TALK THE TALK—Language of Composition – James Allan

When I read a wine label I am aware that viticulturists have their own way of describing their product; Full bodied, fruity, tart, presumptuous.  There is a diverse and complex language for describing wines. I don’t understand the terms, but they serve a purpose.   Why not a language for describing photography?  After all photography is taught.  Photographs are sold as art and most art Galleries and Museums will buy photographs for their collections.  The academics must have a way of talking about their subject, of ascribing merit.  I asked Google and it directed me to “The Museum for Photographic Art “ in San Diego who publishes a guide for understanding photographic terms.  I thought it was quite helpful.  A Glossary of terms is listed below in three main headings, those related to the photograph, those describing visual elements and lastly composition.   I have tried my hand at using the terms to describe two images from the club Flickr group.

The Photograph

  • abstract: an image that emphasizes formal elements (line, shape, etc) rather than specific, recognizable objects
  • content: the subject, topic or information captured in a photograph.
  • direct approach: confronting a scene in a straight-forward manner, without using unusual angles or distortion.
  • documentary photography: photographs whose main purpose is to record a place, person(s) or event.
  • expressive: concerned with communicating emotion.
  • geometric shape: simple rectilinear or curvilinear shapes found in geometry, such as circles, squares, triangles, etc
  • intention: reason(s) why the artist made a work of art.
  • landscape: an image that portrays the natural environment.
  • objective: a point of view free from personal bias, which attempts to consider all available information with equal regard and fairness.
  • organic shape: shapes based on natural objects such as trees, mountains, leaves, etc.
  • representational: an image which shows recognizable objects.
  • subject: the main object or person(s) in a photograph.
  • theme: a unifying or dominant idea in one work of art or in a collection of works.

Compositional AnalysisDavid Tullock’s photo, “Fisherman” taken at The club excursion to Marino Rocks.

Description: Representational Landscape using a direct approach.  The subject, the fisherman, is side lit and placed on a vertical third.  However the image feels to be symmetrical and focused towards the centre.  Perhaps this is because there is a balance between the fisherman, the esky and the central rock creating a triangle.  The line of the body and the curved rod creates a curved line pointing towards an apparently empty spot on the horizon.  (the vanishing point)  This arc creates a sense of depth in the image.  There is a large amount of space around the central elements giving a feeling of expanse.  The overall composition gives a pleasing sense of balance and tranquillity.

Visual Elements

  • focus: what areas appear clearest or sharpest in the photograph? What do not?
  • light: what areas of the photograph are most highlighted? Are there any shadows? Does the photograph allow you to guess the time of day? Is the light natural or artificial? Harsh or soft? Reflected or direct?
  • line: are there objects in the photograph that act as lines? Are they straight, curvy, thin, thick? Do the lines create direction in the photograph? Do they outline? Do the lines show movement or energy?
  • repetition: are there any objects, shapes or lines which repeat and create a pattern?
  • shape: do you see geometric or organic shapes? What are they?
  • space: is there depth to the photograph or does it seem shallow? What creates this appearance? Are there important negative spaces in addition to positive spaces? Is there depth created by spatial illusions?
  • texture: if you could touch the surface of the photograph how would it feel? How do the objects in the picture look like they would feel?
  • value: is there a range of tones from dark to light? Where is the darkest value? Where is the lightest? Low Key = predominantly dark, High key = predominantly light tones.

Compositional Analysis 2Photograph of Old Bottles taken by Anne Trebilcock near Menindee around 2010

Description: A Low Key still life of a group of old bottles and cobwebs back lit by a window depicted in the right half of the picture.   The composition is asymmetrical with the two main elements (bottles and window) being unequal in size and position within the frame.  The central focus , the old bottles is enhanced by a sign reading “old bottles” propped on the window sill.  There is an invisible line created as the eye follows the direction of the light from the window to the bottles.  The bottles are strongly contrasted against the almost black background giving a sharp focus and striking effect.   This photo has a lot of impact and appeal.


  • angle: the vantage point from which the photograph was taken; generally used when discussing a photograph taken from an unusual or exaggerated vantage point
  • background: the part of a scene or picture that is or seems to be toward the back.
  • balance: the distribution of visual elements in a photograph. Symmetrical balance distributes visual elements evenly in an image. Asymmetrical balance is found when visual elements are not evenly distributed in an image.
  • central focus: the objects(s) which appears most prominently and/or most clearly focused in a photograph
  • composition: the arrangement or structure of the formal elements that make up an image
  • contour: the outline of an object or shape.
  • contrast: strong visual differences between light and dark, varying textures, sizes, etc.
  • colour: contrasting or complimentary (according to proximity on the colour wheel)
  • framing: what the photographer has placed within the boundaries of the photograph.
  • setting: actual physical surroundings or scenery whether real or artificial.
  • vantage point: the place from which a photographer takes a photograph.

I might be bold and venture a few definitions to the list.

  • Landscape Photography : an image (usually outdoors) depicting depth and recession towards a horizon.
  • Nature Photography : an image of a subject without clothes on (Courtesy Mark Pedlar).

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