I have a friend who paints, and the other day we were discussing composition from our differing viewpoints, her as a painter and me as a photographer. She told me about something that she had read recently, namely that there is a connection between musical composition and visual composition through the mathematical principles of Pythagoras. I have no idea about the details here, having never read up on this myself, but I’m very fascinated by this idea of a connection between music and photography.

It does make sense; after all, we use the same word to describe the creation of both types of art. While I listen to music a lot, I have no musical training. In other words, I enjoy the end result, but have no insight into the principles behind how the notes and instruments are put together to produce what I enjoy listening to.

In photography, I am beginning to get a feel for the principles behind composing an image. I have written before on the elements of design; in the following I review my favourite images from the last three months in order to highlight the compositional techniques I use both consciously and unconsciously.

I use portrait or landscape orientation as the subject warrants; far more interesting to me is my fondness for square images. I believe my interest in composing square images stems from my love affair with medium format film, and I almost always have a square crop when I shoot with my cellphone, since many of the camera effects on my phone are intended to mimic Lomography medium format type of images. When shooting with my dSLR, I find that it can be an interesting challenge to think in squares since the viewfinder, after all, shows me a rectangle.

I have used a square crop more rarely during the last few months. I think this is because I have started to use a fixed focal length lens (24mm 1:2,8). This lens is forcing me to compose my images much more deliberately in terms of the rectangular frame  shown in the viewfinder, since I have to ‘zoom with my feet’ instead of using the lens to get closer to my subject.

I’ve mentioned before that my subjects tend to be still lifes and details. I notice now that I rarely fill the frame with these objects. Rather, I tend to place them somewhere along the lines defined by the rule of thirds. This leaves a lot of space around my subject, which is filled by bokeh or other background parts of the scene. Clearly, this is a compositional approach that works for me at the moment.


Square crop, shot with my cellphone. Love all the eerie green empty space here.

Stillness in the sun

Focus on the bench, but lots of light-filled space in front of it to give the viewer an impression of what it is like to sit down there.

{46/365} Early morning breakfast [B/W November 15]

Lots of dark space in the top part of the image, to give illustrate the darkness of early morning.

Having highlighted a compositional approach that tends to recur in my shooting, I am also able to spot interesting new angles to explore, namely filling the frame and centered compositions. The latter was a prompt in Picture Summer; I ended up with this image, but found it a difficult exercise to deliberately center my subject, and one I haven’t repeated much since, choosing rather to leave it until the time is right.


About Jenny Graver

Living in Oslo, Norway, with her partner and their infant son, Jenny struggles for balance between all the things that makes life worth living - her family, her job in university administration, her writing, learning and her photography. View all posts by Jenny Graver

4 responses to “Composition

  • Marji

    I love your post. So true about having to get a feel for composing the image on the spot rather than back at the computer. I too love square format but don’t think that way when I compose when I shoot. Its all done after the fact. I like your idea of challenging yourself to think square format composition while looking at a rectangle. Your photos are lovely examples.

  • Kat

    I love all of the space you naturally leave in your photos. It gives room for the viewer to rest or move into, room for the imagination. It focuses you clearly on the subject, but in some context.

    I’ve read that centered composition works especially well with square format, so it’s interesting your centered flower photo is square.

    It is really hard to define a different “format” when looking through a rectangular viewfinder, we are so influenced by the edges of the viewfinder frame. I think you must have great visualization skills. I wonder if there is an “aid” to help you see square at the time of composing? Probably, one can find almost anything on the web. 🙂

  • Jessica

    I really enjoy your reflective posts! I hadn’t thought about looking back through my images for a “type” of composition — but of course, how better to learn than to really notice what you’ve been doing?

    I’ve shied away from square frames and centered composition — mostly because I think I read somewhere that they were “boring.” I’d say you have challenged that idea!

  • Jan

    Great insight! Whatever you’re doing, it works. Your photos naturally draw me. I hadn’t taken the time to think through that it’s a compositional thing, but now, after reading your thoughts, I’m almost certain that’s what it is. I really appreciate this; it gives me more to mull over.

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