The 3 Pillars Of Photography: Light, Composition and Subject

In its simplest terms, photography can be reduced to just 3 concepts, light, composition and subject. The best photography will make great use of all three of these aspects.

This article briefly discusses each of these aspects. You will walk away with a basic understanding of light, composition and subject, how these aspects are utilized in photography, and the steps you can take to develop each skill beyond this article.

Image by Jesse Hebert © All Rights Reserved.

1. Light

Light is everything in photography. In fact, the word photography derived from the Greek words “photos” and “graphos” literally means “drawing with light”.

Image of the original illustration from the “Elementary Treatise on Physics” by Ganot’s published by E. Atkinson in 1872.

Photography depends on light. However primitive or sophisticated your photography equipment, from a home-made pinhole camera to your smartphone, it cannot create an image without light. Each time that you press your camera’s shutter you are recording light onto a sensor or piece of film which results in an image.

Furthermore, the character and quality of a photograph can be altered by the character and quality of light. Even the most-seasoned photographers puzzle over how a scene should be lit, what lighting angles to use for good results, and what exposure settings will bring out the best detail and tonal shading.

What is Light?

People have tried to comprehend and define light since the beginning of human intelligence. Two of the greatest minds to wonder about the nature of light were active at roughly the same time and came up with apparently conflicting theories as to what light might be…

  • The British mathematician and physicist, Sir Isaac Newton (1643 -1727), postulated that light is an emission of tiny particles.
  • His chief rival in the matter, the Dutch astronomer, physicist and mathematician Christiaan Huygens (1629-95) developed a wave theory of light.
Photo by Braxton Apana on Unsplash

Each, of course, had data and scientific observations to back his theory. Using each of their own theories they both went on to other discoveries and inventions that would not have held true if their theory had been incorrect.

If one was right, the other had to be wrong, didn’t he? Or could light be both energy and matter/wave and particle?

The answer is yes. Modern science allows that both theories are substantially accurate. Some experiments in quantum theory have light behaving as a wave. In others, light seems to take on all the characteristics of a particle. Light can be considered as both energy and matter.

Pictured here is the first ever photograph of light behaving as both a particle and wave simultaneously. Image by Fabrizio Carbone/EPFL 2015. For more information on this research please follow this link.

In the majority of light’s relevance to photography, light can be described as acting like a wave, as energy – not matter – that can spread, bend and react with obstacles just like waves in water. Most of our study of light in this section will refer to light waves rather than to photons.

How Light Behaves

Light moves out in straight lines and spreads out over a larger and larger area as it travels. This is much the same as ripples in a pond after throwing in a rock. When light strikes an object, it is either absorbed or scattered. Some frequencies are absorbed more than others–this is what gives objects their colour. White surfaces scatter all colours equally, while black surfaces absorb all light.

Photo by Michael Held on Unsplash

Manipulating Light

There are many ways that photographers can manipulate light before it hits our camera’s sensor. Light can be:

  • reflected
  • absorbed
  • diffused
  • coloured
  • refracted
  • diffracted
  • transmitted
  • polarized

A simple 5-in-1 reflector is one of the most versatile and easy-to-use tools for manipulating light. Commonly, reflectors are a round disk made of a semi-transparent diffusion material with a reversible cover that has separate white, black, silver and gold sides. These tools are especially useful for manipulating natural light.

Characteristics of Light

There are many different types of light and not a single type that is best in every situation. It largely depends on your subject, scene and intention for the photograph.

Photo by Tobi Oluremi on Unsplash

Light is commonly classified in terms of its:

  • Quality (hard or soft)
  • Intensity (bright or dark)
  • Colour temperature (warm or cool)
  • Direction

Different combinations of these classifications will create light with unique attributes that affect not only the brightness of your image but also the mood, tone and depth.

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Photo by Katie Azi on Unsplash

Getting Started with Light

As a baseline, you should strive to capture adequate light that results in a well exposed image. Where there isn’t enough light, find more light! Ideally there should be detail in the brightest highlights and darkest shadows. Soft light, that has a lower contrast between highlight and shadow, will make it easier to achieve this.

You should almost always err on the side of an under-exposed image. In digital photography, highlight detail that has been exposed too bright is much harder to recover in editing than shadow detail that has gone too dark.

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You should then consider the direction the light is hitting your subject or scene from. Side light is a good go-to since it illuminates the part of your subject or scene that is facing the camera while still creating shadow that works to create depth in your image. Light without shadow is considered flat lighting and generally not advised. This type of light is great for technical photography but will create less than ideal results in most other circumstances.

