Photography/History Vocabulary: Definition of Composition

Welcome to Photography/Photo History Vocabulary, a section dedicated to the understand of the verbal communication of photography. Some words and their meanings can be hard to decipher from one another or theoretical words can be difficult to grasp all together. This section will help readers understand each word in an easy manner.This weeks word is composition.

Definition of Composition

  • A putting together of parts or elements to form a whole; a combining.

This post focuses on the definition of composition. As noted above, a composition is the putting together of parts or elements to form a whole; this means the it is made up of every element inside the picture frame.

For example, the photograph below is an image by Henri Cartier-Bresson taken in India. The elements inside the frame include four female figures, a flat landscape filled with trees and water and in the distance, mountains and clouds fill the top of the frame. The way these elements are arranged inside the picture frame create the overall arrangement of the photograph. The women in the foreground, the flat land in the middle ground with the mountains and clouds in the background creates the basic composition.

In terms of a photograph, the composition or arrangement of elements would be changed based on exactly where the photographer points his or her lens. It is common for a photographer takes multiple photographs of a scene and then prints the image with the most successful arrangement of elements. The arrangement of elements in the photograph is important because it is the most basic way the message of the photograph is being transmitted.

In the photograph below, Catier-Bresson has meticulously arranged each element inside his frame. Take for instance, the women in the foreground. There is almost equal distance between the woman on the left and the left side of the fame as there is distance between the woman on the right and the right side of the frame. The tallest woman with her arms outstretched is placed just slightly left of center. Her fingertips seem to touch the clouds. The heads of the other women appear to be pointed in the direction of the woman’s hands. These subtle gestures give a general feeling to the photograph, it seems the woman with outstretched hands is making a statement about the grandeur of nature and the other women are listening intently.  Furthermore, the mountains and clouds in the distance insure the entire surface of the photograph is alive with visual information. I would argue these elements are the reason Cartier-Bresson chose to print and publish this photograph. These elements have come together at just the right moment to communicate a message to the viewer.

cartier-bresson photograph

Compositions can be understood more completely when the image is cut down the middle, either vertically or horizontally. The photograph below has been cropped in the center horizontally. Viewing the photograph with the line in the center makes it very clear that there are darker blacks in the bottom of the frame, as well as more visual information. This is a common way to organize the elements because it places all the visual weight at the bottom of the frame. This is what the human mind understands as stable, no chaos and no stress. If most of the visual information was in the top half of the photograph it would seem top heavy and un-proportional. (Chaos and wrong proportions can be used to make an interesting arrangement, it just would not be effective for this photograph.)

The composition can also be cropped vertically which you see below. From drawing a line down the center of the frame in this manner, we can see that the center line runs down the back of the woman producing the action in the shot. The dominant side of the photograph when divided vertically is the left side. For some this is quite natural, for other it is not. We tend to read art the same way we read words on a written page. For many this mean they read from right to left and top to bottom. In some Asian countries, however, they read from right to left. As the artist is French it would be most natural for him to create a work that is read from left to right. Thus, he has put the action on the left-hand side. The women on the right are looking to the left and there is less visual information on the right. On the left side of the frame there are multiple figures. The woman sitting is looking up at the woman who is holding her hands out. In the middle ground, the landscape is filled with trees, structures and a river. On the right and side, as I stated above, the women direct their attention to the left and the middle ground contains mostly trees with a few visible structures. This compositional strategy creates a loop. We first see the left-hand side because the eye is attracted to the visual information on that side. Then the eye moves on to the right where the turned heads of the two ladies direct the eye back to the left. These are the two most basic strategies for examining a composition in more detail.

vertical composition

At times people who are breaking down a composition to understand an image more fully consider the placement of basic shapes in the image. Below is another reproduction where I have drawn in the lines to create the basic shapes. Seeing the shapes drawn out shows that the photograph is primarily made up of rectangles and triangles. This shows that the photograph is cut horizontally into four sections. The number four is repeated in the number of women and the women alter between creating a triangle shape and a coffin shape. The variation of these shapes helps move the viewer’s eye through the frame and keeps it interesting. These lines also accentuate the fact that the top one-third of the photograph has been kept clear of the action in the foreground. This gives the viewer the opportunity to appreciate the same elements of nature the women in the photograph appear to be gazing at.

And there you have it, an explanation for composition. If you are still having trouble with definition or you need help evaluating your own photographic send me an e-mail at and I will be happy to help.

shape composition of a photograph
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Photography/History Vocabulary: Elements of Design
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By |2018-10-12T16:16:42-05:00March 31st, 2017|photo/photo history vocabulary|Comments Off on Photography/History Vocabulary: Definition of Composition

About the Author:

Betsy Williamson is an assistant professor of art in the state of New Mexico. Before coming to New Mexico for this job she was an adjunct professor throughout Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, teaching photography and art appreciation. Between September 2015 and May 2017, she took a break from teaching to pursue art, research and life in India. Now she is back to teaching and part-timing it in India.

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