Photography composition techniques
This post is all about composition techniques, and how to implement them in your photography. There are many “so called” rules that photographers are aware of, though I am of the opinion that rules in photography can be broken and should only be used as a guide and not necessarily implemented in every image you create. The point here is to be aware of the different techniques available so that you can keep them in your arsenal of photographic techniques, as a good image can become a truly compelling one when the viewer’s attention is engaged to full effect. Together with lighting, a strong composition is undoubtedly the most important element needed for photographers of any level.
So what is a good composition, anyway?
Compositional rules have been used in art for thousands of years, so composition with photography as a medium is relatively young in the grand scheme of things. The definition of composition is simply how the various elements of a scene are arranged within a frame. These can range from the most basic to the most advanced techniques. Modern cameras are great in aiding you achieve sharp, well-exposed images with a minimum of unwanted artefacts, and you may consider yourself a master on the manipulation of light, but without a good knowledge of creative compositions, you will likely find your images lacking in balance and impact. Photography is all about creativity and expression, and mastering your composition is probably the single most important element needed when merging your technical skills with your artistic vision. In this post I will cover the most important compositional rules, and where they were used in some of my own work.
- Rule of Thirds
Probably the simplest and most well-known rule in composition is the Rule of Thirds. When dividing an image with 2 imaginary lines going evenly across and from top to bottom, placement of the subject should be at one of the 4 intersecting lines or along a line itself, such as the placement of a horizon. Many modern cameras offer a built-in electronic screen for this purpose and to aid photographers in keeping horizons straight. As with other techniques, the Rule of Thirds is effective in how the human brain perceives a scene where the intersecting lines create energy and tension. The theory of this composition is that by placing a subject along one of these 4 intersecting points, the image becomes more balanced and allows a more natural interaction with the viewer. For this image taken in Rajasthan, India, you can see that the bottom left intersecting lines fall on the subject’s face, while the top left lines fall on his turban. You may also notice that the bottom right intersection falls on the shadow of the man’s hand. Colour can also be used as a tool for composition, and the saturated red colour directs the viewer’s eye to the subject.
- Leading Lines
Drawing the viewers attention directly to a specific point of interest, Leading Lines can be one of the most effective methods of obtaining a dynamic image with impact. Leading lines can be categorised in general to horizontal, vertical, diagonal and converging lines. With some experience, you will recognise the difference between Leading Lines and Paths. The latter being a different compositional technique that draws the eye to the horizon. When we view images, we are naturally inclined to follow natural and man-made lines to reach a focal point. Taking advantage of the way that our eyes work, we can position our cameras so that these lines direct us to a subject anywhere in the frame, or to a vanishing point in the distance where 2 or more lines converging the background. Leading Lines can be found everywhere in nature. From streams that weave into the distance, to fallen trees or a shoreline – landscape photographers often use these techniques to draw the eye into a scene. Likewise, man-made structures such as roads, fences, buildings, railways and just about any other structure can be used as lines to draw the attention of the viewer to a focal point. The beauty of Leading Lines is that they can be used in just about any type of photography – landscapes, architectural, environmental portraits, fashion, street photography and even food photography can benefit from this technique.
Abundant but often overlooked, Triangles are known by pro’s for their ability to create stability, aggression and instability in an image. The attention of the viewer will fall naturally along the lines until reaching the apex of the triangle. The theory is that this is where your point of interest should be. Where the base of a triangle lies at the bottom, this gives the viewer a feeling of stability and strength. Do the reverse and you start to introduce instability and tension. Triangles are abundant in the world around us, and not just in stationary objects. Compositions in street photography or portraits where triangles are included can inject interest into the scene. These can also be implemented, so work especially well when posing portraits of the subjects placed at the apex of each point. Take a look at some of the work by Henri Cartier Bresson, the late photographer from the Magnum Agency, and you will see some excellent examples of the use of triangles as a compositional aid in his street photography. While the subjects appear to be placed exactly where the photographer had envisioned, his masterful eye simply recognised the potential for an image even though it was candid and spontaneous. Due to the perspective and vanishing point at horizons, Triangles are often used in landscape photography, especially when a road leads the eye into the scene. To add balance, you would ideally have 3 strong subjects in the scene, however interest that lies along the triangle’s lines can be equally effective.
