When we think about what makes a good photograph, we usually accept that one of the variables is composition – how the photographer has composed the image.
A good composition is essential if the image is to appeal to the viewer.
A simple image will stand out, but so also will a complex one; colour will stand out, and so will black and white, if the composition is right.
When an image stands out for me, when I gravitate towards it, I can't always explain why but I know that certain compositions just work for the viewer. I believe that when a photographer, through a combination of experience, learning and intuition, knows exactly how to achieve an interesting composition and to make good use of the available light, there is every chance that the resulting image will stand out for the viewer, regardless of whether that image is simple or complex, shot in colour or black and white.
I have struggled to understand exactly what makes a good composition and how to achieve that. I know that the human eye is drawn to how an image is presented in the frame and that composition guidelines that help to make the image more interesting and visually appealing have been around for centuries. However, I have found that putting these guidelines into practice when composing an image is not always easy to do.
A few things have helped.
# TAKING LOTS OF PHOTOGRAPHS
This might seem obvious but taking lots of photographs helps us to develop an intuition for good composition. As I began to critique my own images I could see where a composition didn’t look quite right, and I could look for ways to improve the image. Sometimes a slight crop would improve the composition but more often there were glaring faults and I had to accept that I needed to learn from my composition mistakes and try to improve next time.
# TRYING OUT DIFFERENT COMPOSITION TECHNIQUES
I have studied the various composition guidelines (there are a lot of them!) and tried to incorporate them gradually. Not all the composition techniques will be needed in any one image, and some will be used more commonly than others. I try incorporate techniques such as adding a foreground and mid-ground element to provide depth; framing my subject within the frame, sometimes called sub-framing; using leading lines to draw the viewer's eye into the frame and varying perspective to provide more interest for the viewer. I might spend some time making use of a technique such as leading lines until I feel happy that I have mastered the use of this technique, then work on another. This approach has helped me keep composition guidelines at the forefront of my mind so that I avoid making any glaring mistakes.
# STUDYING THE PHOTOGRAPHY MASTERS
The third way that has helped me overcome my struggle with composition is studying the work of great photographers. Spending time with photographs that have withstood the test of time is a good way to help understand what it is that makes them great. I try to work out how these master photographers have placed elements in a frame in such a way that we are drawn to look at their images time and time again.
I find that the best way to study the master photographers is to see their images in print. Photography books allow you to spend time looking at a photograph and to come back to a photo you like time and time again. Photography books are not cheap but I often find a gem in my local library, and second hand bookshops are also a good source to try. I have also invested in one or two collections and these have helped to introduce me to photographers I may have been unaware of but whose images are sufficiently highly regarded to be included in a compilation.
A FINAL WORD
Getting to grips with composition in photography is not easy, yet in my opinion it is the single most necessary aspect of photography that we need to master if we are to create good images.
I hope that some of the suggestions above will help you if you are struggling with composition.
Above all, keep shooting.