Composition in Photography – One Point of View

Humans learn to speak correctly by repeating what they hear, and during the process they automatically and unconsciously develop “an ear for correct grammar” naturally. I’ll bet you don’t leave many dangling participles, even though only a few English majors know exactly what that means. I propose that composition, particularly composition in photography, is learned the same way.

You can learn how to walk a tightrope from a book, but you cannot learn how to not fall off. Photographic composition is similar. It’s difficult to learn or teach using words. Nigh on impossible. At least, that’s my opinion.

It’s not unusual for someone to sidestep a dangling preposition without knowing what they’ve done. Think how many times you’ve heard people phrase or rephrase a statement in a strange way to avoid breaking a rule of grammar they cannot explain.

People follow the rules of grammar without being able to articulate or explain the rules. Same goes for composition.

People develop “an eye for composition” naturally. With practice, photographers avoid visual gaffs. Photographers can follow the rules of composition and master the techniques without being to articulate or explain exactly what they are.

Street in Denver. I didn’t see the strong repeating S patterns until they were pointed out to me later, long after I had decided this is a good image that looked even better in monochrome. ©Jon Sienkiewicz

The Rule of Thirds, Leading Lines, Negative Space and all of the other textbook descriptions of art were followed long before they were explained or labeled.

My advice to you, the photographer, is leave the structural, compositional analysis to others and capture what looks good to your eye. Examine and treasure the images created by other photographers and visual artists without dissecting the pictures into arbitrary component elements.

I know I’m going to catch a lot of flak for my opinion. That’s why I wear asbestos underwear.

Here are more photos that I think are good. You may disagree. There’s lots of compositional stuff going on in each of these, but I honestly swear that when I perceived and captured the images, the only thought in my head was how they looked to my eye. I didn’t reach into a textbook and apply a rule. It was just See – Like – Snap.

—Jon Sienkiewicz



Is my theory valid for street photography? I think it’s more valid for street photography than any other genre. This was shot in New York Soho. ©Jon Sienkiewicz