Shooting at the right time of day and in the right weather can make all the difference in your lighting.

  • The hour just after sunrise and the hour just before sunset is known as Golden Hour and is a favourite shooting time among photographers.
  • Midday is one of the least desired times of day to shoot since the sun is at its brightest and illuminates the subject or scene from a top-down position which can create long and dark shadows. However, shooting at midday when the sky is overcast or in open shade can result in beautiful soft light images.
Photo by Elise Goy on Unsplash

To further develop the skill of light in photography, read our comprehensive article series starting with: Mastering Light in Photography: What is Light?

Composition

Many of the decisions that photographers once engaged with are gone with modern digital photography. However, one of the crucial decisions that still remains, begs the question: “Where do I point the camera?”

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This decision is one that engages photographers in the act of composition. The seemingly simple process of pointing your camera in a certain direction determines the effectiveness of your picture’s graphic design. It also contributes to how well its message is conveyed.

What is Composition?

Simply put, composition is the arrangement of elements within an image. These arrangements can provide necessary context, direct the attention of the viewer, give a sense of scale to objects and so much more.

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Composition is the result of a thought process. Many pictures fail to communicate the photographer’s objective to the viewer simply because the photographer had not really given thought to why they were taking the picture.

In a single word, learning good composition is about control. Without control, there is no order—only randomness and disorganization. If the photographer does not exercise control through composition the viewer will have difficulty discerning the subject or focal point.

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This could be moving closer to your subject so as to make them larger in the frame or shifting to the left in order to remove a distracting element. Whatever it may be, the photographer is exercising control over the elements within their frame with each little movement.

If control is the precursor for good composition then you certainly don’t have to be a naturally-gifted artist to master photographic composition. You simply need to understand how to control elements within your frame. By first understanding what the elements of photography are, you will already be halfway to learning how to control your compositions.

Read more about these elements in our article: The 7 Elements Of Photography You Need To Know.

Image as a Frame

It’s useful to think of an image as a “frame” into the world around you. As the photographer, you have the power to select what makes it into that frame and, perhaps more importantly, what doesn’t make it into the frame.

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This can be done by:

  1. Physically manipulating the elements in a scene
  2. Moving yourself to view the scene from a different perspective.

The latter is a great place to start as a beginner.

The image frame also comes in different sizes or what we often refer to as “aspect ratios”. Most digital cameras capture images in a 3:2 aspect ratio. iPhones capture images in a 3:4 aspect ratio with options to shoot in 1:1 or 9:16. These aspect ratios can be vertical/tall or horizontal/wide.

The shape of the frame will affect the way that you compose your images. For instance, a tall building captured with a 1:1 frame will have more room on its sides than if it were captured with a tall 9:16 frame.

You can also allow your subject to influence your chosen orientation or aspect ratio. Vertical aspect ratios are commonly referred to as “portrait” orientation since they are ideal for portraits. Horizontal aspect ratios are commonly referred to as “landscape” orientation since they are ideal for landscapes.

The best aspect ratio is ultimately dependent upon the photographer’s intention for the photograph. This process can also be done through cropping in editing.

The Rules of Composition

The rules of composition are useful to amateur and master photographers in equal stride. However, the rules of composition should be considered guidelines rather than hard and fast rules.

The rules of composition are wonderfully-helpful guidelines that can train us to not only identify a scene’s key components, but also to arrange them in a visually-pleasing manner that expresses our feelings about the subject. They are time-proven, and provide great guidelines for photographers at any level.

Photo by Dan Schiumarini on Unsplash

The most common rules of composition to learn as a beginner are:

  • Rule of Thirds
  • Leading Lines
  • Balance
  • Layering
  • Simplification

These guidelines can help you break certain habits and deepen your understanding of what makes an effective composition. Through practice and use of the rules of composition, you will learn when it makes sense to break the rules of composition for the betterment of a certain photo. As you develop your skill, you will use these rules of composition less and only fall back on them when you’re struggling to control or make order out of a scene.

Getting Started with Composition

Effective composition enables an image to tell a story, captivate a viewer, direct the eye, and so much more.

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The most important thing to understand about composition is the power of where you stand when you take an image. Often, you may notice something that you want to take a picture of and then halt in place, take your photo from eye-level and move on. Break yourself out of this habit and push yourself to find new perspectives.

From any one position you can

  • Move closer or further away from a subject
  • Shift to the left or right
  • Bring your camera lower or higher

All of these movements will have a significant impact on your composition.

A great practice is to physically walk around the subject of your photo in order to identify the best position to capture it from. As a rule of thumb, the bigger the subject or scene the more dramatic your movements will need to be to see a significant difference in composition.

