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What is Composition in Photography and How Does it Tell a Story? 

What is Composition in Photography and How Does it Tell a Story? 

What is Composition in Photography and How Does it Tell a Story? 

Composition exists in an interesting limbo between complex and simple. While it’s a term that refers to how multiple elements interact together, the possibilities for beautiful results are endless.

Composition in photography is one of your most reliable tools for telling interesting stories or capturing the viewer’s attention. Everything from the position of an element to its color or shade will change the composition. While this subtlety may seem daunting, strong composition is a skill you can learn with a little practice. 

This tool is a powerful foundation that’ll help you tell compelling stories that change the trajectory of people’s lives. I’m going to break down what composition is, why it matters, and how to use it effectively in your portfolio. 

Source Image: Pixabay

Table Of Contents: 

  1. Introduction
  2. What is Composition?
  3. What Does Composition Mean in Photography?
  4. What are Types of Composition Used in Photography?
  5. Conclusion: Composition Is The Foundation of Inspiring and Engaging Photography

a museum visitor in a red dress sitting on a bench and looking at a row of classical paintings with striking compositions

Source Image: Pixabay

What is Composition? 

Composition is an artistic term that applies not just to photography, but also to illustration, graphic design, and music. Simply put, a composition is how different elements work together in a greater whole.

I’ll break down how composition appears in different art forms so you can get a general sense of the concept.


Have you ever looked at an illustration and found yourself unable to turn away? You may have fallen in love with a showstopping composition. 

Illustrators use subjects and backgrounds to guide the viewer’s eye and communicate a story. This process is highly methodical, manifesting in thumbnails or rough drafts to set the stage for the rest of the process. 

Graphic Design

While illustration focuses more on subjects, graphic design is the art of combining visuals with typography. Photography frequently overlaps with graphic design by providing said visuals.

Graphic design’s nature as a promotional medium for businesses means it needs to be understood at a glance. These messages can be “Buy this!” or “Don’t do this!”. A strong composition for graphic design may use blank space or bold color to immediately direct the viewer’s gaze. 


A particularly satisfying element of listening to music is enjoying how all the instruments blend together in harmony. Musical composition may be fundamentally different from the visual medium of photography, but the same principles apply.

Music also relies on comparing and contrasting different elements together. For example, a rock song that goes from a hook to a dynamic guitar solo is showcasing composition. The repetition in the hook paves the way for the rise and fall of the solo, providing a pleasing contrast for the listener. 


A fashionable look is like an illustration in motion. Just like painting a picture or snapping a photo, the entire outfit requires different elements to balance each other out. 

For example, a bright hat can be a focal point of an adult woman’s outfit in a fashion magazine. Her dark jacket and dress are then the supporting details of the composition. 


Yes, written words contain composition, too! Think about the last time you read a really good book – who was the main character, the supporting characters, and the background characters?

These characters alone are composed using composition fundamentals such as what’s the focus and what’s not. This arrangement helps tell a story with memorable themes, preventing you from being confused on who you’re reading about and why you should be invested. Other details such as pacing and wordflow contribute to the overall composition of the novel. 

Photography composition can be tricky since your subjects are not always in your control. On the other hand, this dynamic and surprising nature is also the thrill of snapping a great photo.

a blue, orange, and black sparrow fluttering against a lavender backdrop to eat yellow berries

Source Image: Pixabay

What Does Composition Mean in Photography? 

Now that you have a broad idea of what composition is, let’s look at how it applies to photography. Applying a strong composition is a skill you can do instantaneously or chip away at for days. 

Telling a Story Using Every Element in the Photo

The main goal of composition is to use every element in your photo to tell a compelling story or invoke a strong emotion. Details like focal point, background, and supporting elements all refer to elements in your photo.

Creating a Pleasing Visual Balance

When learning composition, you’ll sometimes hear terms like ‘letting the picture breathe’. This term refers to how the different elements of your photo need a little blank space. 

This blank space functions by giving your eye a break as it roams around. 

Avoiding Confusion On Behalf of the Viewer 

If you have too many subjects competing for attention in the photo, the viewer can be confused or even turned off. 

Your photography composition tells the viewer what to look at, when, and why. 

a vivid photograph of orange and yellow trees in autumn overseeing a winding trail

Source Image: Pixabay

What are Types of Compositions Used in Photography? 

There are many tried-and-true methods for improving composition in photography. I’ll list the most common techniques below as well as provide visual examples.

a green, orange, and black striped frog sitting beneath a green leaf in the rain

Source Image: Pixabay

Rule of Thirds Helps You Combine Elements Naturally

Rule of thirds is a useful grid in photography for taking some of the work off your shoulders. This tool automatically creates a more pleasing composition through an almost mathematical approach.

This technique involves using multiple squares to help you arrange a composition. Any element in the photo that intersects with one of the lines is an element you should keep. To contrast, any element that’s inside one of the squares is often too extreme or imbalanced. Most photographers will use the rule of thirds to place focal points in the second and third left or right squares. 

