There are many references to photographic composition on the Internet so it’s worthwhile doing some research.
Composition can’t really be defined yet no image can exist without it. It can be broadly said that it is the arrangement of elements, and/or the subject of an image, that is most pleasing to the viewer or produces a strong emotional reaction. It is not strictly confined to how you place your subject within the frame, as the following Baker’s dozen elements of composition will show. Not every image will contain all the elements of composition.
THE SO-CALLED “RULE OF THIRDS”
There are no “Rules” of composition, and the supposed “Rule of Thirds” is an oxy-moron as it can’t be applied to every photograph. If it was applied to every photograph, and we often hear judges use it when assessing an image in our competitions, then photography would be static, uninteresting and boring. What we can call it is the “Guideline of Thirds”, because that’s all it is – a general guideline. Its main benefit is that, in many cases, placing the subject off-centre onto one of the lines that roughly divides an image into three equidistant vertical and horizontal sections produces a pleasing result.
When the subject is placed off-centre the result can be a vacant area that needs another element to “balance” the image. This balancing element usually needs to be smaller than the main subject so as not to compete for attention, but is used to support the main subject. Example 1 is the basic “balancing scales” composition, example 2 shows how it could be used for a photo of hot air balloons, and example 3 a further example of how this composition could be used for a country scene.
These lines can be virtually any shape: straight, curved, radial, zig-zag, coil, etc. but used to draw the attention of the viewer to the main subject of the image. A good example is railway lines drawing the viewer’s attention to a puffing steam locomotive. If care isn’t used they can also draw the attention of the viewer out of the image, in which case they fail unless that was the photographer’s intent. Example 4 is a basic “S-curve” composition format, example 5 an example of railway lines and a train, and example 6 showing it used in an image I had in the last competition. This last example might be subtle, but it is still a standard (reverse) “S-curve” composition. See also example 3.
This can also be called “formal” composition, where the image is divided into left/right or top/bottom sections of roughly equal area. It can enhance or detract from the image’s impact and generally needs a strong focal point. Example 7 is the basic
crosshatch formal composition layout, with example 8 showing how it could be used. I’ve tried to draw an image I saw many years ago of a snow scene with a road/track leading straight up the middle to where a fence and two trees beside a gate were the focal point and the road moved beyond the trees/gate into the distance between 2 hills. The trees and gate were the focal point and that’s where the attention was drawn. It was a strong image and years later I still recall it.
These can emphasise the main subject, detract from it, or be the main subject depending upon their strength in the image. Many images employ strong patterns for effect. Think of images where rows of grape vines draw the viewer’s attention to winery buildings in the middle distance.
The use of texture can be an effective means in composition to aid in providing a 3-dimensional “feel” to the image.
Composition can be changed easily and quickly by selecting a different viewpoint from which to take the photo, so is a handy composition tool. An example would be to move the camera’s viewpoint to avoid a light pole emerging from the subject’s head, or some distracting element from appearing in the background. It’s also much quicker than spending unnecessary time in Photoshop. Another example is to take a photo of a small child by getting down to the level of the child’s eye, rather than take the photo looking down on the child. The result is far more pleasing and in general most child/baby portraits look better compositionally if the camera lens is on the same plane as the eyes of the subject. Example 9 shows where the photographer has moved their viewpoint down to the level of the child’s eyes, although the blank sky background is somewhat distracting. The out-of-focus tree in the left background could have been used to fill the background behind the child if only the photographer had changed their viewpoint. In this example that would seem to have been a simple fix to give greater emphasis to the subject.
Related to the previous item, elements in the background can create distractions in an otherwise good composition. Remove them where possible. Also see example 9.
This is the basis of all photography, so changing the direction and intensity of lighting is an essential element in composition. Flat frontal lighting, say from the camera’s built-in flash, can be harsh and spoil an image whereas moving the light source to one side can result in a more pleasing composition.
Should a small or wide aperture be used? Use the camera’s built-in stop-down button, if it has one, to check the effect of the depth-of-field on the image before pressing the shutter. It’s the photographer’s choice as to whether a shallow or deep DOF better suits the image. Control DOF easily by using aperture-priority if the camera allows it. Once again, example 9 shows where a shallow DOF has been used to blur the background tree and buildings to give greater emphasis to the subject.
Do you want the water in that waterfall to look softly veiled or pin sharp or somewhere in between? Do you want the background blurred when taking an action shot, especially a fast-moving subject like a racing motorcycle? What suits the composition better? It’s the photographer’s choice to achieve the result they are looking for.
The use of frames within the frame of an image is an effective way of drawing the viewer’s attention to the main subject. We see plenty of these in photo competitions where the old rustic window frame of a derelict outback building “frames” the scene beyond, evoking mental images of what life was like for the long-gone inhabitants that once called the building “home”.
This usually occurs after the image has been taken, and can be used to alter the dimensions of an image from rectangular to square or vice-versa, or to remove the top and bottom of a photo to produce a panorama.
A further example of a strong composition format is the use of the triangle as shown in example 10. This has versatile composition uses as it can have a wide base at the bottom as in example 11 (and as used in the child portrait example 9), pointy end at the bottom as per example 12 of a dam wall, or sideways as in example 13 of a receding fence-line drawing attention to an approaching vehicle.
One other reasonably common composition format is the “star” as in example 14, and its use in example 14 of the ubiquitous wagon or dray wheel. The image I presented at the last competition of the derelict dray wheel shows the use of a star composition.
In closing my address to members I mentioned a very strong fairly well known image by Arnold Newman taken in 1949 of Igor Stravinsky at his piano. This is an image that breaks the so-called “rules”. The grand piano is virtually a silhouette with little detail except for a very small reflection just below Stravinsky’s left elbow. Stravinsky’s dark suit blends into the piano to indicate how much he and the piano are “one”, and the stark background forces both the piano and Stravinsky into the viewer’s attention, even though Stravinsky is placed at the very bottom left corner of the image. Even when your eyes travel to the large section of the piano’s black silhouette, it’s drawn back to Stravinsky by the arm holding the lid up. It’s an immensely strong composition. Thanks to Anthony for pulling it up on his mobile to show the members. I can’t show the image here as it’s subject to copyright but I suggest members find it on the Internet to get inspiration for our “Break the Boundaries” competition 30th August.
Ray (Picasso) Goulter