Composition is a key element in photography and can make or break an image.
Rules have been derived to help us create pleasing and well-balanced images that are easy to read.
Let’s see how composition works, particularly for astrophotography.
Definition Of Composition In Photography (What it means)
Composition: the subtle art of arranging different visual elements in a frame, mastered by painters since the year 42000 B.C.
Painters soon realized that some particular arrangements of visual elements in the frame, and their relative size, produced scenes that were aesthetically pleasing and easier to “read” than others.
Composition rules were born.
Strictly speaking, in photography, with the notable exception of staged photo shootings, we cannot arrange the elements of a scene in the field of view of our camera. Instead, we work with and alter the camera’s field of view.
In short, we frame the scene rather than compose it.
Either way, in photography we use the same composition rules developed by painters in the way we choose how to frame the scene.
Why Is Composition Important In Photography?
Let’s illustrate why composition is important with an example, and for this let’s consider the comparison in the image below of a plane passing in front of the Moon.
It is clear that the subject of the photo is the Moon-plane ensemble: the Moon, shaped as an arc and the plane being the arrow.
How do we use the composition rules to create an interesting image out of what nature has offered us?
First, we can ask ourselves where is the best place in the frame for our subjects?
In the left image above, the plane has “space” to fly into right in front of it. This is a far better framing (composition, if you will) than the one shown on the right, where the plane is right next to the edge of the frame.
Whenever you have something moving in the frame, don’t put the target next to the edge of the frame, but leave some space to “move into”. The same is if you have a person or an animal looking in one direction: compose so that the subject has some space to “look into”.
We now have a criterion for placing the frame around our subject for a pleasant effect.
But what type of frame is best to use? In photography, it is easy to choose the shape (format) of the frame: 2:3, 3:4, 1:1, 16:9 are the most common frame sizes.
In the case of the image above, the square format feels a bit tight, and the original 4:3 format has a lot of solid, boring, blue color. I felt like the image would benefit more from a cinematic, 16:9 crop.
The final composition above is much more interesting than the squared versions: the Moon and the plane on the top left are well balanced by the puffy clouds emerging from the lower right corner. The plane has enough room to fly into, and there is no much empty sky.
Here is a practical tip: if you are not crafting the whole scene yourself and/or you are in a hurry to catch the moment, frame larger so that you can adjust composition and frame format later on by cropping the image as you see fit.
Does composition matter in astrophotography?
One of the most common things I see when beginner’s post images of their brand new astrophotography setup using a star tracker, is the use of a ball head.
The camera is almost never mounted directly on the declination bracket and the reason is “easy framing” (wrong) and composition.
More experienced astrophotographers often try to talk them off the use of the ball head by talking about flexure issues in the setup and by claiming composition is not relevant in astrophotography.
Or is it?
Starry Landscapes and star trails benefit from the same composition rules used in daytime landscape photography. Things like an interesting foreground, a proper balance between the landscape and the sky (horizon positioning), leading lines, and so on still apply.
In starry landscapes, even the most magnificent sky cannot save your image from a dark, boring foreground and bad composition.
When photographing the Planets and the full lunar disc, the composition is, indeed, quite irrelevant.
Since some telescopes flip the image (either vertical or both vertical and horizontal), you may want to rotate the image so that your target looks as you see it in the sky. I found the squared crop with the target centered on the image is a good choice for this kind of astrophotography.
For Deep Sky Objects, the composition is less stringent than starry landscapes, but still important, particularly for wide starfields.
Below is a photo of the “Summer Triangle”, with Deneb, Altair, and Vega forming the vertex of the triangle. In this case, it is nice to frame so that the Milky Way band runs diagonally through the frame for a more dynamic image.
Try avoiding placing a target right next to the edge of the frame: in the image below, I should have framed so as to leave more space on the left, not to pin the Flame Nebula to the edge.
If you close in on a target, so to fill the frame with it, then the composition is not really important, but other things can be considered.
