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Image composition – learning to see compositions

Image composition – learning to see compositions

How can we create images that draw us in? An important aspect of this is certainly the image’s composition. Image composition is the arrangement or position of various elements of the picture within the photograph. Personally, I don’t think much of established rules such as the golden ratio or the rule of thirds. Images are often much more complex and require more than just putting an element of the picture in the “correct” position. That being said, the rules are certainly helpful if you want to set yourself a fresh challenge.

In this blog post, on the other hand, I’ll go into more detail about specific images and how to approach them. So, you get an impression of the creative possibilities and how I make decisions with respect to image composition.

Layers compositions

Let’s start with a rather simple image composition. For the snow image, my goal was to separate the different glacial and rocky hills from one another. I waited for the right light until the edges contrasted with one another the most. This creates a graphic division between the foreground and the background. The eye is directed from the bottom right upwards, where it then zigzags to the background. This division makes it possible to simplify parts of the picture that can sometimes be complex, while at the same time emphasising the difference in textures and surfaces. On the right and left-hand sides, as well as at the top and the bottom, the parts of the picture are balanced with respect to their complexity, providing harmony as a result.

How much space do I allocate to which parts of the picture?

Mountain lake
Mountain lake composition

Things become more complex when even more space becomes visible in the image. In a very wide-angle image, ensuring the image is clear and alluding to the main subject is especially challenging. In this mountain lake image, I attempted to use the melted stream so that it enters the image diagonally from the corners. The leading lines allow the eye to move backwards and into the centre of the lake. This puts the striking end of the melted snow directly under the mighty Bernese Alps and their reflection – the main subject of the image. This was what the viewer’s attention needed to be drawn to.

What and where is my main subject?

Mountains in fog
Mountains in fog composition

If there is too much going on in an image, there is a creative opportunity of covering individual image elements by the atmosphere and thus simplifying the image. These parts of the image are called negative space. The idea is to fill part of the picture with “emptiness”, where the eye can rest. This also reinforces the focus on the main subject. Here I used the fog as negative space so as to not overload the image. I broke through the diagonals of the mountain flanks and by doing so only allowed the layers of the planes in the upper part of the picture into the distance. The intersecting diagonal lines allow you to add even more drama to the composition.

Which parts of the image do I cover or not show?

Tree composition

In this example of a tree in a cliff, I reinforce the sense of isolation surrounding the subject again. All the lines go directly, or at least in parallel, up towards the tree – so that the focus is clearly placed on it. Here, too, we need a clear subdivision of the image planes. In this way, the front plane is highly structured, contrasted and rather dark, while the back plane is soft and bright.

How do I separate parts of the picture from one another?

Glacier composition

Unlike in the other images, the subject here takes up almost the entire image space. The glacier surrounds the viewer, and the narrowness of the cave becomes palpable. This is achieved by emphasizing the spatiality, which the jagged edges at the top of the picture reinforce and give some insight into. The light at the end is ultimately the focus of the image (bright parts of the image draw the eye) – although it carries no image information. Rather than taking a small part of the picture and drawing attention to it, here it is about looking around the space itself.

What role does the image space play?

Glacier composition

The last composition I would like to show you is a view of a glacier. When photographing, I made sure to take as much of the spatiality out of the picture as possible in order to emphasise the cracks. Two parallel diagonal lines isolate the key image elements within the image space. These are then broken through by the strong vertical lines of the cracks. This emphasises the tension in the ice and the depth of the cracks.

Can and do I want to simplify the composition?

To sum up, there is no answer or recipe for the perfect image composition. However, it is best to ask what the main subject of the image is and how the viewer is led towards or away from it. You have to ask yourself many of the compositional questions right when you’re shooting. Where are which parts of the image? Why does something belong in the picture while something else doesn’t? What should I perhaps even cover up or leave out? How can the atmosphere and mood help me

The more that is perceived and the more that takes place intuitively, the more the focus can be on getting creative work done. Like so much in life, it’s a matter of paying attention

I hope my tips will help you make progress and bring you inspiration for many interesting shots. Have fun!



Andri Laukas is an artist and teacher from Switzerland. Using a variety of artistic interventions, he creates spaces for a dialogue about our own experiences of the world. He often uses irritations to send viewers on new paths of enquiry. He also gives workshops, for example in landscape photography.


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