Rule of thirds mimics how the human eye perceives the world, creating a visual irregularity that feels more natural. Your ability to tell a story is heightened by meeting your viewer halfway and helping them understand which elements are most important in a photo.

Below is an example of how rule of thirds helps create pleasing, breathable compositions. 

a green, orange, and black striped frog sitting beneath a green leaf in the rain with rule of thirds

Notice how the subject as well as the leaves intersect with the lines rather than sitting entirely inside a square. This irregularity helps the entire photo feel as natural as if you’ve glimpsed the frog in the wild yourself.

a distant shot of a lighthouse on a rocky hill next to the ocean against a bright blue sky

Source Image: Pixabay

Leading Lines Offer Another Way to Determine the Focal Point 

Another way to help the viewer’s eye travel and settle on a focal point is using leading lines. Leading lines provide a visual aid to help you determine which elements in your photo are directing the viewer to the focal point.

As a photographer, you’re consistently anticipating where the viewer will be looking first. If you’re not sure how to direct their eye yet, you can use leading lines before or after snapping a shot. You can also imagine these lines as you take new photos, since much of photography involves training your photographic eye.

Below is another example of how leading lines can help you use surrounding elements to guide the viewer’s eye. 

a distant shot of a lighthouse on a rocky hill next to the ocean against a bright blue sky with leading lines

Notice how the slopes of the rocky hills lead up to the lighthouse, the focal point of the photograph. Your eyes immediately snap to where they need to be.

an example of depth of field showcasing a blueberry pastry on a wooden board

Source Image: Pixabay

Depth of Field Guides the Viewer’s Eye Naturally 

Helping the viewer approach your photo naturally means replicating how the human eye works. Just like the rule of thirds builds on our desire for irregularity, depth of field replicates how our eyes focus or don’t focus on a subject.

Depth of field involves blurring and sharpening the subject and the background. This effect guides the eye and creates the illusion of a subject being ‘closer’ or ‘further’ from the viewer. For example, if an object or a person is far away from you, you may squint in an attempt to see better. Think of depth of field as the metaphorical squinting of your camera.

Depending on where you want the viewer looking first, you can choose different depth of field techniques. A narrow (or shallow) depth of field makes the subject very sharp while the background is blurred out. To contrast, a wide depth of field makes both the subject and the background sharper, encouraging the viewer to look at a little bit of everything. 

Your composition becomes stronger when you use depth of field to guide their eye toward whatever subject is telling your story.

an example of color in composition showcasing a red lily on yellow and blue water

Source Image: Pixabay

Color Does Wonders to Balance Out a Photo

Placement isn’t the only factor in a photo’s composition – color does wonders for helping the viewer focus on certain areas over the other. The contrast you choose with colors will automatically balance out elements in your composition.

Hot and cold colors are a great example of balancing out your photo. For example, if everything in your photo is red, the viewer might not be sure what to look at first. Adding in a blue or green element in the photo will automatically direct their eye to what’s creating contrast. Consider the photo above – would the red flower stand out as much if the background was also red?

Saturated and desaturated colors are another way of creating balance. Saturation refers to how intense a color is. Compare this to desaturated colors, which are more muted or even grayish. If you took a photo of a bed of vividly purple flowers, you could add a desaturated element to balance it out. This element could be a gray rock or a brown bench.

When the human eye spots contrast, our natural inclination is to ask questions and search for more. 

a macbook sitting on a white desk showing a photograph being edited in photoshop

Source Image: Pixabay

Post Production Lets You Edit and Improve Further 

Creating a strong composition doesn’t end with the camera. Post production in modern software allows you to improve your photo further with a slew of handy tool sets. 

Let’s say you took a photo of a plate of food, but the composition seems…lacking somehow. The focal point isn’t immediately clear and you want to help direct the viewer’s eye to the plate. You can achieve a better composition by cropping the photo until it hits a more satisfying intersection on the rule of thirds. 

Other tools you can use are blurring or sharpening to simulate depth of field. If you weren’t able to achieve your ideal depth with your camera, you can manually sharpen the subject and blur the background in your photo editing program. 

an example of framing in photography composition showcasing an arch of red apples in an orchard

Source Image: Pixabay

Conclusion: Composition Is The Foundation of Inspiring and Engaging Photography 

While all the different tools and tricks can seem overwhelming, composition has one main purpose – telling your story in the most engaging and striking way.

Composition is the art of arranging elements together to tell a story. Just like no ingredient in a cake exists alone, no element in your composition exists alone. Everything from your subject to surrounding details to the background, quite literally, build the bigger picture. 

Tried-and-true techniques of creating balanced and pleasing compositions in photography are rule of thirds, leading lines, and color contrast. You can also edit your composition using photo editing tools. 

When you learn the art of composition, the possibilities for your craft become literally endless.

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