Composition, how do you use it to tell your story?

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Composition, how do you use it to tell your story?

MoP Creative Team
Posts: 7
Topic starter
Joined: 3 years ago

The use of composition has always been a highly debated topic in photography. What are your ideas and philosophies around using composition to help tell photographic stories? Do you try to follow the classical rules? Is deconstructing obvious compositional rules more interesting?

In their online classes, each of the Masters share their thoughts on the matter:

“You fill up the frame with feelings, energy, discovery, and risk, and leave room enough for someone else to get in there.”Joel Meyerowitz

“I think you should be free of any rules or any kind of guidelines and just find your own way. I think that rules are meant to be broken.”Steve McCurry
“A lot of it is just by instinct and experience, so that is part of the journey of learning, photography.”Albert Watson
“When I'm looking at composition, I do sometimes break rules because photography's an art; it's not a science. One shouldn't be restricted by [the idea that] 'this is the way to do things'.“ - David Yarrow

Join the discussion below and let us know how important composition is to you!

7 Replies
Michael Vincent
Posts: 11
Joined: 8 months ago

While I understand the craft and it’s essential teachings of composition, I like to trust myself and just shoot.

When I am out and about, I look, I see, I feel and then I create.

One thing my gut instincts tell me is; what’s the narrative?

This primary question tells me there is a relationship going on here. 

Context is decisive.

This means:

What Lens am I using?
What’s my subject?

Where am I ?

All of these questions informs my choices of how best to frame my subject.

There is more to this because rule of thirds, leading lines, symmetry, texture, colour, shape, form, quality and direction of light all contribute to how I compose.

Michael Vincent

Posts: 1
Joined: 1 year ago

For composition I ask myself, how do I want the viewers eye to travel across the image? What do I want them to focus on and create accordingly. 


Posts: 3
Joined: 1 year ago

Classical guidance on proportion and composition evolved for good reasons, and it helps to understand them in creating an image as opposed to just taking a snap. However it is a bit like cooking, when you start you stick strictly to the recipes, carefully measuring the exact amounts as specified, but after a while you begin to improvise a bit until you have sufficient expertise to know what works almost by instinct. Describing compositional guidance as rules is misleading, they are basic tenets which need to be understood and appreciated for why they work in order to evolve a more instinctive approach just as in any other artistic field. Some lauded photographers perversely reject any conventional approach in order to be seen as original but rarely do they actually work.

Dorie Dahlberg
Posts: 11
Joined: 10 months ago

Funny this topic came up now. I was just getting ready to enter a juried photography show about composition. When I was looking through my files, I saw that I tend shoot on the symmetrical-side. I didn't come from a photography program. I was an art major (ages ago) concentrating on printmaking (intaglio) and works on paper. When I hear photographers using terms like: rule of thirds, leading lines, etc. it sounds like another language to me. While I really like the layered, busy compositions, like that of Alex Webb, I just don't shoot that way. I wish I could sometimes but I suppose we all evolve to a place that becomes our chosen way to see the world and compose our photographs, even if it's not deliberate. I appreciate photographers who illustrate disorder but I tend to do the opposite. I wonder what that says about me!

Posts: 1
Joined: 2 months ago

About the composition. I don't think about it consciously.

But when I look for something that inspire's me in someway I am looking for the best composition.

For me composition is something related to the sense of meaning and beauty, perspective, light, etc... 

It's the perfect mix of good feeling shot. When you put together all you feel and all you know (competence).


Al Myers
Posts: 3
Joined: 1 year ago

Civilization – and art/photography is a part of that – is a way of creating order out of the chaos, a counterweight to the law of the jungle. It follows that photographic practice needs to have order i.e., it needs to follow rules of some kind to have any meaning. Pointless, otherwise. Impossible to communicate without common points of reference, without referents, without some agreed visual language.

The rules need to be rules you have selected for your own purposes, of course – otherwise you are exposed to the tyranny of others, in whatever sphere of activity you care to consider. For example, to follow the “rules-based international order” is to follow the rules imposed by the West – a kind of “my way or the highway” oppressiveness that is destructive rather than creative.

Your compositional rules can vary from being very minimal to highly structured depending on your message. If, for example, you want to convey the bustle, energy, chaos of a city street in the style of Meyerowitz, then you would adopt a loose snapshot aesthetic style, paying little attention to rules about clutter, straight horizontals etc. If you reject the individualistic, “anything goes” approach of the neoliberal age, then you will favour using the full armoury of compositional devices, reflecting order, harmony, form – more in the Cartier-Bresson mould. And 57 varieties in between. “Rules are there to be broken” makes no sense in photography because the only rules that should count are your own rules which are highly likely to be keepers. If you are inclined to break the rules in photography, then you are probably following someone else’s rules.

Posts: 1
Joined: 4 months ago

I tend to work on instinct unless I go out with a particular shot or story in mind. My eye is particularly drawn to light, shadows, people and their body language and the rest (usually) falls into place; plus rust & peeling paint for abstracts



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