The use of repetitions in photography can become an art in itself, where repetitions of the same shapes transform into a pattern. One can either emphasise patterns by using this as the only subject, or as is the case in many compositional rules, a pattern can be broken. Likewise, as shown in this image of a silhouette of a man walking past a facade of a church in Barcelona, the repetition of shapes has been used for an uncluttered background to emphasise the subject. The great thing about using repetitions in photography is how it has the power to draw the viewer into an image. With no limit but your imagination, repetitions can be found just about everywhere you look, so why not incorporate them into your compositions? This could be from a row of houses, to trees, parked bicycles, flowers and even to people. Some of my favourite images taken are where there is a repetition, but where part of that repetition is broken by a non-conforming element. This element now becomes the focal point as the eye is drawn directly towards it. But probably my favourite use in repetitions is where a person is included and subsequently breaks up the pattern. This type of composition has the benefit of using an interesting yet uncluttered background, while at the same time, make a subject stand out in a contextual background. The image on the right of a woman in a stepwell in India is an example of this, and I believe works particularly well in a series.
Drawing the eye into an image, Diagonals have the power to enhance a feeling of depth. Even by framing your images by turning the camera 45 degrees can add a sense of drama, and work especially well for dynamic action shots. This method, also known as the Dutch Angle, has been used by film directors for years. Many will immediately recognise this compositional style in Alfred Hitchcock movies. Where Diagonals intersect with each other, as with Triangles, points of interest lie along the lines at the intersecting points. Where Diagonals have evolved into Triangles at the right points, the perfectly formed composition known as the
Golden Triangle emerges. Compared to horizontal and vertical lines, where the photographer usually aims to keep the lines perfectly straight, Diagonals give you far more freedom in composing the shot. By drawing the eye into the frame, Diagonals can be used in a variety of subject matters and are especially useful in creating tension. By adding the Diagonal lines of the stairs, handrail and leaping kitten, this image captured in Santorini, Greece, gives the viewer a sense of drama and action.
- Golden Ratio
Used as a powerful composition by artists for centuries, the Golden Ratio is a design principle based on the ratio of 1:1,618. What makes this composition rule so special is it’s perfectly balanced placement of focal points along it’s lines and intersections. The Golden Ratio can be found all around us in the natural world, and one may immediately identify the lines found in the nautilus shell. Using this technique in photography, the viewer’s eye follows the lines around the frame until reaching the point also found at the intersection point on the Rule of Thirds. The difference in the Golden Ratio is how the eye travels around the frame, and it is for this reason that so many photographers aspire to achieve it. This is one of those compositions that photographers should try to perfect, as photographs created with this method can result in an especially pleasing aesthetic to how the mind perceives images. This image of the Columbus statue in Barcelona is a typical tourist spot, and in my opinion has little photographic appeal. Captured from the rooftop of one of the Gaudi buildings near the Ramblas, I used a telephoto lens to compress the scene and add a sense of chaos with the foreground antennas. A specific aperture was used to ensure only the statue was in focus to direct the eye to it.
- Negative Space
When composing an image with the subject taking up a small area, while the surrounding area is largely left devoid of any defined focal point, this type of composition is known as Negative Space. The relationship with the Positive and Negative Space allows the viewer to first concentrate on the entire image before the eye goes directly to the Positive Space [the subject]. The effect of composing images this way is usually associated with calm, solitude and isolation. Used in the right context, this composition can have a dramatic effect on the subject. And the background does not always need to be devoid of detail. Backgrounds can simply disappear when a subject is stationary and sharp, while placed within a frame of background blur or movement with slow shutter speeds, for example. Simply put, the subject will be isolated from the background, and as a result, the eye will lock directly onto the subject. Some famous artists that specialise in minimalist photography such as Michael Kenna or Hiroshi Sugimoto are masters at the use of Negative Space, and their work can be an inspiration for others. The image on the right was captured on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, India at dawn. Through the fog, a man can be seen practicing Surya Namaskar, the meditative posture of the Hindu religion.
- Frame Within a Frame
This compositional technique is unique in that it emphasises the depth of a scene by using a frame to draw the eye within. What we love about this compositional technique is the versatility offered across a wide range of photographic subjects. By simply creating a natural or manmade frame in the foreground by using your feet and experimenting with different lens’ focal lengths to achieve the right perspective, the frame itself can be just as important as the subject. The main impact achieved when shooting this way is the viewer’s perceived depth from the foreground to background. From fashion, to street photography, environmental portraits, to architectural or landscape photography, using the “Frame within a Frame” technique can be a quick and effective method to add some drama and context to your images and a great way to practice perfecting your compositions by using your imagination to predict a scene, and by physically moving to the right spot to achieve it. Using this method, there may often be times where there is a high contrast in the light between the frame itself and a focal point in the background. In this instance, you should pay attention not to overexpose the subject. Likewise, you may find that shooting a HDR sequence or by using the focus stacking method is a good way to attain a balanced exposure or a wide depth of field.