Sometimes, it helps to take a step back from broader discussions on creativity to look at the truly fundamental elements of composition. Although there are countless elements of composition in art as a whole, this article covers the ten most important that are specific to photography – critical parts of nearly every photo you take. They’re divided into two main categories: objects, and their relationships. These are nothing less than the building blocks of creativity.
Before starting I do want to mention that we just filmed a real-world roundup of these ten elements of composition. Highly recommended if you like watching photography.
The first six elements of composition are simply different types of objects you may find in a photo, ranging from simple to complex. These elements do not depend on anything else in a photo, or upon the borders of your composition itself. Every object in your photograph exhibits these characteristics to a degree, sometimes obviously and sometimes hidden.
The simplest element of composition is a point.
Points are a bit deceptive; mathematically, they have zero dimensions. Photographically, we’re a bit more lenient. A point is just a small area of interest in a photo, or the intersection between areas of interest.
Stars in the sky in a photograph are “points,” and so is an out-of-focus light in the background. The same is true of the spot where two mountains meet one another, creating an intersection that pulls at the viewer’s eye.
Points matter in photography because they are one of the most fundamental ways to draw our attention – to add interest to a particular area.
In the photo below, what element draws your eye the most.
It is of course, the peak of the sand dune – the point. It has a gravity to it. Our eyes follow the lines of the slope and end up at the same spot.
If you’ve internalized that points can draw a viewer’s eye and attract attention, you likely have a good idea of why they are so important in photography; they help give a photo structure. But hold that thought for a minute, and return to it for the “Relationships” section later. For now, I’ll cover the next simple element of composition: lines.
In contrast to points, which draw a viewer’s attention, lines are more like a path for a viewer to follow, they are a boundary: the division between sky and ground, for example.
Like points, lines in photography are not defined as rigidly as lines in geometry. Photographically, anything that connects two parts of a photo or stretches across your composition is a line. That includes a curved road or a jagged mountain ridge, for example. Even the fuzzy, lightly defined edge of a cloud is usually a line.
Lines also serve an important function of connecting two different elements of your photo. They can give an image structure, which is a crucial part of making an image feel deliberate and intentional. A path leading from foreground to background has a way of making the image feel connected.