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Composition of a Shot

Updated on December 6, 2011

Composition is the tool wherewith the artist handles the subject matter at his disposal in the picture space so as best to express his purpose. His purpose is not always simply to please; he may wish to instruct, entertain, or even annoy. The subject matter by itself. can do these things only to a limited degree; most of the virtue lies in the way in which it is presented by the artist.

The painter has the advantage of the photographer in being able to put in or leave out bits of subject matter at will. If anything present in the actual scene does not help to make his meaning clear, he can leave it out. If the purpose of the picture would be strengthened by adding something, he can add it.

Up to a point, the photographer can include more or less of the scene by changing his viewpoint, but eventually he must accept the contents of the picture space as he finds them.

When that point is reached, his only remaining way of expressing his personal feeling about his subject matter is by emphasis-playing down some objects or aspects of them, and stressing others.

The things that control emphasis in a photograph are: tone, sharpness, scale, and arrangement.



If the tone of the subject is lighter or darker than that of the background and any other objects in the picture, the subject will tend to stand out from its surroundings and the observer's attention will naturally turn to it.

If the subject itself is the picture, it is sufficient to show it well lighted against a plain background of darker tone, or if it is dark in tone, against a lighter background. But if the picture must include other items all more or less equal in tone, the principal item must be emphasized in some other way.


The photographer can direct attention to any part of the picture by making that part sharp and detailed and leaving the rest vague and blurred. This is one of the most useful photographic tricks for achieving emphasis and it is simply a matter of focusing the lens accurately on the part to be emphasized and throwing the rest of the picture out of focus.


All other things being equal, attention is held by the biggest single unit in the picture, whether it is an object or a mass of light or shade. To give the subject importance, it is useful to make it appear larger in proportion than the rest of the subject matter. The photographer can achieve this by altering the distance between the camera and the subject.

Everyone is familiar with the exaggerated proportion of hands or feet stretched towards the camera in close-up portraits. This apparent distortion of the truth is due to the way in which the lens looks at things-the closer they are, the more they are magnified beyond their true proportion.

In a photograph showing a row of telegraph poles along a road running away from the camera, the pole nearest the camera is almost twice the height of the next nearest, but a pole a quarter of a mile away seems no bigger than the pole on either side of it. This shows that the apparent size of the subject is increased by bringing the camera close to it and decreased by choosing a more distant viewpoint. The relative size of an object can be emphasized or played down, according to its position in relation to other objects in the picture area.

For example, a group of people photographed at close quarters will show those standing near the camera as giants and those farthest away as dwarfs; or cottages at the foot of a mountain may look right while the mountain itself is reduced to an insignificant rise. In such cases a more distant viewpoint will give a more normal set of proportions, and although this means accepting a smaller negative image, it can always be enlarged in printing.


The subject receives importance from its position in the picture, that is, the place it occupies in relation to the other units making up the picture and to the actual frame of the picture. Arrangement in the picture space, like furnishing a room, is to some extent a matter of personal taste. But just as it would clearly be wrong to put a bookcase with its back to the light, or an easy-chair under a drafty window, there are rules of commonsense that can be applied in arranging the picture material and trimming the print.

When arranging the picture, the first common sense rule is to simplify the problem by cutting out all unnecessary bric-a-brac, however strong its sentimental value. Ruthless simplification makes the job of arrangement easier, and the meaning clearer and more direct.

Generally the only means of excluding unwanted material is the choice of viewpoint a close viewpoint is often chosen because it cuts out a lot of background and surrounding objects; a low viewpoint, because it gets rid of fussy foreground and adds importance to the subject.

Having reduced the problem to its essentials, the next concern is to see that what remains helps the emphasis. All strong lines and shapes should as far as possible lead the eye towards the important part of the picture, certainly not away from it. A useful trick to give this sort of emphasis is to take advantage of the pattern into which the supporting details fall, or can be arranged, and to have the principal interest at the "strong" point of the pattern- at the top of a triangle, the center of a circle, the inside of a spiral and so on. Such devices, however, are easier for the artist's brush than for the camera lens which must take things as it finds them.

Some thought should also be given to the balance of shapes in the picture. The principal shape should, ideally, be so positioned that it does not make the picture too heavily unsymmetrical.

This is normally ensured by balancing the effect of the principal shape by a smaller, but stronger, tone in the other half of the picture.

Placing the Subject

The rules about placing the principal interest in the picture are straightforward and are as much rules of common sense as of art.

(1) Keep the subject away from the edges of the picture. If it is too close to any of the four edges, it will look uncomfortable, and there will be difficulty in filling the rest of the space without drawing the interest away.

(2) Keep the subject away from the geometrical center of the picture. Central placing is useful for strong emphasis, but it is apt to be dull and formal. This is particularly so with the horizon, which should never be allowed to cut the picture space into two equal areas.

Keep it well up or well down, leaving no doubt about when: the interest lies-in the sky or in the landscape. If the horizon has no business in the picture, then cut it out completely and the picture will be rid of a strong distracting force.

(3) Allow more space in front of the subject than behind it. In a portrait, there should be more space in the direction of the sitter's gaze; a moving object should be shown moving into the picture and not out of it.

As far as possible these methods of controlling emphasis are applied when taking the photograph. It is always easier to cut out an unwanted bit of the scene by a change of viewpoint or camera angle than it is to get rid of it in the print. At the same time, the enlarging process does give the photographer a valuable second chance to improve the composition.


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    • OMGirdle profile image


      6 years ago from United States

      I am an amateur photographer. I have a DSLR. I will use this information to help me get better photos. I also paint. When you said the painter has more of an advantage over photographers, I kind of disagree. For those of us who can't afford the SLR's Photoshop allows the photographer to refine the photo. Since my camera doesn't have all the fancy features, I use it quite a bit to get depth and clarity. Thank you for this hub. I enjoyed reading it.


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