Composition for Photographers: Take Composition-Driven Photographs by Ian Roberts

Photography Composition Tips

Mastering Composition by Ian RobertsAre you looking for a surefire way to improve your photographs? Then it’s time to think about composition as much as you might think about the subject. Just as an artist carefully considers the compositional lines that will draw in the viewer and maintain his or her attention, photographers must give careful consideration to the design of the shapes and lines they create in their photographs. Author of Mastering Composition, Ian Roberts, draws on his thirty years of painting experience to offer great photography composition tips in his article “Composition for Photographers.” You can read an excerpt from the article below. Read the complete photography composition article in the 2015 Photographer’s Market or on

Keep creating and good luck!


Composition for Photographers: Take Composition-Driven Photographs by Ian Roberts

Composition is so fundamental to the creation of pictures that a list of the world’s greatest pictures would overlap a list of the greatest compositions in a majority of titles. Yet of all the elements in the art of painting, composition is the one least recognized by the average observer, even when it is playing a major part in his reaction to a picture.
—John Canaday

Canaday’s words apply to photographs just as much as to paintings. Your images rest on the structure of composition—whether you know it or not. Composition presents the big design, the impact we see from a distance. A few simple value masses drive that impact. Without a conscious command of composition, your work relies too heavily on technique and chance rather than on art.

I’m a painter and wrote a book, Mastering Composition, that has sold over 30,000 copies, mainly to painters. But photographers find it and tell me how much it has helped them. A photographer friend of mine, a serious amateur who attends lots of the best workshops, tells me photographers tend to focus on discussing technique, the details of how to take a better photograph technically. The why gets less attention. Composition often gets reduced to the rule of thirds, which is a useful but limited tool.

So let me present three fundamental ideas on composition. See if they don’t open possibilities for you and give you tools to pull more out of your photographs.

1.    Use the dynamics of your picture plane.
2.    Emphasize design over subject—the importance of the shapes you make.
3.    Learn how the eye is pulled within a picture and how to control it.

To pull the most out of an image consistently means using the structure of composition to help you. In that sense, better composition means better pictures. Just as painters study the masters, most of my examples will come from two masters of photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Edward Steichen. Both, as it happens, studied painting before switching to photography. They produced works that hang in the best museums, yet both were commercially successful in their day.

Using the Dynamics of the Picture Plane

How you frame your image, how you carve it off from the rest of the world, creates the four most important lines in your photograph. The boundary of your photograph acts as your playing field. That is your picture plane. Cropping an image in Photoshop allows you to strengthen the dynamics of the picture plane further. You have only that surface to capture and hold our attention. Anything not helping hold us weakens your image.
. . . .

Venus and Adonis by Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). Venus and Adonis (1635). Oil on canvas, 77¾”× 955⁄8″ (197cm × 243cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Harry Payne Bingham, 1937 (37.162), New York, New York, USA.

Peter Paul Rubens composition

Diagram 2. Rubens used the geometry of the picture plane to divide his canvas. You can see how the diagonals off the five vertical divisions of the canvas give structure and placement for the figures.

Emphasize Design Over Subject

“What counts is your eye, your sensitivity, and the strength of the shapes you make.”

“Your eye” and “the shapes you make” do not refer to finding an interesting subject, something scenic or provocative. The shapes refer to design, how the big shapes, the big value masses, are arranged on the picture plane. That requires sensitivity. That requires seeing the world as the poet Paul Veléry suggested, as if you had forgotten the name of the thing you see. Seeing simply, abstractly, as shapes. That means emphasizing design over subject.

If you photograph the recognizable world, then obviously you photograph a subject. But the vision, the art, the quality that makes a photograph stand out demand strong design. Design carries the subject, not the other way round. If you don’t impose design, then the relentless complexity of the world buries you in details.
. . . .

How the Eye Moves on the Picture Plane

The eye, complex as it is, responds to contrast. The stronger the contrast, the stronger the pull. You can separate yourself visually from your images and watch innocently how your eye gets pulled around the picture plane. Your intention may be for us to look at a face on the left, but a strong-edged contrast on the right pulls the eye there instead. You still may go to the face, but you feel your eye pulled from your intended focus. Value masses, design, and how the eye moves all depend on the quality of your edges. A dark mass won’t pull your eye if it softly gradates toward light. Hard edges of strong contrast have to be orchestrated or you will confuse the viewers about where you want them to look. I’m using black-and-white examples throughout. Color only exaggerates the need for seeing how the eye moves by contrast. Color adds the pull of saturation. Imagine a ten-step saturation scale just as you do a value scale.

Edward Steichen photograph

Edward Steichen (1879–1973), The Photographer’s Best Model – G. Bernard Shaw (1907)

Edward Steichen photograph

Diagram 3. The line in this diagram shows where our eye gets pulled by the contrasts in the photograph. The darker the line, the greater the contrast and the greater the pull.

. . . .

Each person finds themselves drawn to certain themes and designs and subjects, but the picture plane always exerts its own dynamics. Take your time finding structure. Great photographs, the ones we will be looking at a hundred years from now, rest on vision. Work that relies on novelty and shock falls away. Vision needs structure, needs order, needs clarity.

Try entertaining these three ideas. You’ll find a focus on composition translates into consistently stronger photographs.

Ian Roberts has been a professional painter for the past thirty years, showing in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. For the past fifteen years he has offered landscape painting workshops in Provence, France, as well as venues in the U.S. through his school, Atelier Saint-Luc, named after the patron saint of painters. He is the author of two books, Creative Authenticity: 16 Principles to Clarify and Deepen Your Artistic Vision and Mastering Composition: Techniques and Principles to Dramatically Improve Your Painting, published by North Light Books. He has produced two videos, Plein Air Painting and Mastering Composition. If a workshop focusing on composition in photography appeals to you, contact him through his website


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *