Allow me a meta-comment to this very interesting thread: two approaches toward learning composition come to the fore, one analytic, one synthetic. Or: one decomposing existing compositions, one builing one's own from abstract elements.
I think and whish everyone that both form the descending and ascending arcs of a creative circle.
All great answers. I agree that you should study painters as they have been dealing with composition for the longest time. Vermeer was a fine painter (I saw that huge show of his in NYC!).
I believe that the all time greatest master of daring composition is Tintoretto. That being said, learn the rules via some basic text on painting, and once understood, break the rules. Formulas for the most part look contrived and uninteresting.
Truly though, you must check out Tintoretto and if you ever have the chance to get to Venice, go to the academic gallery into the Tintoretto rooms , The roofs open and if you are lucky you will see these works in the light they were created in. Be prepared for the most massive, swirling, vision you have every seen. You cant get the feel until you see them in person.
Some other suggestions:
Stop by the bookstore once a month and read sections of magazine where the editors review readers photographs. They will often make suggestions on cropping or reshooting.
Browse an online gallery like here on Apug or on Photo.net. Ignore the ratings that other people give the photos and ask yourself on each one what works or what can be improved.
Most photography books have a section on composition, but they mainly focus on the rule of thirds and such. The books that i have on composition show examples of many different things like color tone, choice of color/bw, perspecive, etc, but they dont really delve into the why. Perhaps some of the other suggestons people made will help.
Anyone who's not comfortable composing should stay away from books on composition. Pernicious nonsense, mostly. Just look at pictures (any pictures) and learn to trust your taste. There aren't any rules, unless you want to play particular games, even to break.
There arent any rules per say, but you can can use certain techniques to change the meaning of an image. For example using selective focus to emphasize a subject. Or filling the frame with the subject vs including background or negative space.
Originally Posted by laverdure
Understanding the techniques of composition will give you more artisic tools to work with. Practicing these techniques will help make it more intuitive.
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If there is a community college or other institution which teaches basic art courses near you, take a course in two-dimensional design. Although on the surface it may seem to have nothing to do with photography, it will improve your compostional skills faster than anything I know. It certainly will do many times as much good as looking at a book and following diagrams.
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I think of the tools you've mentioned as being more camera tools than compositional rules. It's theories- admonitions and prohibitions based on geometry or art history or sheer prejudice wrapped up in intellectualism, that I find distasteful. Formalism is all well and good, but do like formalism before you try it. There are better places to start.
Originally Posted by darinwc
There are lots of free guides on the WWW. Google phrases like "composing photos" and start reading. Then start taking pictures and studying them.
This is where a digital camera can be very handy. Having immediate feedback on a compostion idea you had in your head makes for fast learning. You can see the results and often reshoot to get what you had in mind.
I agree to look at work by the masters; For "light", there is none more renowned than Rembrandt, though many exude the similar control and quality.
One book that I recall was "The Shape Of Content" by Ben Shahn
Overall I believe composition is not easy to teach or learn from a single book, but by practice and patience once the concepts are grasped.
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"I invent nothing, I rediscover". Auguste Rodin
I hope I'm not going to offend anyone by saying I'm not altogether sure you can 'learn' composition. But if you're not happy with what you're doing - indeed for no particular reason, or all possible reasons, look at as much great art and great photography as you can. I think learning by osmosis is as helpful, or more helpful than learning or following any 'rules'.
Best of all, take a life drawing class, or possibly any drawing class, make yourself think about how to put something into empty space.