Pareidolia is the effect of seeing faces, animals, and objects in particular patterns. Many nebulae take their name from their shape, reminding us of an animal (the Pelican and Shark Nebulae), an object (North America, California, and Flame Nebulae to name a few), and faces (the Witch Head Nebula).
Here is an interesting thought for judging the quality of many DSO images: a DSO image is only as good as the pareidolia effect that triggers in the viewer’s brain.
Pareidolia, though, works only if the pattern is oriented in the same way we usually see the object the pattern is reminding us.
This means that you may want to flip or rotate the image until you can trigger pareidolia in the viewer.
Some other times it’s not pareidolia, but the optical illusion that matters the most.
Take the Andromeda Galaxy, for example. As we see it in the sky from the Northern Hemisphere, the galactic core seems to bulge out the plane of the galaxy. Flip the image, and now the core is “sinking” into the galactic plane, creating a much more pleasant 3D illusion.
What Are The Different Types Of Composition In Photography?
General rules of composition
Before concluding this article on composition for astrophotography, let’s recap some of the most common composition rules. And many more can be used.
The Rule Of Thirds
This is probably the most classic and well-known composition rule.
Let’s consider again the image of the Moon and the plane we saw at the beginning of the article to see the rule of thirds in action.
This time, we will focus on the position of the different visual elements in the frame. Let’s divide both the width and the length of the frame into thirds: this creates the grid you see in the photo below.
The rule says that you should put the subject at the crossing of the lines, rather than dead centered in the frame.
The rule is also useful when it comes to placing the horizon in a landscape. If you weigh more the foreground, then put the horizon toward the ⅔ of the frame, else, if you value more the sky, place it at the lower third.
Leading lines guide the viewer into the image.
A classic example is a road leading the viewer to the horizon.
A big no are leading lines that brings the viewer outside the frame, as does the dock in the example below.
Composition rules can be combined. In the image below, the foreground is obviously the most interesting part of the image, so I placed the horizon at ⅔ of the images.
But the bridge on the left creates a path to the small town at the foot of the hills in the background that lets you explore past the small waterfall in the foreground.
Balance The Image
A good image is a balanced image.
You do not want to have all the action cramped in a small part of the image, or huge visual elements distracting from the real subject.
Visual elements should be framed so as to be in harmony. In the image below, I could have framed the little chapel with the empty road in the foreground, but that would be a lot of empty space.
Instead, I placed the camera on top of my car to fill the foreground and better balance the image.
In the comparison below, the chapel is too imposing in the top image: the image is not balanced. The idea of this selfie is to show a “backstage” of a typical astrophotography session, but the imposing chapel steals the viewer’s attention.
By reframing the scene to include only a part of the chapel wall, the image is more balanced and the viewer can now “see” me, rather than focusing on the building.
Finally, if you are after a wide starfield, try to compose so that more interesting targets are visible in the image, else, consider cropping the image tight on the main target.
In the wide Orion starfield below, the Great Orion Nebula, the Flame and HorseHead Nebula, and M78 all line up diagonally in the frame, for a nice composition.
Yet, the lower right part of the image feels a tad empty, with nothing to balance the two bright stars in the upper part of the frame.
You don’t need much to balance a deep sky image: a bright star is often enough, as demonstrated in the comparison below.
In the top image, the Gienah star in the Cygnus constellation is bright enough to attract the attention and “fill” the right part of the frame.
But if you clone the star out (bottom), the image feels much less balanced, as the right part feels way too empty since nothing is left to balance the large Veil Nebula on the left.
Composition rules are there to help us create better images, and astrophotography is no exception.
While for planetary and lunar photography, you could get away with a square crop and the target dead center in the frame, starry landscapes and star trails benefit from the same composition rules used for daytime landscape photography.
Things such as image balancing can apply to a wide starfield while taking advantage of pareidolia and optical illusions can improve images of deep-sky objects.