Composition Means Nothing

| August 20, 2012

Some readers may recall that I am easily amused by sentences starting with the words “photography is all about.” Earlier today I found one such proclamation decreeing that photography is “all about composition.” Nonsense, I thought, but curiosity got the better of me and I Googled it. To my horror, the magical all-knowing algorithm found nearly 15,000 occurrences!

Composition is the grammar of a photograph. Those who think that good grammar is enough will do well to remember the nebulous cowboy who flaunted longingly at the saucy gaze of a cream-filled platypus. In other words, you can use good grammar to create a perfectly meaningless sentence, or photograph.

Grammar is important, but not as important as having something to say.


Fading Light

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Category: All Posts, Rants and Raves

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (19)

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  1. Neelima V says:

    Loved this post! And what I love even more is your ability to tell something that profound in such a small post! :)

  2. Roman Johnston says:

    My favorite quote is:

    Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk. -Edward Weston

  3. Syv Ritch says:

    Thank you for the reminder.

    Sometimes in the heat of the action, I forget. I even have to slow myself down with breathing exercises to force myself to watch, to feel and to properly frame the photograph.

  4. Glad you keep these kind of overstatements in perspective here on your blog, Guy. This is a perfect example of people following advice just because it’s there, not because it’s good… and without checking out the source of the advice thoroughly enough. There are lots of people spouting all sorts of opinions about what makes good photography. Perhaps knowing the rules of composition can be of some benefit to photographers, if only for the purpose of breaking the rules properly. My father pioneer landscape photographer Philip Hyde used to quote Edward Weston, who also said about photography, “Rules are made to be broken.”

  5. Steve Sieren says:

    And mindless people agree with anything.

    I disagree!!

  6. Isn’t the statement “composition means nothing” as much a nonsense as photography being all about composition? I find camera technique and grammar a closer analogy. And composition the parallel to content. Of the three, I find composition more important than technique and light.

  7. Ludmila says:

    Good conclusion, deep and full of common sense.
    I note it down.

  8. Bill Maile says:

    What Kah Kit said in his first sentence (though the overstatement is gotten). And rules ARE meant to be broken, including in composition, of course. I just had a long discussion where someone said the CAMERA is the most important thing… *puke*. I don’t want to get into philosophical BS.

  9. Archie says:

    You may have very creative stuff to say, but try saying it without grammar and you’ll communicate very little. This “content” versus “composition” is a silly argument.

  10. A good photograph needs a good story (or something to say). The way someone says it (the composition, technique, light, and all the other variables) turn it into an interesting story, or a boring one.

  11. I wasn’t sure where you were going with that one, but it’s very zen and quite honest.

    I look forward to more tales of the cowboy and the platypus, too. I’m intrigued. ;-)

  12. Michael Hill says:

    If only I could get a good shot of a cream-filled platypus – placed deftly in the frame according to the rule of thirds of course!

  13. Dan Baumbach says:

    Another reason why I don’t look information from peoples blogs. Yours is one of the very few exceptions.

  14. Wade Thorson says:

    Pretty strong statement, but what you are really saying is “Composition doesn’t mean anything, to art.” If a Hip Hop artist doesn’t use proper grammar, his work is not disqualified as art. (to the beholder) The result will justify the means. The same argument can be used for the artist’s tools. The tools don’t make the art or artist. Composition, light and mood are all tools in the tool bag. I like this quote from Andy Warhol: “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”

  15. Florian says:


    I think that you are absolutely correct in stating that grammar alone is not enough. However, I think it is important to state that grammar is still essential. It is also possible to render the most important idea unapproachable due to the lack of grammar. In my opinion, grammar is the means which assures that others can understand what you have to say. It is maybe a little bit like a convention on which we agree so that we can explain to others what has been going on in our heads.

    With respect to photography, the reason why “all about composition” reveals 15’000 google hits may indicate that a lot of people have the impression that many photographs lack composition. Some of the photographs may have nothing to say, but some of them may (and many may have something to say, which just does not reach me, but may reach others).

    Thanks for your thoughts and ideas!

  16. Alister Benn says:

    :-) Sat here in Hong Kong airport with 16 hours of flying ahead of me I thought nothing would make me smile. Congratulations on a great post… nail firmly hit on head.

  17. Russ says:

    There is truth to this. Nothing is more saddening and frustrating, as seeing a snap of an interesting subject, that has been poorly composed and executed. But, the same holds true for a snap of a well composed image, of meaningless or boring subject matter.