Module 7: Principles of Composition

0 Posted by - June 15, 2014 - Courses, Photography Appreciation
Lee Friedlander, Father Duffy. Times Square, New York City, 1974

Lee Friedlander, Father Duffy. Times Square, New York City, 1974

In Module 6 I described the elements of art and design as the vocabulary of a visual image. To continue that grammatical analogy, composition is the sentence structure. Composition is the organization and ordering of all the possible graphic elements in the frame. When you create a composition, you are choosing an arrangement that elicits a response derived from human perception.

The foundation of composition is balance. Balance is the relationship of visual weight in the frame. The most important physical and psychological condition in human perception is a sense of balance. In order to stay upright humans are continuously adjusting their physical position to remain balanced. As such visual equilibrium is our strongest visual reference. We experience this whenever we look at an image that is not balanced; we will immediately cant our head in oder to achieve equilibrium in relation to the image. The type of balance the photographer chooses determines the feeling that will be perceived by the viewer.

The different visual weight of objects in the frame creates an inherent visual tension. Through composition the photographer resolves that tension in a way that furthers his/her creative intent. Two key concepts for resolving visual tension are leveling and sharpening. Leveling is moving a composition toward harmony and away from tension. Sharpening is turning the image toward greater tension. The two photographs above are both cityscapes but they resolve the visual tensions in the city in different ways. Michael Kenna’s Brooklyn Bridge at top is a more level composition that decreases the visual tension, while Lee Friedlander’s Father Duffy is a sharpened composition that emphasizes the visual tension.

Question: What are the different feelings and ideas created by Kenna’s and Friedlander’s choice of leveling and sharpening? Please compare the two photographs in the comments below.

In short, the take-way thought for this module is that good composition and design leads the viewer to perceive the intent of the creator. Examine how that works as you explore the content materials.

Module Content

The readings outline types of balance and different forms of compositional structure.

The Photographer’s Vision, pp. 156 – 180

“Design Basics” (PDF)

Featured Photographer: Josef Sudek

Josef Sudek, Morning Tram, 1924

Josef Sudek, Morning Tram, 1924

A former bookbinder who lost his right arm in The First World War, Josef Sudek is known as the “Poet of Prague” for how he transformed ordinary objects into lyric contemplations. Read an introduction and links about the photographer and his work here. As you view his work think about how he uses the aspects of photography we have studied to produce poetic images.


Read the Featured Photographer links and research photographs by Josef Sudek. Then find and add your favorite photograph by the photographer to the featured photographer collection, and write a photographic analysis of the photograph. Begin by stating the subject you see in the photograph, followed by an explanation of how the photographer captured the subject matter in a way that conveys that subject using principles of composition. Use terms and concepts from the course in your analysis. Full Directions

Discussion Topic

Using the gallery links provided below, select a photographer/photograph that uses principles of composition in a creative and effective way. Identify two principles of design from the module readings in the photograph, explain how they are used, and describe how they affect what the photograph expresses or communicates.

Randall Scott Projects, Washington, D.C. 
Jen Bekman Gallery, New York 
Robert Klein Gallery, Boston 
Photographs Do Not Bend Gallery, Dallas
Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco 

Full Directions

Top Image: Michael Kenna, Brooklyn Bridge, Study 2, New York, New York, USA, 2006