the difference between the deep shadows and highlights) is low, something that really helps capturing the details in both (especially with digital cameras).

The viewpoint is the next vital ingredient, but just what is the best? Here only you can tell, you just have to move around the subject, looking at it from different angles and from different heights, not to mention different focal lengths from the very wide to the telephoto. All of these will have dramatic impact on the image you capture and there is no real formula to follow, except perhaps one.

This composition "formula" centres on something called the "thirds". Take any image and divide it into three equal part both lengthwise and height wise and you end up with 2 vertical and 2 horizontal lines, placing anything on these vertical lines can really emphasize them, whilst placing anything on the intersections can be really powerful. Bearing these "thirds" in mind when composing your photograph could make all the difference.

To sum up, when taking your photographs, decide what your subject is, from which viewpoint and angle it looks the best, decide where to place it, and most importantly, make sure that the light is right, after all with landscapes there is normally always another day.