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Notes on Composition
by James D. Blodget

Reality is a three dimensional continuum with no frames. But in painting, still photography, theater, or motion picture photography we have to limit our field of view to a specific one. We have to hang a frame on reality. The effectiveness of our representation depends on where we hang that frame. We must pick a point of view, move the frame forward or back in order to include a sufficient amount of the subject matter and then move it laterally in order to achieve balance within the photographic frame. Now in painting, where one can mentally rearrange objects and points of view, it is convenient to think of composition as the placement of objects within the frame. However, in photography, where it is necessary to physically pick a point of view and where it is sometimes impossible to rearrange objects, it is more convenient to think of composition as the placement of the photographic frame in relation to the objects.

There are two major considerations of composition: information and structure. Both should be considered simultaneously. By information I mean the subject matter or substance of the picture. By structure I am referring to the form or arrangement of the elements on the flat surface of the photograph.

Informational Components

The major question the photographer asks is, "What do I want to take a picture of? What do I want to show? What is it exactly that I wish to capture with a photograph?"

Generally speaking there are five things one will wish to capture. These five things are called informational components, and they are as follows:

  1. Subject - shape, number, texture, color, age, gender, etc.
  2. Location - a setting, where the subject is in time and space.
  3. Relation - how an object compares to its surroundings,or to other objects. Eg. size, proximity, beauty, etc.
  4. Activity - what the subject is doing or what is happening to or around the subject.
  5. Emotion - the emotions or feelings of the.subject or connected with the location or activity.


I may want to show that Alan and Bill (subject) are on top of a mountain on a bright sunny day (location), that Alan is taller than Bill (relation), that they have been mountain climbing and are now standing at the summit shaking hands (activity),, and that they are very pleased with themselves for having reached the top (emotion).

Sometimes one may not wish to capture all five components at once. For instance, I may want to capture a subject and an emotion, but exclude location, relation, and activity. A portrait taken in a studio with a black back drop does this.

The next question the photographer is concerned with is, "How can I best capture the essence of what I want to show?" To answer this question the photographer has to make a series of choices: format, film, camera angle and distance, lens, lighting, filter, focus, apeture, and shutter speed. Through manipulation of these ten items the photographer determines how the subject will be captured. (See Points to Consider).

Structural Components

A photograph is an entity in itself, quite apart from whatever the subject matter of the photograph may be, comprised of components or elements. The photographer must be concerned with, not only the subject matter, but also with how best to structure these elements of a photograph. The photographer must be able to ignore the subject matter for a while and concentrate on the arrangement of the various elements on the flat surface of the photograph.

There are ten structural components or elements which make up a photograph, and they are as follows:

  1. Shapes or masses - the major areas formed by the objects and the space around them.
  2. Light and Shade - the highlight and shadow areas of the picture.
  3. Lines - there are two kinds: real and imaginary
  4. Colors - different tonal gradations of the spectrum. Red is different from yellow is different from green, etc.
  5. Proportion - comparitive sizes of objects in the photograph.
  6. Interval - distance between objects.
  7. Scale - the relation of the size of the objects to the size of the frame. The difference between a picture of a bee on a flower and a picture of a bee's eye is scale.
  8. Patterning - repeated detail such as the pattern of a brick wall.
  9. Focus - what portions of the photograph are sharp and definite and what portions are fuzzy or blurred.
  10. Movement - there are two kinds: apparent movement and eye movement. An object will appear to be either stationary (such as the ground or a building) or caught in the act of moving, (such as two people running towards one another, or a boy bouncing a ball, or water rushing in a stream). Apparent movement refers to these objects frozen in the act of moving.

When we look at a photograph, our eyes first go to a certain area or shape or object or color and then they begin to wander around. How the eye travels in a still photograph is called eye movement.

Determinants of Eye Movement

Two things determine where the eye goes in a photograph. One is audience preference for the subject matter in the photograph. For instance when presented with a scene of a barnyard some will first look at the cow and some the cat. It's a matter of preference.

The second determining factor of eye movement is the structure of the photograph. There are eleven structural determinants of eye movement, and they are as follows:

  1. The eye is drawn to detail and dominant shapes and drifts in plain space.
  2. The eye will look at what's in focus.
  3. The eye is lead to the intersection of two converging lines.
  4. The eye goes to the center of closed shapes.
  5. The eye is drawn to light objects in a predominantly dark space, and to dark objects in a predominantly light space.
  6. The eye follows directional indicators such as an arrow or a finger pointing or eyes looking in a specific direction.
  7. Strong lines which cut across the frame stop eye movement from crossing the line.
  8. The eye is drawn to groupings.
  9. The eye will go to the narrow space between two large masses.
  10. The eye follows curves.
  11. The eye will follow a spiral to its center.

Some of determinants are more forceful than the others. That is, if more than one is present, some of the above will affect the eye first and some will affect it later. Generally speaking numbers 1 through 6 are the primary determinants and the rest are secondary.

Informationally speaking it is a good idea to control the audience's eye movement. Since one of the major determinants of eye movement is audience preferance, it is necessary to know what the audience's preferences are. This is why it is important to determine right at the start who the audience is going to be. This is particulary true when using a large format as the eye won't be able to absorb the whole image at once. It will be forced to look at first one thing and then another.

The process, then, that the photographer goes through is one of asking:

"What do I want to show?"

"Who is my audience?" and

"'What combination of film., format, angle, distance, lens, etc. will best communicate what I want to show to my audience and yet be the best structurally?"

On Seeing

Learn to observe and analyze. See with your mind as well as your eyes. Try to differentiate between "what's there" and "what you see". In a scene do you see a tree on a hill? Do you see the branches of the tree? Do you see the leaves or the sun reflecting through the leaves? Do you see the bird sitting in the tree? Do you see the shape the tree makes against the sky? Do you see the cool shade of the tree? Do you see the fruit of the tree? Do you see a place to sit in and relax or do you see a tall foreboding place to fall out of? Do you see summer? Do you see loneliness. Do you see life and oxygen? Wisdom? Old age? Photosynthesis? Roots? It's all there, but what of whats there is important to you? The same subject will generate many different photographs depending on what the photographer sees.

Here is a list of questions to help you in analyzing a subject:

  1. What are its physical properties?
  2. What are its parts?
  3. How are the parts interrelated?
  4. How is the subject situated?
  5. How does it relate to its environment? Compare with other things?
  6. What is it doing? What is its function?
  7. Is it two dimensional or three dimensional?
  8. Is it situated in a vertical, horizontal, diagonal, or cyclical composition?
  9. Does the subject symbolize anything? Or do you associate it with anything?
  10. What emotions are involved?

Now, what is important to you? Which of "whats' there" do you wish to emphasize?

When you take a photograph you are making an abstraction (a representation) of real life. So, learn to see abstractions rather than things. Look For:

  1. Line and linear movements.
  2. Light and shadow
  3. Shapes
  4. Space
  5. Planes
  6. Texture
  7. Color
  8. Relationships
  9. Dimension

There are two types of photography - recording and rendering. RECORDING is explicit representation. Show everything, all detail, all relationships, all dimension, no distortion. RENDERING is implicit representation. Show just the essentials, just the most important characteristics, eliminate everything that is secondary, distort for emphasis.

Both types are equally valid. Neither is inherently better than the other. However, when you take a photograph, know which type you are using. If you are recording, analyze the subject carefully. Be sure to show everything that is important and do not distort. If you are rendering, analyze the subject carefully. Pick out those characteristics which are important to you, and emphasize them.



Established: September 30, 2001
Updated: October 28, 2001


© 2001 James D. Blodget
All Rights Reserved