A look at composition in documentary photography

In my mind, there are three important elements of a photograph. Lighting, composition and moment. Every image that I like has these elements, in varying amounts. A beautiful image can have strength in all three areas, or it can be, for example, a moment so moving that it dominates a bad composition or a bad light.

But for this article, I want to take a quick look at composition and how photographers will subconsciously consider many elements of composition when shooting, as well as when editing and posting. – subsequent processing.

Case study # 1


Here is Lisa and Massimo, after their ceremony at the beautiful Chiesa della Certosa in Florence, Italy. We just finished the family group photos that took place to the right of the frame, and I did some portraits as their families dispersed.

As they returned to the entrance to the monastery, Massimo, still the gentleman, took Lisa’s train. A quick smile and a glance back from Lisa added the “moment” to this image. The light is quite dull and cloudy, which makes the scene look muffled, and that works for me too.

Break it


Let’s take a look at the composing elements in this image:

1. Rectangles and squares form strong geometric shapes, and repeating them across an image adds a sense of stability and structure. For this image, it is important to correct the slightly divergent parallels in post-processing.

2. Repeating the shape and pattern in an image can be nice, and it helps to run the arches across the frame.

3. The timing of the shot had a big effect on the composition here. Fortunately, the relative distance between Lisa and Massimo is the distance between three arches behind. If I had shot this while they were centered in one of the other arches, the composition wouldn’t have been so strong – a door or window would have broken the shape.

4. Framing in thirds – a simple and well-used technique. I generally like to give subjects a “space” to enter. The center composition works in many circumstances, especially when using symmetry, but would not have been as strong for this photograph in my opinion. A tight shot of Lisa and Massimo completely framed by the arches would also have been a great shot to get, but I like the sense of place that this larger composition has.

Looking at the image as a whole, it’s well balanced. In tone – although the sky is brighter by a few stops, it has no impact on the picture. In the elements – the guests in the background and the flowers in the doorway provide a balance against the bride and groom. Imagine this scene without them – it would feel a bit too heavy on the right hand. It also works to guide the eye around the image. Lisa is the first thing I want a viewer to look at, then her interaction with Massimo, then the guests behind, and finally the grandeur of the buildings.

Case study # 2


This second example uses different techniques. It shows Kate and her sister walking from a wedding at Hackney Town Hall to their reception on My Fair Lady, a canal boat based nearby. The guests all walked the 10 minutes from Broadway Market to the Canal, which gave me some good documentary moments on some of these wonderful London boroughs.

Break it

Looking specifically at the composition then:

1. Triangles and diagonals play a big role in attracting this image to me. Using triangles in the composition can lead to more interesting and engaging images than squares and rectangles. Starting with the repeating triangular shapes formed by the shadows on the wall behind, the shape is repeated many times throughout the image, for example the crook of Kate’s arm and the walking legs.

2. By timing the shot in the wake of Kate and her sister, the walking pose lends extra elegance to Kate and her stunning Jenny Packham dress. This is something I was doing photographing catwalk fashion for The Times. You can still hear the rhythm of a stride of models mimicked by the chorus of the photographer’s shutters at the end of the podium, all capturing an image at the same point of each step. It’s lucky for me that it resonates in the passer-by behind.

3. Guidelines are really important in guiding a viewer around an image. The shadow lines behind are strongest here, but the parallel lines on the bike path crossing the frame work extremely well by slicing the subject’s shadows in half.

4. Again, I have framed the topic on the thirds with a space in front for them to enter. Breathing is second nature to most photographers too – a scene like this and you started adjusting the focus point to the left of the frame before even bringing the camera to your eyes. The line between Kate’s eyes, her sisters and the couple in the background gives another bisecting diagonal with the line of strong shadow.

This is another well-balanced image with interest spread across the frame with black and white conversion enhancing the effect of shadows. I’m actually crouching at waist height to take this, and it’s that lower vantage point that has all of those diagonals lined up.

There is also a slightly deeper meaning to this image. The building they walk past is actually an apartment building, and this is where Kate and her husband first moved in together. They are from New Zealand and their whole relationship has been in London for 10 years. So, while this is an indescribable building for everyone, listening to and remembering previous conversations with the couple, I managed to squeeze some storytelling into this composition.


Of course, almost none of this comes to mind when I take this image. It’s a reflex that 20 years of experience as a photographer brings you. You instinctively know that moving a foot to the right will clean up the background behind the main subject, or that a lower point of view is needed to highlight something in the frame. And my clients don’t need to know all of this either, although many do because they are passionate photographers and artists themselves.

They might not know why an image works, they just know it does.




About the Author: Paul Rogers is a photojournalist based in Hertfordshire, England. He worked as an editorial photographer for The temperature newspaper since 1998, and also applies his talents to documentary wedding photography. Visit his website here. This article originally appeared here.

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