The composition of a photo means choosing what goes in, and what goes out. You cannot take a photo without composing it. Composition is as old as mankind. Renaissance painters did it. The creators of medieval church windows did it. Even the artists of Stone Age cave paintings composed their works, when they decided to paint horses and mammoths but not plants or landscapes in the background.
Let’s keep in mind that the beauty of a picture is subjective. There is no way one can claim that one photo is “better” than another without considering audience and criteria. Young and old often like different things. Men and women sometimes like different things. Colourblind people will not always like the same kinds of pictures as people who see all colours perfectly. One person may be able to associate a picture with current local events, while another is stunned by the similarity to the style of some renaissance painter. The same person may appreciate the same picture in different ways in the morning and the evening, when they are hungry, or when they just have eaten.
These are ways the same picture can be appreciated in different ways.
Then there is the case of perceiving reality or a photo. When you stand outside, there are plenty of things you know and feel, which you do not see on pictures taken of the same scene.
When you look down a slope or up a mountainside, your brain tells you from the position of your head, in which direction you look. But take a photo of the same thing, and the only thing that will tell you if you look up or down are visual clues, like a leaning tree, and they may not be very convincing.
This is a photo that does not evoke the feeling of standing there. Look carefully, and you will see that the camera points down. It is not at all obvious from a casual glance at the photo. However, standing there, the photographer likely had an immense sense of depth. It is also very difficult to estimate the sizes of the plants from the photo. In real life, that must have been much easier.
When you look at reality, you perceive depth. You will see that a particular tree is huge, because you know it is far away. However, people who look at the photo may not be able to tell the distance, and they can therefore not estimate the height.
The speed of an open sports car approaching is obvious to you when you see it on the road, but the camera may have used so fast exposure that it looks like the car is parked in the middle of the road with the driver’s scarf frozen horizontally in mid-air.
Our brain discards details. You can see some beautiful clouds. The brain concentrates on the clouds, making the eyes follow the edges, identifying patterns and marvelling at the different shades of grey. You take a photo of the same clouds and go home. When you look at the photo at home, you immediately spot an ugly power line that goes straight across the clouds. Your brain had chosen to ignore it, when you were outside, but the way you look at the photo at home is completely different, so you see different details.
Experience: take three pictures outside. Don’t look at them straight away but stay for a while at the spot where you took them. Look at the scenes and try to imagine which details you did not see at first, when you took the photos, but which you will see when you look at them at home. Afterwards, compare what you thought with what you actually see. If there was a big difference, you may want to repeat this experience and see if you can improve your prediction of what the flat photo will look like.
Learn from others. Look at photos of other photographers and look at old paintings, romantic landscapes, renaissance portraits, Flemish cities. Look at new pictures. Ads, comic books, contemporary art exhibitions. See how other people do and learn from them. “Learn” does not mean “copy” by the way. It means “get inspiration from.” What worked for a romantic painter from the beginning of the 19th century may not express what you want to express today.
When you look at fine arts, there are two main approaches. One is to ask the question “why do other people like this?” The other is “what do I like in this?” Both are valid when you study art to improve your photography. The first one helps you find what people in general like, or what art critics and experts like. The other helps you identify your own character. When you ask the question “what do I like in this?” don’t limit yourself. If the only thing you really like in the Mona Lisa is the pretty little bridge in the background, admit that to yourself. Some other people may think the same. Probably not all. Probably not the majority. Probably not the elite. But perhaps enough to constitute a group that like your particular work.
You cannot please everyone.
That is another reason to look at contemporary photography. There is
Another rich inspiration for still photography is moving photos. Many filmmakers, like