The Art of Composition

By Steve Mulligan Back to


As crucial as technical expertise, a strong composition takes a photograph to a new level. When a photograph displays a high level of technical expertise, it has passed the first mile-stone of photography. The next hurdle is composition; no matter the level of technical expertise displayed in a print, if the composition and subject matter fall short, the final image will fail. As with most creative endeavors, composition requires a strong balance between creation and execution, between reality and intuition.


A photograph is a carefully selected excerpt from the world around us. Choosing the boundaries of the scene is a major component of the art of photography, and should be done in-camera whenever possible. If the composition is set when you expose the film, the printing becomes that much easier—and using the full negative makes sense. In those cases where there is too much information, the cropping must be adjusted during printing. This is always frustrating, as it is more difficult to correct a composition after the expo- sure, forcing you to second-guess your- self. For times when it is impossible to crop correctly during the exposure (such as not having the correct lens, or during a grab-shot of a quickly unfolding scene), cropping must be done during printing. In these cases, it’s better to include too much in the exposure.

Types of composition

There are many classical compositional styles; to me, the S-curve is one of the strongest. This beautiful and elegant technique, whether used as a single element or in a repeating motif, is a classic composition for sand dune images. There are often S-curves within architecture, hidden within curving stairwells and balustrades, and these may be used to soften the generally harsh right angles found in modern buildings.

Diagonals, either single or repeating, can be dramatic—especially in black- and-white, with its extreme control over tonal placement. Diagonal lines are omnipresent, in both the natural and man-made worlds. In many styles of street photography, these lines add to the elemental arrangement within an image, highlighting and dramatizing the subject matter.

The rule of thirds is taught in every basic photography course as a means of achieving spatial balance, either in tones or shapes, within an image. The idea is to divide a photograph into a series of squares or rectangles and then note how the different sections play against each other. The divisions can be horizontal or vertical, or can form a series of right-angle boxes.

Weighting compositions—placing a strong element in one section, using some type of space (often empty) to fill the remaining image area—can be a strong technique, but it must be used carefully. Too much blank space will begin to detract from the scene, losing the viewer’s attention. Contrasting a strong subject against a weaker subject will also work, as long as a good balance is maintained. The stronger ele- ments may be placed in any quadrant of the composition, with bottom-weighting being the strongest approach.

Shadows can become an important aspect, often giving a powerful accent to the main subject. When properly placed within the scene, and when carefully used within the overall framework of the image, shadows become a powerful compositional tool.

Intuition in composition

Beyond the accepted classical composition schemes, there are several unusual and eclectic styles that are difficult to define. Intuition plays a part in all compositions, particularly those that travel outside accepted standards but “just work.” This is an ability that can be nurtured and developed with practice over time.

Everyone has some level of intuition, although it is not a trait that is valued or encouraged in modern times. My dictionary defines it as “the supposed power of the mind to grasp a truth without reason”; the addition of “supposed” renders this a very negative definition. In my opinion, intuition is an invaluable and very real ability, particularly relevant to photography. There must be a gut reaction to any given composition, and this reflex is a form of intuition. These days, I am very picky about film use, and rely on a visceral reaction to any given scene. Experience helps develop intuition, and over time, this instinct becomes natural.

Alternative styles

Although it is a less-established style, flare composition is one of my favorites. This involves linear elements radiating throughout the image from one or more central points. This technique gives an illusion of explosion and movement, and makes for a very dynamic composition. Many variations of this are found in the natural world, and it is a design that I actively seek out.

Another personal favorite—and one completely lacking in structure—the hodgepodge composition takes advantage of the chaos often found in the natural world. By offering limited clues about the subject matter, this technique slides along the line between realism and abstractionism. Although it may appear confusing at first glance, with study it should offer cohesion and grace. By giving limited and disparate clues about the subject, and by combining other compositional styles within the scene, this can be a strong and useful technique.

Repeating patterns can be very attractive, especially with judicious cropping. These patterns are ubiquitous, and can be combined with a near/far composition, giving the viewer a strong feeling of “falling into” the image. This style presents endless possibilities, both in the natural and man- made world.

Reflections can be used to wonderful effect within a composition, and they are found everywhere. Still pools of water, no matter how small, add accents within a scene, helping to set off the main subject. Larger bodies of water often produce fascinating reflections and can become a subject in and of themselves. Glass surfaces often mirror nearby structures, and multi-windowed structures, when the light is correctly used, can become fantastic reflecting screens, illuminating nearby subjects.

A personal vision

These days I want a certain amount of mystery and metaphor in my personal work. Total abstraction generally fails for me, as does absolute realism. When an image is completely abstract, it appears disjointed, becoming far too personal, offering little to attract a viewer’s attention. At the other end of the spectrum, harsh realism is simply a form of documentation, and reveals nothing about the photographer’s philosophy.

Compositional possibilities run a wide gamut, and this spectrum is virtually limitless, as are the various styles and techniques available. As with all aspects of the photographic process, it depends completely on individual photographers, and on which methodologies they choose to pursue.

About the Author

Steve Mulligan
Steve Mulligan has published four black-and- white and two color books, and is sole photographer for seven calendars. His latest book, The Art of Composition, will be released in early 2008. He was featured in the Professional Photographer's Showcase at Epcot Center. This article is adapted from his book Black and White Photography, A Practical Guide.