How to Analyze Composition :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to Analyze Composition

by David Peterson 6 comments

Today we’re going to have a look at how to analyze the composition of an image. Assuming that you have the exposure right and taken the lens cap off, you should end up with some nice images. A really great image, though, has to be well composed. Here are the points to watch out for.

The Rule of Thirds

For hundreds of years, masters of composition have recognized that things look better if they are in the ratio 2:1. The thought, for example, that you should have two thirds warm colors in a picture and one third cold colors, or one third land and two thirds sky. If you remember, I covered Rule of Thirds earlier.

This belief comes from the fact that the ratio 1:1.6 (which looks almost the same as 1:2) occurs a lot in nature. You can make sure that your photos fit in with it by dividing your viewfinder into three vertically and horizontally, like this:

You may need to do this with your imagination, but most cameras will offer the option of displaying these divisions within the viewfinder (try playing around with the view options on your own camera). If you put major lines in the picture (for example, the horizon) along the divisions it will help to balance your image. If you put key parts of the picture at the points where the lines cross over they will look “Dominant”.

Dominance and Subordination

This one is pretty important. Depending on where you position different objects in your image, they will either look dominant or subordinated. In other words, they will either look like the star of the image or an extra who is just padding out the scene!

To make a subject dominant, you can make it brighter, bigger, or more warm-colored. Alternatively, you can have the other subjects in the image point at it or lead towards it! Fireworks are a good example of a subject that dominates an image. Look at the photo below:

The red and blue bloom of the main firework above is the part of the image that the eyes are drawn to. It is dominant. This is because it has a lot of warm color, it is very bright, it takes up a large amount of the image and the fireworks below seem to point towards it. The tree is a subordinate part of the image – because no one would look at this photo and say “that is a picture of a tree”.

Unity and Coherence

Does each part of your image make up part of the whole effect? If so, the picture has unity. If each part looks as though it belongs where it is, that’s coherence. Having an object that looks as though it doesn’t belong is a fantastic way to make that object dominant in the image. In the photo below, all of the shells form one group that seems to hold together. They are unified. The orange upside-down shell is dominant, because in this image it looks out of place. The square rock is also made more dominant in this way, but because its colors are not as warm or bright as the shell it is not as noticeable:


If you have a dominant subject on one half of the photo, you should ideally have something on the other side to balance it. This is easy to do with landscapes, which are naturally well-balanced, but it’s more difficult to do for more narrow images and a nightmare to do inside. The balance in the photo below is awesome:

The focal points of this photo are the players and the ball, which are all distributed well across the frame. There’s a scattering of dominant subjects all across the image – the ball, the blue knee band on the player with the ball, the flag in the background, the lights, etc. All in all, it’s nice and spread out, and arranged around the main focus of the image (the point at which the two players in the foreground are colliding).


Counter point is where one part of a piece of art (be it music, painting, or photography) contrasts with another part of the same piece, to make both seem more intense. For example, the photograph of the candle below uses counterpoint (contrasting the light against the darkness) to emphasize the brightness of the candle.


Rhythm (the regular occurrence of similar artistic features across a work) can be used to make a photo look ordered, or to give a sense of movement. For example:

The fence posts in this image give it a strong rhythm, leading the eye irresistibly to the point where the fence vanishes from sight!

Analysis of a Photo

Let's bring it all together and analyze a picture from a subscriber of mine, Aldis Putelis. Aldis supplied a nice picture of a night scene of a city. Let's see how each of our compositional elements fits in this scene.

The picture is clearly quite a wide outdoor shot, taken at night. If we examine the image from the bottom up (especially on the left hand side) we can see that the photographer has used the rule of thirds to dictate how the image is laid out. There are some darker buildings in the foreground which go about a third of the way up the picture, then the middle third is taken up by the more brightly lit buildings in the background, and the top third is taken up by the sky. If you squint at the image, you can see that it is also about one-third bright lights and two-thirds darkness. The brightness of the city lights are therefore made more intense by the counterpoint. Since it is a photo taken of a wide area it is naturally very balanced. The photo is dominated by the brightness of the buildings, which seems to have been the intention of the photographer.


It is the composition of an image that will govern whether it is eye catching and powerful. If you learn the features of composition you can start thinking critically about your own photography – and maybe start making some good improvements!

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  1. chaim chmelnik says:




  2. Norma Lightfoot says:

    Greetings from South Africa and myself, David, Thank you very much indeed for sharing your knowlege and experience. Much appreciated. I too would like read more about composition analysis especially with regards to compertition work. Can you also define what solely abstract work is with regards to compertition work as some of my ''ABSTRACTS ''were aparently not elligable for that catagory . Your photo of the sand dunes ,why is that not a true abstract ? Regards Norma L

  3. Richard says:

    Super good advice! I'm also glad to see you back sir.

  4. S T Hassan says:

    I am really glad that you are back !
    Would like to more things on composition analysis !

  5. Manav Kataria says:

    Nice. Would like to see more articles on Composition.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.