What is Composition?

Composition is the bane of my existence when it comes to photography. It’s the one thing I struggle over and over when taking pictures. I’ve mentioned this before over and over that I’m not an artistic person at all, and I struggle with composition constantly. Having said that, it doesn’t mean I don’t know what it is, or that I can’t recognize good composition. I can.

In this post I’ll be covering a few basic guidelines of composition. Before learning about composition though, make sure you understand the fundamentals of photography when it comes to exposure and light. Wikipedia says:

Composition is the placement or arrangement of visual elements or ingredients in a work of art or a photograph, as distinct from the subject of a work. It can also be thought of as the organization of the elements of art according to the principles of art.

The term composition means ‘putting together,’ and can apply to any work of art, from music to writing to photography, that is arranged or put together using conscious thought. In the visual arts, composition is often used interchangeably with various terms such as design, form, visual ordering, or formal structure, depending on the context. In graphic design and desktop publishing, composition is commonly referred to as page layout.

I have seen many food photographs with amazing composition. Composition doesn’t necessarily mean cluttering your picture, sometimes simpler is bet. Most artists refer to the main subject of your photo as positive space and everything around as the negative space. Visual impact comes from both the positive and negative space of an image. Also consider how you place your subject. Do you want it in center or off center. Some off center photos are the best.

This picture I took from the top looking down. I fell in love with this picture, I loved the simplicity of it. So the plate of soup is the positive space and the rest is the negative space. This way the viewers eyes are directed to the soup bowl.

This one was taken from about a 30 degree angle. I love this picture as well, but the one from the top is more intriguing to me. As you can see I didn’t have anything else in the picture, besides the bowl of soup, not even a spoon or a place mat. But for some reason I really loved these pictures. And these pictures I took when I was first learning about photography.

A potential issue associated with shooting an off-center subject is focus. Fortunately there’s an easy fix for this. The easiest way to fix it is to take your dSLR camera off Auto focus and use Manual, aiming at your subject and adjusting the focus.

If you are composing frames with one main plate, you could place the plate in the center and other elements such as chopsticks, cutlery, off center to clearly point the viewer to the primary element, which is your plate. With one well-centered object, you can add impact to your photograph and only leave small negative space on all sides.

Rule of Thirds

I don’t want to confuse you or scare you away by talking about rule of thirds in photography, but I feel it’s important to at least know what it is, what it means and how to use it, if needed. Wikipedia says:

The rule of thirds is a “rule of thumb” or guideline which applies to the process of composing visual images such as paintings, photographs and designs. The guideline proposes that an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections. Proponents of the technique claim that aligning a subject with these points creates more tension, energy and interest in the composition than simply centering the subject would.

To simplify, if you want to implement the Rule of Thirds, divide your frame into three parts, horizontally and vertically, just like a tic-tac-toe board. An easy and simple example would be cherries falling from a basket, taking up most of your frame.

In the picture above the fallen ice  can represent Rule of Thirds composition.

A benefit of the Rule of Thirds is that it encourages the viewer’s eye to move naturally from one item to the next, depending on the placement. You can use Rule of Thirds if you’re taking pictures of fully set tables or lots of plated items. Otherwise, just know what the rule is and tuck it away and never worry about it.

Focus

Focus is important when it comes to visuals. As you start composing your frame, determine which elements will be your main focus point. The scene needs to help the viewer understand your message and have their eyes go to the dominant element directly. Sometimes it can be difficult to pick one center of interest especially when your composition is a bunch of muffins, or a few cupcakes, but keep in mind that what you want to do is describe the scene with just one shot, so select a focus point toward the middle.

Perspective

This is a bit of a touchy subject. I’m sure you’ve seen photographs of lasagnas or grilled cheese sandwiches, taken really up close, and all you see is a fork with some melted cheese, making it hard to sometimes understand what the photograph is of. I agree that some of these pictures are great and I can see the appeal of them, I mean we all love melting cheese, but sometimes you might want to keep a wider perspective to be able to capture more of the food and its texture. Though I understand why photographers do it, and I’ve seen how popular these pictures can get, so I guess sometimes you could say that picking a perspective for how you shoot your dish is a matter of personal taste.

For example in the picture of the chicken egg roll above, I picked a tighter setting for the shot because I thought it was important to show inside filling of the egg roll. I could have gotten closer, but the picture may not have looked too appetizing.

A wide perspective sometimes is great to show more of the scenery surrounding the dish being photographed. However, I do use my macro lens a lot because I love it and I love the quality of the pictures.

Comments

  1. Bless you! Thank you for reading my mind and providing some insight to this topic. Most of my Foodgawker and Tastespotting rejections are about “composition…too tight”. I am the least artistic person on earth. I’ve been better with lighting, I think, but I don’t know how to style and put things together.

    • I’m with you there Lalaine. I truly hate the word composition, but as I said, resubmit the pics again and you never know, they might get accepted.

  2. Thanks you make quite a read. I loved your explanation.

  3. I have been looking at a lot of resources about styling and composition. It’s the part of photography that I struggle the most with, but it’s fun to learn. Thanks for the tips!

  4. Kudos for tackling this subject. I feel like it is hard to talk about composition, because it is one of the aspects of photography that is mostly subjective. I agree with you about the two bowls of soup, that the overhead is much more intriguing. It evokes a sense of the unknown. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  5. Thanks for the explanations Jo, very helpful and informative, I’m still learning how to make great photos :-)

  6. I was told the composition of my photo was too tight! What does that mean exactly?

    • Hi Vicky,
      This basically just means that you zoomed in too much, when you take a photo try stepping back a bit so that when you crop your pictures you have room around the plate to crop as needed.

  7. Great tips.
    Photo quality is of paramount importance to me in my new site.
    I’m excited to read more of your tips because you’re a Canadian food blogger.
    Thanks for sharing your experiences! I know what you mean about limited natural light.
    All the best,
    Raj

  8. Man is this subject I deal with every time I submit a photo to food porn sites! I can’t tell you how many times my pictures get declined due to the composition. This is a great article and a big help!

  9. Dear Jo, I just love how detailed and explanatory your posts are.
    Thanks for another great tip. I’m new to food photography and your tips have been of great help.

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