More Compositional Elements

Composition is, again, the arrangement of all of the elements in a scene. In choosing his or her composition, a photographer decides the purpose of the photograph, what objects are being featured, and what he wants the viewer to see.

To enhance the scene certain established guidelines (or rules) have been written. One of these is the use of lines, which we have already discussed. However, there are several other helpful elements, which should be considered before taking a photograph.

Background and Foreground

The background and foreground of an image often determine its success. It is essential for a photographer to take into account all of the objects in either location and use them for their best purpose. They should make the photograph better.

A photographer enhances the effectiveness of his background or foreground by controlling its depth of field. Depth of field is the amount of objects in an image that remain in focus. Sometimes less focus works better for the photographer's goal; at other times, more focus is needed.

The photographer's type of lens and choice of aperture greatly control depth of field. A change in aperture is the easiest way to alter it. For this, remember the rules! A larger aperture (such as F2.8) gives less depth of field; a smaller one (like F16) gives more. Generally speaking, the closer an object is to the camera the less depth of field you will have (as in macro photography). This makes your choice of focal point very important.

Another effective method to control the background and foreground is to adjust one's stance. I mentioned this when talking about lines, but it bears repeating. Many times by walking forward or backward, shifting to either side, or raising or lowering the camera, you can achieve a better background or foreground in an image. This is the method I actually use the most.

This Mute Swan photograph is one of my favorite examples. Standing over the swan at normal height, the background was the ugly grass and dirty lake's edge. However, by stooping down, I brought the city buildings into view and created what is for me an iconic image of that town.

This water lily image is another example. To take it, I deliberately chose where to stand, placing the fountain's falling water directly behind the flower.


Every photographer must watch for distracting background or foreground elements and include any enhancing ones. Doing this should become a habit. I know it is the first thing I look at before snapping the shutter. At first, it does seem time consuming to constantly pause and look around. However, after a while, it becomes natural. And trust me, it will make a difference in the ultimate quality of your work.

Negative Space

Another compositional element to think about is the amount of negative space. Negative space is the empty area around an object. The placement of negative space in a photograph, in fact, decides the importance of the main object.

To see this, look at this photograph of the moon. The majority of the image is blank (or negative) space. The small crescent of the moon in reality takes up little of the image, yet the negative area is essential to the feel of the photograph.


The iconic single tree in an empty field is the most common example of use of negative space. However, there are many other uses. Still life photography is one. Study any product advertisement and notice how what is NOT in the image often makes it more effective. A single hamburger sitting on the plate with a plain background speaks louder than one with people's arms and hands, dirty napkins, and even silverware in it.

Negative space also comes into play when photographing moving objects. With a moving object, the photographer must pay attention to the direction in which said object is moving. Most often, the best use of negative space is to place it as an area for the object to move into.

This is because of the natural thinking process of a viewer. When an object, take a car for instance, seems to "hit" the forward edge of a photograph, it often feels as if it is about to crash into something. (Moving objects are not the only things this element affects. A long road winding between forest trees, can seem cut off, without anywhere for it to "go.") By leaving negative space, in this case the racetrack the car is on, before it, you give the car proper visual placement.

Size and Perspective

Size and perspective are third compositional element. The size and perspective of a photograph's main object comes directly through the placement of the objects in the image. Altering these each affect the photograph's final result.

The best way to learn this is to exaggerate a bit. Think of an aerial shot of a city. Seen from thousands of feet overhead, people seem like ants. The longer distance changes the perspective of the viewer. Instead of noticing the details of individual people, the viewer is forced to think of the city as a whole.

Now, think now of a low-angle shot. Here, the photographer is close to the ground with his lens pointed skyward. (Trees and buildings are used frequently for this type of shot.) The low angle of the camera's lens makes the object seem abnormally large or unusually tall. Both viewpoints, the aerial view and the low angle, are the result of the compositional choice of the photographer. He thought of what he wanted to achieve and then placed himself to achieve it.


Macro photography uses size and perspective. Here, a small object, one often overlooked, enlarges to a perspective someone can better appreciate. A spider becomes an incredible creature. Everyday objects give new fascination. A tiny raindrop contains an entire world.


Every day I realize how much I love photography, yet it is the thinking process of photography that continually draws me back. I pick up my camera knowing my photographic choices change what others see of that location. I, in effect, control its destiny and influence their opinion of me as well as that of whatever I am photographing.

That make composition a very important, and rather cool, I think.


Suzanne Williams is a native Floridian, wife, and mother, with a penchant for spelling anything, who happens to love photography.