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Designing and Reading a Photograph

An Introduction to the Language of Composition and  Why It Matters





Improvised skateboard, Havana, 2009





‘A good composition underlies the picture’s content without being intrusive … Independently of content, any picture achieves visual effect through use of design elements …..  each picture always has two levels of evaluation – the level of ‘contents and statement’ with the fields of rational recognition and emotional reaction, and the level of ‘quality of organisation’ with the structure of the image and colour design. ’ (Harald Mante, ‘The Photograph’ p7-9).


It is the interrelation of subject, content and composition or design that creates impact and meaning in an image – so an awareness of the language of design (framing, cropping, line, shape, contrast, texture, the ‘rule of thirds’, line, balance, viewpoint, visual tension, etc) is a useful part of a photographer’s armoury, especially in the digital age which has given photographers a much greater potential for post-production control of their images. 


Of course, too much can be claimed for a theoretical approach to photographic composition. Some photographers have – rightly -  warned of giving too much importance to the ‘rules’ of composition: ‘Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk.’  Edward Weston.


When subject matter is forced to fit into preconceived patterns, there can be no freshness of vision. Following rules of composition can only lead to a tedious repetition of pictorial cliches.’  Edward Weston.


Understanding the relationship between practice and theory, is a matter of priorities and perspective. Undoubtedly, when we see an image we admire, our first response is not likely be that it is well-composed – more likely that it is ‘beautiful’,  ‘disturbing’, ‘amusing’, ‘ interesting’, ‘an unusual viewpoint’, ‘something different’ – in other words,  we have an emotional response. A strong image has emotional impact – it informs, educates, attracts our attention and interest. 

The most compelling images are more than a record of ‘I was here and saw this’. Instead, they become ‘I feel this way about this’. ‘I was in this place and saw it like this’. They are not acts of representation as much as they are acts of interpretation’ (David duChemin, ‘Within the Frame’, p4)


‘There is more to a fine photograph than information. We are also seeking to present an image that arouses the curiosity of the viewer or that, best of all, provokes the viewer to think - to ask a question or simply to gaze in thoughtful wonder. We know that photographs inform people. We also know that photographs move people. The photograph that does both is the one we want to see and make. It is the kind of picture that makes you want to pick up your own camera again and go to work.’  Sam Abell


Michael Freeman comments, ‘Composition is essentially organisation, the ordering of all the graphic elements inside the frame……..It is  especially important to treat basic design as a form of inquiry, an attitude of mind, and a summary of the resources available. It is not a quick fix’ (‘The Photographer’s Eye’, p33).


Freeman Patterson says that photographic design language has parallels to speech – the building blocks can be organised and combined in countless ways to achieve different effects and results – understanding design is a means to individuality, not a restriction on it. David Prakel expresses this with a wonderful analogy, ‘Photography should be like jazz – an improvisory form of music where personal expression s based on a solid structure of learned chords and chord progression’  (Composition, p8).


There is really no contradiction in saying that photography becomes instinctive – it’s just that thinking more reflectively about design can be – and arguably should be – one element in the evolution of a photographer’s instinct. ‘Influences come from everywhere but when you are actually shooting you work primarily by instinct. But what is instinct? It is a lifetime accumulation of influence: experience, knowledge, seeing and hearing. There is little time for reflection in taking a photograph. All your experiences come to a peak and you work on two levels: conscious and unconscious.’ Arnold Newman, Interviews With Master Photographers. 


I would agree that my own interest in a more theoretical approach has come after developing a practical and intuitive understanding,  both as a way of better understanding what I do and giving it a clearer future direction. Reflection on practice is perhaps the best trodden path to theory. 


An awareness of the vocabulary of design can contribute significantly to the development of an individual’s photography.  I see thousands of images every year in the critique evenings of my camera club and so many images ‘fail’ from a lack of basic understanding of compositional principles – in particular so many images are too complex and have too many elements which distract from the – potential – main theme. The basic task of selectivity has not been performed well.


‘Let us first say what photography is not……… It is not just a pretty picture, not an exercise in contortionist techniques and sheer print quality. It is or should be a significant document, a penetrating statement, which can be described in a very simple term - selectivity.’  Berenice Abbott  in 'Infinity' magazine,1951.


As a ‘street-photographer’, one my greatest influences – Henri Cartier-Bresson – stressed the importance of ‘form’, structure, composition, design in the communication of an individual’s understanding of the world and of himself:  


To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event, as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression. I believe that through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us which can mould us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between these two worlds- the one inside us and the one outside us. As the result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate. But this takes care only of the content of the picture. For me, content cannot be separated from form. By form, I mean the rigorous organisation of the interplay of surfaces, lines and values. It is in this organisation alone that our conceptions and emotions become concrete and communicable. In photography, visual organisation can stem only from a developed instinct.’ (Henri Cartier-Bresson, 'The picture history of photography: From the earliest beginnings to the present day' by Peter Pollack ,  page:155).



Reading Photographs

How individuals look at images (and create them) is an important consideration – the way a photographer structures an image will condition the way someone views it.

Harald Mante ( ‘The Photograph’) suggests that individuals ‘scan’ images in rapid, jerky movements – scanning left to right because (in the western world) that’s the way we read and from the top left downwards. The scanning ends at the point which represents the highest attraction for the viewer (which may well vary from viewer to viewer). So, for example, the ‘rule of thirds’ and other principles of harmonious composition, give general guidelines as to where the point or points of strongest interest should rest  (see detailed discussion in later section).  An image which is too full of competing areas of interest tends to be confusing and visually unsatisfactory.

Michael Freeman says that there are different types of viewing. There is spontaneous looking in which the viewer is ‘just looking’ without any particular think in mind – the gaze pattern is influenced by such factors as novelty, complexity, incongruity. The eye is attracted to things that are of interest and to parts of the picture that provide information useful for making sense of it – hence the importance of ‘design elements’ discussed in other sections. . For example, ‘visual weight’ (see section on Harmony, Balance, Tension etc) and ‘stored knowledge’ (for example, that the eyes tell us most about a person. Scientific evidence suggests that most people decide very quickly what are the most important parts of the image and carry on looking at them.

A second kind of looking is ‘task-specific’ in which the viewer begins with an ‘agenda’ – to gain information (for example, the viewer may be a naturalist  interested in the markings of a species of butterfly) rather than ‘just looking’. This has particular relevance as the experience and skill of a photographer increases and has he or she has witnessed ‘critiquing’ or judging. For example, a photographer may well look carefully at whether the image is acceptably sharp. 


David duChemin provides a brief guide to ‘attention management’ – ie what will be noticed first: Large before small; light before dark; warm before cool; focused before blurred; elements in perspective before flat; isolated before cluttered, high contrast before low contrast; oblique lines before straight lines; recognizable elements before ambiguous ones and human/alive elements before inanimate.




The Photographer's Art : Val Prudkii



All images below by Val Prudkii - a terrific American photographer based in Washington DC






















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