Composition is one of the most important skills for any photographer to learn. Straight up. No joke.
It’s all about how to decide what to include and exclude from your photo, and how to arrange it all to create the strongest image possible.
But I’ll confess, I totally neglected my composition study for many years. I thought it seemed boring. I knew the Rule of Thirds so I figured I was set.
I was a fool. A fool, I tell you!
Once I actually spent time studying composition, and I mean really studying it, from the theories of visual perception, to the compositional techniques of arranging elements in a photo, I realized what a huge mistake I had made. It became clear that composition was the most important photography topic I would ever study.
Why is it so important? Allow me to give you a reason, or two, or ten.
1. Make Your Photos to Stand Out
Think about how many new photos are being posted online every day. It’s roughly a gajillion. How are your photos going to stand out?
I’m not being rhetorical. This is a question you really need to ask yourself.
What was the last photo that really caught your eye? What about it made it stand out? Sure, sometimes the subject is so compelling that you can’t help but look.
But more often than not, what makes one photo grab your attention over another is its composition. That’s because a strong composition makes use of techniques that catch your eye and draw you in. A weak composition can result in a confusing image that a viewer passes over quickly, or worse, completely ignores.
No one wants their images to be ignored. Learning to harness the power of composition can help your images stand out above the crowd. That sounds good, right?
2. Strengthen Your Message
Composition is not just about making photos look pretty. It’s also about helping you to communicate with your viewer.
See, we photographers can make a dangerous assumption – that our audience sees our photos the same way we do.
This is simply not true.
Your viewers don’t have the same understanding that you bring to the table. You have an emotional connection with the image, because you were there. You know the context, because you experienced it. You understand the intention, because you made the decision to take the photo. You know a lot about the photo.
Your audience is viewing your image without any of that background info. Yikes! It’s your job as a photographer – as a communicator – to do everything you can to convey to your viewer the messages or feelings you want them to take away.
3. See the Potential in Any Scene
When you learn about composition, you learn how to see like an artist. You’ll be able to recognize the photographic potential in any scene around you, and use it to your advantage to create a great image. To the untrained eye, the surroundings might look boring, bland, or ordinary. To you, they’re art.
This all comes from learning what kinds of visual elements (and in what kind of arrangements) make for great images, and how to spot them. It’s quite simple really, but it completely changes the way you see the world!
4. Gain Confidence
With this power comes great confidence. It’s not hard to see why. Knowing that you can create a great image from any situation helps you to feel more in control of your work. You’re not just hoping you’ll be able to figure things out. You’ll know what to look for and how to make the best of it.
This is especially important when you work with clients, and in uncontrolled situations. You often have to be able to think on the spot, and come up with ideas fast. Knowing about composition makes that possible, and makes you look like a pro.
5. Avoid Embarrassing Mistakes
On the flip side, if you don’t know about composition, you could be making some serious mistakes that weaken your images. And these can be embarrassing. Stuff like branches growing out of your subject’s head (ouch!), or distracting elements creeping in on the sides of your frame.
These are sneaky mistakes – you make them without noticing. And your viewer might not directly notice either, but they can feel that something’s not right. These mistakes make your images uncomfortable to look it, because something is pulling your eye away from the subject.
Learning the finer points of composition means you’ll be able to spot these mistakes while you’re shooting, and make changes to eliminate them. Kapow!
6. Easier To Edit Your Photos
When you’re sorting your photos, do you ever have trouble deciding which of two similar images is better? Editing can be one of the toughest parts of the job. Often the differences between two shots are subtle, and you need to be able to appreciate how those small changes affect the larger picture.
This is where composition skills come in. When you understand what makes a strong composition, you’ll be able to determine why one photo is better than the other, and make the choice with confidence. It will make the editing process a whole lot easier and swifter!
7. Increase Your Keeper Rate
When I look at my old photos, I see the results of a lack of composition skills. I had a very low keeper rate. Most of the shots are duds, with just a few good captures in the mix.
But then I started to learn about composition. And wouldn’t you know it, the number of duds started to go down, while the keepers went up! This was because I was making deliberate choices about what went into my frame.
Before I was just trying to get a shot that would feel right, but didn’t have a process in place to get me there. It was a lot of trial and error.
Understanding composition let me be a whole lot more conscious and thoughtful, and that made for better photos, more often.
8. Find Your Unique Style
Composition often gets a bad reputation for being rigid, and all about following the rules.
I don’t like rules. Viva freedom!
Well, believe it or not, composition gives you MORE freedom to find your unique style. Let me explain.
Yes, there are some “rules” in composition, like the Rule of Thirds and the Rule of Odds. But I don’t like to think of them as hard and fast rules. I prefer to look at them as “tools”. Or “techniques”. They’re options you can use, or ignore, on your way to awesome photos.
And here’s the best part: when you learn about composition, you go from having a couple ways to approach a scene, to being absolutely bursting with ideas and options.
And that’s where you start to develop your style. It comes from which techniques you decide to use. What kinds of elements you like to include in your frame. Your style is the result of knowing the options, and then picking the ones that feel right to you.
Composition gives you the options. You make the decisions. Boom. Your unique style is born!
9. Appreciate Other Art
A nice side bonus of learning composition is that you also start to appreciate the work of others. It’s like you’ve learned the language of art, and now you can use it to understand and communicate with other artists.
See, composition isn’t limited to photography. These concepts span all disciplines of art, and unify the aesthetic world.
By learning composition, not only will you appreciate your own photography on a new level, but you’ll also be able to walk into any museum, or watch any movie, and see SO MUCH MORE.
You’ll see how the painter chose harmonious colours to communicate a particular feeling. Or you’ll notice how the filmmaker used converging lines to draw you into the scene.
Composition opens your eyes to a new visual world, and it’s an incredible one.
10. Information You’ll Use Forever
This information isn’t just cross-disciplinary. It’s also cross-century! These concepts have been around since the very beginning of art. The Egyptians with their hieroglyphics, the Greeks with their sculpture, the great Masters of the Renaissance with their paintings…composition is not new.
And it won’t get old either.
Composition has to do with the way we humans perceive visual information, and that doesn’t really change. There won’t be a new version out next year that makes this stuff outdated.
This is knowledge that you can use for the rest of your life, in so many ways. From taking photos, to printing a brochure, to designing a presentation for work, to picking colours in your home, to playing with chalk with your kids…I think you get the picture. Composition is everywhere!
BONUS: Have More Fun!
And I hope by now you can see why composition makes photography so much more enjoyable. You see more, you appreciate more, and you have a new way of experiencing the world.
That sounds like a pretty fun time to me!
Composition is amazing. Of everything I’ve ever studied as a photographer, this has been the most exciting for me. It’s changed the way I feel about photography, and the way I approach every shot I take.
Ready To Learn Composition?
If you’d like to get some composition skills under your belt, check out our new tutorial! It’s called Incredibly Important Composition Skills, and it’s a fun and easy way to unlock the secrets of composition, and give yourself artistic superpowers!