Three Styles of Composition

Cattle Egret
We can think of styles of composition as a continuum between two poles.  On the one side of the continuum look at the photo above.  Here there is a very identifiable subject, such as Cattle Egret in flight.  There's a distinct foreground and a simple background.  The focus of the composition is to direct your eye to the subject and to separate it from the background so that it is made as non-distracting as possible.


On the other end of the continuum is the photograph of ice above. The picture may be of ice on a frozen river, but the composition is really about the design and angles of the intersecting lines.  In this image the "background" is brought so close to the foreground that there really is no background distinct from the foreground.  The picture is the design, and the "subject" takes up the whole frame of the photo.

Swallow Falls
There is a third style of composition, illustrated by the third photograph above.  This style is in many ways in the middle of the continuum between the two poles described above. Here the interest lies in the relationship between the foreground and background.  Foreground elements are placed in an environment that is also part of the design.  So the background is brought closer to the foreground to be a part of the setting for the foreground elements.  The background is usually in focus and an integral part of the image.

All three types of compositions have value, and there is a continuum between these three points in the continuum as well.  It can be easy for photographers to get caught in a rut and focus only on one style of composition.  For instance, in bird photography, the focus can often be on isolating the bird from the background to remove all distractions from the bird.  But if that's all you shoot, then your gallery of bird photos can begin to look like a bunch of different birds on sticks.  Each individual photo might be fantastic, but as a whole the gallery can be missing other aspects of bird life, since birds do live in environments, and setting the bird in its environment can be a great way to compose your image.