Great Composition Produces A Better Photo

Devotees at prayer and tabernacle at the Santhome Basilica in Chennai, India.

Composition is what you need to make a better photo, more often. Let me show you how great composition will allow you to turn an interesting scene into a much better image.

I made this photo in a beautiful chapel at the Santhome Basilica in Chennai in Southeast India.

What Makes This A Better Photo

If you like the image you probably do for the same reason I was originally attracted to it: color, that of the tabernacle and the stained glass windows that sit either side of it.

However, closer inspection of the image will reveal that there’s a number of elements of composition, in addition to light and color, that makes this a better photo than it otherwise would have been.

Seeing In Pairs Makes for a Better Image

That’s right folks, much of the composition within this photo is based on pairs. It’s just like Noah’s Ark.

See how many pairs of objects you can discover within this image. For starters there’s the pair of stained glass windows.

Actually this photo is full of matching pairs. That’s why it’s so symmetrical.

Why not challenge yourself, for just a few moments, to see how many pairs you can discover in the image.

By investing a little bit of time to break down a photo you’ll be able to understand why it works.

Before you know it, this new knowledge will allow you to make better images, more often.

Big Handed Woman, Kolkata, India

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Two Is Good, But Three Is Sacred

As important as pairs are to this photo, I’ve also incorporated the notion of three into the composition.

Just ask the Minbari, one of the races from the classic Sci-Fi TV series Babylon 5, how important the number three is in their society.

Perhaps one of the reasons why groupings of three are so important in composition is because, when placed into a triangular arrangement, shapes within your image tend to become more pronounced.

The illusion of three dimensional space within the bounds of a two dimensional photograph is, therefore, enhanced.

Notice how the three people in the image at the top of this post are grouped into a nice triangular shape.

You might also notice the color of the woman’s sari and how it relates to similar colors in the stained glass windows and around the tabernacle and flowers.

Some of those connections are made by drawing invisible lines between the individual elements of composition to which I’m referring.

It’s not necessary for the triangles to be equilateral. What matters is that connecting elements within the frame can be brought together in a triangular shape.

The advantage of building a composition around pairs or groups of three is that a cohesive and harmonious composition is achieved.

Said simply, your photo just makes sense.

The vast majority of people won’t notice the connections to which I’m referring. That’s a shame but, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter.

As long as your photo is based around an interesting and well constructed composition a much better photo will result.

Retailer, amidst a sea of color, in his store in Kolkata, India.

Improve Composition and Make A Better Image

Take a look at this portrait of a retailer, amidst a sea of color, in his store in Kolkata, India.

The store was actually a small, brightly colored van. He was sitting inside the van where he had crowded in as much stock as he could fit.

The colors excited me and I loved the way the warm orange/reds in the foreground contrasted with the cool blue color of the van’s interior.

Notice how the blue painted ledge, in the very front of the picture connects with the color of the walls further into the frame.

Also notice how the predominantly yellow/brown colors of the various grains and pulses on the left and right of the frame work to ground the image and also separate the warm colored jars at the front with the cool, blue walls.

While color is most certainly the dominant element of composition in this image, shape and line are also important.

I walked in close and employed a wide angle lens to incorporate as much color and shape as I could.

Now here’s how I made use of line to make an even better photo.

  • Strong horizontal lines across the front of the scene.

  • Diagonal leading lines on the right which act to link foreground and background elements within the photo.

Don’t Overthink Composition

Once you understand the fundamentals of composition you don’t have to think about it all that much.

I find I’m aware of the important elements of composition present within a scene. Before I know it I’ve started constructing my image without having to stop and think about what it is I’m doing.

In the case of the images in this post I recognized many of the elements of composition, and their relationships to each other, while composing the photo.

While that recognition does affect the choices in composition that I make, it all happens pretty much on auto pilot.

The trick is not to let the thinking get in the way of the doing. Otherwise you’d never make any photos.

On the desktop you critique and you categorize by separating what you do well from what you don’t.

With this knowledge you’re better equipped to make the right decisions in the field when your time is best spent observing and reacting, intuitively, not just to what you see, but how you feel about what you see.

Pay Attention to the Photos You Make

I think the best way to elevate yourself to that level of expertise is to spend time deconstructing your favorite photos, whether made by you or someone else.

Recognize what it is that works in these pictures and, over time, notice how the same decision making will begin to appear in your own photography.

There’s so much more to making a better photo than whether or not Little Johnny is smiling.

Paying attention to composition when looking at photos that inspire you will, over time, produce dramatic improvements in your own photography.

Of this I’m quite sure.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru