Composition and the Photographer – Ingredients


Composition is much like cooking. A chef has at their command a kitchen full of tools, some have more tools than others but they make do with what they have. It is using the tools and the mixture of ingredients that allow them to create meals. So too the photographer – we have assorted sets of tools in the guise of cameras, lenses, etc. Our ingredients are the subject we are shooting (the main course), how we decide to frame the scene (side dishes), the light (spices and flavor interactions), and presentation for both. Chefs stand in a kitchen all day preparing food, occasionally getting out for new fixings. Photographers sit at a desk editing images all day, occasionally getting out for new images. Most chefs enjoy the prep work as much as the actual cooking and presentation, just as photographers enjoy image production as much as shooting.

The ingredients of Composition are more than placement in a frame, leading lines, and color, as some stress in their writing. Composition is the configuration of the elements of art united to the principles of art” around a visual center. These are also the tools used in the formal analysis of a work of art. The elements of art and the principles of art are the traditional higher echelon constituent parts that have been learned and observed by artist through history, beginning in the pre-renaissance when artists and scientists began to take note of such things. Science and art haven’t stood still in the meantime, and the knowledge base available for composition now includes the study of the effects of one color upon another, how the human animal perceives what is seen, and the psychological elements influencing what they see. It should now be apparent how composition is not just splitting the frame into thirds.

The constituent parts of composition are:

Human Perception & Gestalt Theory,

 leading to the use of

The Elements of Art,

 used within the framework of

The Principles of Art,

which includes

Color Interaction

 for affective mood, &

Visual Center

for balance and comfort.

We will discuss each of these in depth individually from a Western perspective. In the end, it will be apparent how the elements fit together and are utilized to enhance the overall image while suggesting a stronger, more direct message to the viewer. Do not let all these fancy terms scare you away. You do not have to memorize anything, you only need to absorb the ideas. When you are stuck and things are not fitting in the frame comfortably, let the brain bring some of the ideas back for consideration. Even if you only remember parts of what is discussed the brain will aid you by suggesting placements you did not see to begin with. It may take the form of a different point of view by moving around the scene, or a lens change. However, if the subject is indeed worth recording, improvements may be made using these tools.

Many examples will be included. Many will be photographs and others will be drawings, paintings or graphics. Images are chosen based on making it easiest for the general reader to observe the point being presented. When mentioning topics not covered in the body of these documents, hyperlinks will be offered directing the reader to additional web based material about those subjects. There will also be a bibliography included referencing additional reading material on the topics presented.

This is going to be an in depth discussion and will take some time to complete, so it seems best to publish it in a blog form allowing you to concentrate on singular issues with continuity to what came before. Keeping it to blog format will also help to alleviate getting overloaded with too much at one.

This image (below) by Andre Kertesz is a perfect example of how one can break the rules and make the image work. One of the “rules” we hear about is that the frame should not be divided into 2 equal spaces, yet Kertesz has done exactly that in this image “Chez Mondrian”. This is a B&W interior shot of Piet Mondrians home with a door post running right down the middle of the frame, virtually from top to bottom. Normally we would expect this heavy vertical to present us with 2 disassociated halves leaving the viewer wondering which half they should be paying attention to.

Aside from the placement of nearly flat values within the frame mimicking Mondrians paintings,  Kertesz uses a number of Gestalt principles to unify the image. See if you can find elements of grouping due to similarity, closure or proximity. If you don’t understand what these elements are, and don’t see what they might do for the success of the image, keep reading this blog. We will cover all of these in the next few installments. In the Kertesz ends up with a highly selected, well balanced image of angles, forms, shapes and tones, all creating an almost mystical view into the living environment of a great artist.

Image Source

Next Time: Gestalt and Visual Perception


Lens, Light and Composition is presented in a structured form with occasional asides. It is not a semi-random presentation of information. To get the greatest benefit from this blog it is advised that you start at the beginning of the table of contents, and work your way down from there. Thanks for reading.


2 comments on “Composition and the Photographer – Ingredients

  1. shazimalik says:

    Can you explain your statement
    ‘We will discuss each of these in depth individually from a Western perspective’

    Do you mean to say that all these principal of art are not applicable for other cultures or eastern artist follow a different perception of art ?

    • The simplest way to explain is that cultural differences in art will affect the way we perceive things. How we read, from right to left or from left to right can affect perception. Colors and symbols have different meanings, things like that. Since I have not studied Eastern Art it would be presumptuous for me to state that what I write is valid in all cultures.

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