Little Lessons 5: Composition: Have a subject

I thought I would start looking at composition by choosing the most important and basic compositional rule:

Make sure that your photograph has a subject.

This may seem obvious, but in terms of having a well composed photograph it’s important that the viewer can work out what the subject of the picture is.

In the following picture I intended the line of birds to be the subject of the picture. There are few other distractions that will confuse the viewer about my intention. By that rule, this is a good picture.


Ask yourself what the subject of the next picture is? I know! I’m not sure either. We are often tempted to capture a view because the light is nice, or the vista is big and appealing. The simple truth though is that it will not be a good picture if the viewer is not clear about the subject. This picture fails this test and won’t be hung an anyone’s wall.


In the following picture, the subject has no ambiguity, it’s the Erskine Bridge in case you care. Subject clear – decent picture.


Obviously I’d like to pretend I didn’t take the next picture because I think it’s poorly composed; sadly though we all know I did! What is the subject from this Oban scene? I don’t know and I took it! This is my dirty laundry from my hard drive that should never be seen.


and again, is the subject clear? Yes, a pair of Wayfarer dinghys. A well composed picture.


And finally, a bright scene of festive illuminations in George Square in Glasgow. Full of colour and excitement, but ultimately another hard disk clogger. Yes, I know you are seeing the compositions now with the scales fallen from your eyes; no clear subject, so nice colours but bad composition.


Summary: In general make it clear what the subject of your photograph actually is.

Warning: All rules about composition are guidelines. You can break them occasionally, and still produce something good, but in general you will get more good pictures, more often by internalising the rules. Then we earn the right to break them artistically, but not before.

Next week: We’ll look at avoiding distraction from the subject.


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