The Philosophy of Composition

The philosophy of composition is an interesting topic for all photographers because it gives you insight into your own work and helps you to know what to do, when to do it, and why you are doing it.

Practical knowledge is important, how the controls on your camera work and so, but theoretical knowledge is important too. It's like the wings of a bird - it needs both to fly and so do we photographers!


Composition can be roughly defined as  the way in which a photographer (or a painter of course) arranges the different elements of a scene to produce an image that is coherent where the whole seems to be greater than the sum of the parts.

Composition is what gives structure to a photograph however without emotional content within the image, composition on its own, no matter how good it is, will only produce a picture that is superficial.

Composition in visual art is like grammar in writing - it can provide a compelling structure but you must have something to say that is of interest to your viewer or reader beyond the elements on the page. Art is a language after all, and visual art merely uses visual elements to convey a message which is invisible. The challenge for the photographer is whether he or she will make good photos or make art.

two nascent poppies - photographic print by anne darling - click to buy now

Above: Two Nascent Poppies by Anne Darling

The Philosophy of Composition: Photography is Harder than Painting

Perhaps you are now thinking that it is easier to control the elements of a composition when painting or drawing rather than when making a photograph. In fact one isn't easier than the other, they just have different approaches.

The painter can edit out parts of a scene that s/he doesn't wish to include, but the photographer is somewhat limited - it is just not possible to move the telegraph pole out of the picture unless you do some editing in Photoshop or the darkroom at a later stage. But the real difference between the two arts lies in the process. Painting is the art of constructing an image, photography is the art of selection.

So it might seem that the painter has greater freedom than the photographer but there are so many choices that a photographer can make. Choice of lens, ISO, angle of shooting, colour or black and white, use of filters, changing the lighting (or waiting for the right light), the printing process itself - all these conspire to offer the photographer a limitless range of choices.

Nonetheless, maybe you think that photography is not really art and that to call it such is merely pretentious.

The Philosophy of Composition: Is Photography Art?

I once met a very talented young photographer who told me that she didn't consider herself to be an artist. She did make stunningly good pictures however and I just wonder, if she didn't consider herself to be an artist, then what was she?

I also knew someone who was a painter, quite successful in the sense that she earned all her income from painting and was considered by many to be very talented. It's true she could take a scene and give a reasonable representation of it, and one image in particular stands out. It was an owl, perched on a fence post, looking directly at the viewer in a positively fierce way.

At the private view it was a success, everyone seemed to love it and said good things about it. But I guessed that she had based her painting on a photograph - nothing wrong with that you say - but perhaps the telegraph pole emerging from the back of the owl's head was what gave it away. Didn't she know that as an artist she had choices as to what went in her picture and what didn't?

And that's why I claim photography is a greater art form than painting. We don't have the same choices... we can't always exclude elements from a scene. That's why a great photograph is always such a joy to behold as the photographic artist  has definitely achieved something remarkable that a painter sitting at their easel and copying a photograph can never do. And frankly that seems to be what most 'artists' do these days. Ok that's my rant over...

The Philosophy of Composition: The Power of Imagination

Putting aside the 'is it art' question... in truth,  the most important element to consider in photography as well as painting,  is one that lies within the photographer's own psyche - the imagination. Without this essential element, what you end up with is really not much more than a snapshot, even if it is technically perfect with regard to exposure and so on. A photographer who exercises their imagination can successfully use their knowledge of good composition to continually create pictures that are original and considered artistic.

Perhaps not everyone has great imagination but everyone can develop their own imagination through practice, and by learning to apply the rules of composition to their own art form. If at the same time, they remain open to new ways of looking and thinking at all times, the philosophy of composition which develops will be their own, not just something they have absorbed from their teachers or books, and one that will lead them ever onwards to ever greater works.

The philosophy of composition is a fascinating topic and one that really belongs under the heading of the Philosophy of Art. Follow the link for some great books on Amazon that will stimulate your study of composition even more!

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