Through repetition, you will obtain the skill of visualization which will allow you to approximate how a subject may look from a certain angle without needing to actually move and see it.

For a deep-dive into composition in photography, read this in-depth article: The Simple Guide To Photography Composition—For Beginners.

Subject

Absolutely anything can be the subject of a photograph. Photography legend, Henri-Cartier Bresson, popularly stated: “In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little, human detail can become a Leitmotiv.”

This can make it an approachable, yet overwhelming topic of discussion for even the most seasoned photographer.

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The subject of our photographs is ultimately a device that allows us to communicate or appeal to our audience. It is a subjective characteristic that could hold different meanings for both the photographer and the viewer in regard to the same image.

For this reason, it’s important to derive your subjects from within, consider your assumptions about a given subject, and how others may view that subject.

What is Subject?

Most of us confuse “subject” with “subject matter,” and often use the two interchangeably. In fact, “subject” has two meanings in photography:

  1. The thing being photographed
  2. The topic of the photography.
Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

As a topic, the subject of a photograph may be an election campaign, whereas the subject matter may be the candidate. Understanding this distinction is important to utilizing the full potential of subject in photography.

Subject as Theme

Photography can be much more than just an accurate depiction of a certain object or arrangement of objects. Like any visual art, photography can make use of symbolism, metaphor and storytelling.

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As humans, we are inclined to form patterns. For this reason, photo-series are very powerful ways to communicate messages. When multiple images are paired together in a series, themes can be expanded upon and new themes or subjects can emerge.

Choosing a Subject

Choosing the subject of your photograph can be a daunting task. Sometimes the subject of your image will be chosen for you. Say you are hired to shoot a wedding or it’s your child’s birthday party. In these instances, the subject of your photography is clear.

Otherwise, the subject of your photography is in your complete control. You can choose the subject of your photography in the same way that you might choose a subject in writing. You can brainstorm, research, write a list, talk it out, and so much more.

Photo by Emre ÇOBAN on Unsplash

Photographers are also subject to experiencing writer’s or artist’s block when actively trying to come up with ideas. Take it easy on yourself and if all else fails, just go shoot! You will be surprised at how little preparation you really need to go out and capture different subjects. That process will likely inspire you and lead you to generating ideas for the future. Don’t forget to write them down!

Getting Started with Subject

I encourage you to start by photographing what interests you. You are going to be connected much deeper to the things that interest you which will strengthen your ability to portray that subject.

Consider what it is that interests you in general…

  • What do you consider effective photography?
  • What is an interesting photograph to you?
  • What are your favourite images?

While this path may not be as quick as copying what trending photographers are shooting, it will be more fruitful in the long run.

Photo by Emre ÇOBAN on Unsplash

It’s worthwhile to dig into what events led you to photography or what hobbies you have outside of photography. There are likely subjects to be discovered in this exploration which can be developed into your practice.

One trick for when you don’t have an idea for a subject is to make composition, light or some element of photography your subject or focus for the session.

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This practice allows you to break through the barrier of conceptualizing a clear idea and to just get out there and start shooting. In this process, you might find an interesting subject worthy of pursuing. One benefit of using light as your subject is that when you find good light and there happens to be a subject in that light, you are already two steps down to creating a well-rounded image. Now, you simply need to compose.

A subject, theme, or motif could also appear in the editing phase of your process. This can be for a number of different reasons. It could be as simple as seeing the image on a bigger display where smaller details are exaggerated. Or, it could be seeing an image in context with other images.

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When all else fails, you can always rely on abstract photography. Through abstract photography you can create stunning images without the need for much conceptualization by focusing on the elements of photography:

  • Shape
  • Form
  • Line
  • Colour
  • Etc.

To learn more read this in-depth article: What Is Subject In Photography—& How To Harness Its Power.

Putting It All Together

A great photograph will make great use of light, composition, and subject. These three pillars are at the core of all photography. It’s imperative for you to familiarize yourself with these three aspects and develop them to become a well-rounded and skilled photographer.

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As you learn to utilize these aspects in your photography, begin with focusing on one aspect at a time. It can be overwhelming to consider each of these aspects at once when you’re just getting the hang of photography. You can break things down even more by creating an exercise for yourself where you capture a certain type of light, like hard light for instance, or to only compose images with the rule of thirds.

As you accumulate little skills such as these, you will slowly start to integrate those lessons into all of your photography. Just be sure to pull lessons from each one of these three pillars equally along the way.

We would love to hear from you! Share some exercises in the comments below that helped you to develop your understanding of light, composition or subject.

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