Most of you know by now that I have a thing for composition - I feel it is very important to my images. my collection of well composed boring images rival's anyone's.
We have learned that whatever rules of thumb we come up with in photography, someone can find an example of the opposite that works to threaten our rule. None the less, rules simply reflect the way that usually works, that if you were a betting man, you'd not bet against the rule all things being equal.
Edward Weston said that "Composition is the strongest way of seeing", which sums it up very nicely, but doesn't answer our original question of
"just how important is composition anyway?"
Some photographers pay little attention to composition. It seems sufficient to get the subject in the frame and fire. One could argue that a lot of wildlife photographs work that way, probably sports images too and perhaps the majority of portraits, but perhaps environmental portraits more often take advantage of compositional elements.
Even things like collars, rows of buttons, position of arms and even of shadows can be compositional elements. Some of the best sports images are extremely simple in design and make very interesting shapes beyond what they tell of the sport and the event.
Certainly the vast majority of great landscape images are well composed. Still lifes would hardly exist without composition and as for architecture, well composition is synonymous with design in this kind of work.
Could it be that composition is what untalented unskilled or lazy photographers use to make up for lighting, timing, drama and excitement in an image? If we go back to Edward Weston's words, then there has to be something to see which justifies using composition to see it strongest. Thus composition on it's own will not make for good images. Perhaps you have already discovered that no matter how carefully you arrange an image, if it is boring, it becomes a well composed boring image. The image needs more - something worth looking at, because of it's nature.
That nature might be something that pulls at heart strings, whether a puppy or a war, a revealed detail or a subject that works with light to produce magnificent tonalities (think Pepper # 30 or Walt Disney Theatre and Gugenheim Bilbao. It could be it's uniqueness or originality of idea, an expression or simply beauty.
Sometimes all you can do is see something interesting, compose it in the best way possible, and hope that the subject translates well into a still image. You can only do what you can do, but if you do it often enough, with enough interesting subjects, and with a bit of foreknowledge of what photographs well, then sooner or later you are going to produce really good images.
So how does composition help?
Compositional elements may point to the subject, or arrange things in interesting patterns and lines. It downplays the unimportant parts of the image and emphasizes the important. Composition makes sure that the whole image earns it's keep and that there is a sense of rightness to the image, even if that rightness is a jarring interruption or change - as in an image full of straight lines, but one sinuous curve.
Composition helps you make sense of an image. Arrangements of compositional elements have associated emotions - peacefulness, threatening, aggitation, sadness and so on, which can be used to reinforce the message of the subject.
Composition is about harmony and balance, but also about dysharmony and unbalanced. If you think of the Stravinsky portrait with his rather small head in the bottom left corner and the huge open piano occupying the rest of the image - you'd not call that balanced, but it does describe his life in a single black blob. That image did not follow any compositional rules, but it was the strongest way of seeing. If the composition works, who the hell cares if it follows rules?
Composition is of sufficient importance that even war photographers dodging bullets will move around a scene to get the best composition - that's how important it is - worth risking your life for!