The Key Elements of Composition: Light and the Relationships of Forms

Bruce Barnbaum

Photographers, from beginners to the most experienced, search for ways to improve their compositions. To be successful in your search, you have to compose an image based on two things above all else: light, and the relationships of forms.

Please note that I did not refer to any so-called “rule of composition” because such rules are both useless and absurd. I explain the reasons in my book, The Art of Photography, so I won’t waste time on it here, except to say that the best thing to do with any rule of composition is to ignore it.

Light is the key to composition because the only thing that film or digital sensors see are levels of light, not objects. To understand the difference, let’s choose an example everyone can relate to such as a single tree in a forest or grove of trees. Take a sunny day with the sun behind your left shoulder as you look at the tree. You’ll see sunlight hitting the trunk primarily on the left side, and you’ll see shadows on the trunk cast by other trees, or even the branches of the tree in question. You’ll see the trunk as a continuous, solid entity, rising up from the ground, because that’s exactly what it is! But the film or digital sensor sees a discontinuous set of brighter and darker blotches. Nothing about it is continuous. Furthermore, there is nothing you can do to make the film or sensor see it as a continuous entity, so you have to learn to see it as the film or sensor sees it.

Bruce Barnbaum

Once you recognize the difference between looking at light as opposed to looking at objects, you’re on your way to successful photography and composition. But that’s just Step 1 of a necessary 2-Step effort. The second step is seeing the relationship of forms within the frame of your camera.

Let’s go back to the tree on the same sunny day and figure out how to make the trunk (when seen as an object) into something the film or sensor sees as a continuous object. My suggestion is to walk to the other side of the tree and view it with the sun in front of you. As you’re standing on the shaded side of the tree and all the other trees in front of you, all the tree trunks are in the shade. Now the film or sensor sees them as continuous entities.

Bruce Barnbaum

Does that prime tree have a form – perhaps a curve in the trunk or the angle of its main branches – that is echoed by other trees in the vicinity? If so, you’re on your way toward an interesting composition. If you look more carefully, you may notice that moving to the left a little bit puts the tree and one behind it just far enough apart, with both possessing similar shapes, so that you can’t help noticing how similar they are and how one echoes the lines of the other. In other words, you’ve produced an interesting relationship between the form of the two trees by placing your camera in a location that makes it unavoidable for the viewer. If other trees exhibit the same or closely similar forms, you’ve created a wonderful set of forms by being on the shaded side of all the trees and finding a location in space that emphasizes the similarity of the curving trunks of the trees.

There is no “rule” for such sophisticated seeing because every photograph is unique. No other group of trees, anywhere, will exhibit that set of forms under that lighting. So, instead of trying to find the rules you have to follow to make that successful composition, you simply concentrate on maximizing the quality of light and the visual relationships you see in that forest. In this case you’ve controlled the quality of light by looking toward the sun (thereby putting all the tree trunks in shade), and you’ve maximized the relationships in the forest by choosing the precise location of your camera lens.

Bruce Barnbaum

With that type of seeing and thinking, you’re well on your way to successful compositions. So ignore rules, and go with understanding light (i.e., seeing light the way film or sensors see it) and with the intent of optimizing the visual relationships of forms within your camera frame. You may even find that cropping the image to a slightly different ratio than that of your camera frame further enhances the relationships. Go for it! Don’t be bound by the shape of the camera, whether it’s 2×3 or 4×5 or 6×6 or whatever. The final image does not have to conform to your camera dimensions; instead, it has to conform to the strongest way of seeing.

The article courtesy of ELEMENTS Magazine. The ELEMENTS is the monthly magazine dedicated to elegant landscape photography, insightful editorials and fluid, clean design. Inside you will find an exclusive and in-depth articles and imagery by the best landscape photographers in the world such as Charles Cramer, Christopher Burkett, Hans Strand, Rachael Talibart, Christian Fletcher, Charlie Waite, and Michael E. Gordon, to name a few. Use the PETAPIXEL10 code for a 10% discount off the annual subscription.

About the author: Bruce Barnbaum is one of the most prominent photographic thinkers and educators in the world. His iconic book, “The Art of Photography, A Personal Approach to Artistic Expression,” is widely recognized as the bible of photographic thought, insight and instruction. Bruce is also known as one of the finest black and white traditional darkroom printers. His work is represented by galleries in the United States and Europe and is in the collection of museums and private collectors worldwide.