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

Photographers, from beginners to more experienced, are looking for ways to improve their compositions. To succeed in your research, you have to compose an image based on two things above all: light, and the relationship of forms.

Please note that I have not referred to any so-called “composition rules” because such rules are both useless and nonsense. I explain the reasons in my book, The art of photographyso I’m not going to waste time on that except to say that the best thing to do with any composition rule is to ignore it.

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

Bruce Barbaum

Once you recognize the difference between looking at light and looking at objects, you are well on your way to successful photography and composition. But this is only step 1 of a necessary 2-step effort. The second step is to see the relationship of the shapes in your camera frame.

Let’s go back to the tree on the same sunny day and find out how to turn 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 see it with the sun in front of you. Since you are standing on the shady 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 the sensor sees them as continuous entities.

Bruce Barbaum

Does this main tree have a shape – perhaps a curve in the trunk or the angle of its main branches – that is echoed by other trees nearby? If so, you’re on your way to an interesting composition. If you look closer you might notice that moving a little to the left puts the tree and a behind just far enough apart, both possessing similar shapes, so you can’t help but notice how how similar they are and how one echoes the lines of the other. In other words, you’ve created an interesting relationship between the shape of the two trees by placing your camera in a location that makes it inescapable to the viewer. If other trees have the same or very similar shapes, you have created a wonderful set of shapes by being on the shady side of all the trees and finding a location in space that accentuates the similarity of the curved trunks of the trees.

There is no “rule” for such a sophisticated vision because each photograph is unique. No other group of trees anywhere will exhibit this set of forms in this light. So instead of trying to figure out what rules you need to follow to make this composition successful, you just focus on maximizing the quality of light and visual relationships you see in this forest. In this case, you controlled the quality of the light by looking towards the sun (thereby putting all the tree trunks in the shade), and you maximized the relationships in the forest by choosing the precise location of the lens of your camera.

Bruce Barbaum

With this kind of vision and reflection, you are well on your way to successful compositions. So ignore the rules and go with understanding light (i.e. seeing light as film or sensors see it) and with the intention of optimizing the visual relationships of shapes within the framework of your camera. You may even find that cropping the image to a slightly different ratio than your camera frame further improves relationships. Dark! Don’t be limited 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 the dimensions of your camera; instead, he must conform to the stronger way of seeing.


The article is courtesy of ELEMENTS Magazine. The ELEMENTS is the monthly magazine dedicated to stylish landscape photography, insightful editorials and fluid, clean design. Inside, you’ll find exclusive, in-depth articles and images from the world’s top landscape photographers such as Charles Cramer, Christopher Burkett, Hans Strand, Rachael Talibart, Christian Fletcher, Charlie Waite and Michael E. Gordon, for n’ to name a few. Use the code PETAPIXEL10 to benefit from a 10% discount on the annual subscription.


About the Author: Bruce Barnbaum is one of the world’s foremost photographic thinkers and educators. His landmark book, “The Art of Photography, A Personal Approach to Artistic Expression”, is widely recognized as the bible of photographic thought, insight and teaching. Bruce is also known as one of the best traditional black and white darkroom printers. His work is represented by galleries in the United States and Europe and is held in the collection of museums and private collectors around the world.

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