Rules aside, composition begins firstly with what's in front of you.

For those starting off in photography, the task is mainly looking for content and to compose that in the best way possible.  With good composition the aim, it’s rarely understood that to make a strong photograph, an interesting scene or subject requires the photographer to find and reveal its form.  ‘Compositional rules‘ are often discussed as a means to help make a photograph ‘work’ but it’s rarely noted what the arrangement of the scene’s elements is.  Distinguishing between form and compositional form should be our starting point.


“The contest between content and form – that’s the problem you state.” Gary Winogrand.

The form is a singular or collective subject(s) expressed as a shape in volume taking into account light and shadows, its three dimensions.  When it comes to composing subjects, trained artists have a set of tools to employ, with a background in sketching and sculpture they have an innate ability to distil from chaos.  Hours of reductive sketching have heightened their sensibilities to recognise and shape a subject to find a composition and make an interesting image.

The human brain can assimilate a multitude of visual clues in three dimensions including beyond the area of the immediate subject in front of us.  The camera frame is a cyclops view of one narrow field that ultimately presents in 2D.  As photographers, we have to develop our ability to bridge that gap and to see how the camera’s optics ‘see’.  One approach I use for pre-visualising a scene in 2D is closing one eye to evaluate its potential before even taking the camera out of its bag.

We often arrive back home after a trip, upload our photographs and find we are underwhelmed by how they look.  No composition, certainly not as we imagined on location; they just don’t stand out or work as strong images.

Aside from technical or framing deficiencies, it’s possible that the subject made no unified sense to us as seen at the time, yet we were encouraged to continue through its suggestive offerings of colour, lines, textures and lighting.  However, the very nature of the subject’s 3D presence evaded us.  Questions we didn’t find the answers for are: did elements in the scene interlock naturally, did the main subject have an interesting shape and was it separated from the background.

Edward Weston’s pepper series shows an artist grappling with, and eventually finding the ideal form.  The famous image of the series, the one with arguably the stronger form (top), is where both the shape and lighting are in heightened synthesis revealing its split shape, central curve and in-turning top shadows.  By looking at the others in the series, we can see Weston on a journey through exposition and reflection; a mission to find form and reveal the extraordinary beauty, transcending beyond what you or I readily picked this morning without a second glance. One can just imagine the revelatory moment when he saw the negative and contact print.

When we cannot find form, it may be less a case of not looking, but that some subjects simply inhibit good photography.  I’m reminded here of lobster pots stacked in rows which routinely challenge the best photographer to make sense of them.  Another is nets and rope on the quayside. Appealing to the eye but the combination of shadows, highlights and randomness would challenge even the sketcher with creative licence to magic up something. We can’t in truth make great images from everything that looks appealing to us at the time, (although we could get closer to that goal if we were able to arrange every scene). In these moments we could refrain from attempting to make a photograph.

Of course, not all scenes are static with one or two subjects.  Many have disparate elements in fluidity which require the photographer to find what I would call compositional form; drawing associations and striking a balanced alignment.  Being able to highlight visual connections in a busy scene to a point of coherence, is often the preserve of landscape photographers specialising in wider vistas and street photographers.

In this photograph made by Ansel Adams, form is primarily found through the choice of location, camera position, time of day (lighting) and atmospheric conditions.  Adam’s relatively unflashy framing belies the thinking that precedes it.  The ‘water cycle’ narrative mirrored by the visual flow left to right, is an extraordinary example of an artist deeply embedded in finding form.  Without the clouds the image would be incomplete yet how many photographers following in his footsteps arrive at this Yosemite view and leave contented but without clouds in their photo.  Adam’s landscape work is perhaps unique in bringing the full force of grand vista form to the viewer’s attention.

In not discussing the rules of composition we are instead placing the emphasis on what is actually in front of us.  Of course, form is also dependent on framing and what we choose to leave out.  In street photography, the continual movement of people means the photographer has to be continually alert as the form is gained, lost and reclaimed in moments. 

In this photo by Josef Koudelka, the form is provided by the road edge and position of the boy relative to the two groups.  Koudelka has both been able to structure the spatial discontinuity via the boy as a visual intermediary and providing a connection, as well as developing a narrative of what his role will be; head of the family, protector or a future outsider. 

Making visual connections that enable a narrative is made through the photographer initially finding form. As in Adam’s photograph which points to the narrative of our climate, it’s about recognising on location what the image subtext is and what its meaning will most likely be.