Random Thoughts

Quality composition for photographers (& other artists)

Written by Gail Bjork

Even a technically skilled photographer can create dull and boring images. Discover the visual elements of composition used to create powerful photos and other works of art.

After participating in a forum discussion about “what makes a good photograph,” I contacted my former art teacher, Bea Card Kettlewood, and asked her thoughts about the elements of good composition.

Visual elements in composition

No matter what medium (oil, watercolor, pastel, acrylic or photography) quality composition is essential. Visual elements in a composition are / can be:

  • line
  • color
  • shape
  • direction
  • texture (visual or real)
  • scale
  • dimension (perspective, space)
  • motion.

Creating balance in composition

Artist-photographerIn most compositions, one or two of these elements dominate and some are lesser to the point of not being seen. Selection results in artist’s, photographer’s or designer’s intention on display.

Real lighting plays a major part in the photographer’s composition whereas the brush artist can adjust lighting (ex. Rembrandt). Either way the test is creating balance and keeping the viewer’s eye within the boundaries.

The artist manipulates the elements with a brush or pencil, or through a lens.

Every composition is abstract

Framed artIt is irrelevant whether the artist is Pablo Picasso, Andrew Wyeth or Ansel Adams. What the viewer calls “realism” is what the artist elects to put on top of the basic abstract composition.

The subject matter is the basis of the artist’s message whether it be a religious scene (ex.  Michelangelo) or a raging sea (ex. Winslow Homer) or  a political statement (ex. Picasso’s Guernica) or a vase of flowers (ex. van Gogh’s Sunflowers).

The light / shade, or placement of color or line movement is what captivates the viewer. A single leaf, painted, drawn or photographed, can be intriguing and captivating or dull and boring no matter how skilled the technique.

Seeing relationships within a scene

ArtistSeeing relationships within a scene is important.  When an eighth grade class came into the room all noisy and disorganized, I would say, “What a beautiful painting you would make. Look. She is wearing a red sweater; he has a red book; the boy in the back of the room gas a red pencil in his shirt pocket.”

I would make the line with my hand and then do the same in another direction with blue, etc. The class saw themselves as crisscross color lines of a COMPOSITION.

Here is my statement for those who think quality is just technical  skills or aspects: in photography (as in any medium) technical aspects are the means by which an artist can arrange the elements in the composition that will keep the viewer looking at the intended message.

OR from Donna A. Dondis,  author of A Primer of Visual Literacy:

“Composition is the interpretative means for controlling the reinterpretation of a visual message by those who experience it.”

Dondis makes no distinctions in her book between painters or photographers.

Some thoughts on The Rule of Thirds

The purpose of The Rule of Thirds is to create a more interesting composition by making the central aspect of the artist’s message just a bit off center to the right or left,  up or down.  Dead center  in the  photo area would be dull  –  no place for the eye to wonder and  enjoy the viewing.

Once the rule is acknowledged,  fixed in the artist’s or photographer’s head,  the rule becomes part of his or her own eyesight in establishing an interesting, intriguing composition and no longer is a RULE to be followed.

Bea KettlewoodDr. Bea Card Kettlewood is a noted artist, art educator and lecturer from Pompton Plains, New Jersey. During her tenure as head of the art department at New Milford High School in New Jersey, Bea developed an extraordinary and exemplary fine arts program.

Bea has had 46 solo shows and has been in juried or invitational shows in numerous states in the U.S. The media she uses include watercolors, oil and pen & ink. See sample images from Bea’s painting diary.


Also visit our Photo Composition Gallery for examples of well-composed photos.

About the author

Gail Bjork

Gail Bjork, who is passionate about digital photography, is the owner and editor of Digicamhelp.Gail is the author of three illustrated ebooks about digital photography. A number of her photos and digital photography related articles appear at other websites.In 2006, a series of her photos, People in the Louvre, were exhibited at the Underground Photo Gallery
in Iisalmi Finland. Eight of her photos taken in the Florida scrub are on permanent exhibition at Parrish Medical Center in Titusville, Florida.Gail served twelve years as an elected member of The School Board of Palm Beach County, Florida, one of the largest school districts in the U.S. She has also been the editor of a small town newspaper and a free-lance writer. Gail and her husband owned and ran several small businesses.