Photographic composition is often decisive in determining a picture's effect on a viewer. Below are valuable and practical tips on how to achieve the most impressive effects.
The Attention of the Viewer
It is, of course, impossible to arrange picture elements inside an image with complete freedom. You are bound by the basic laws of the picture and by certain image properties that are difficult to change. You are probably freer than you think, however, because you can control a number of important factors that influence the image structure: the standpoint, the size and shape of the image, the focal length, the light, and the format. In addition, many subjects are moveable, meaning you can also influence their arrangement in the picture.
All too often we are completely unaware of the countless alternatives available to us when taking a photograph, and shoot instead based on our first impression. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this, once you have captured this first impression you should think about how you can improve the image, and which possibilities the location offers to do this.
Left: This image has been mirrored. The attention of the viewer wanders to the front edge of the locomotive, from where it is drawn right towards the vanishing point. The locomotive appears to be travelling away. In the original picture (right) the white lines bring the attention of the viewer to the front of the locomotive, where it almost comes to rest. The locomotive appears to be coming towards the viewer, or to be standing still.
A line that joins the corners of a picture at an angle is known as a diagonal. Due to the natural reading direction of left to right, a diagonal that runs from the top left to the bottom right is referred to as decreasing, and one that runs from the bottom left to the top right is referred to as increasing. A decreasing diagonal is calmer and less exciting, and sometimes draws the attention of the viewer away from the picture too quickly. Nonetheless, it brings more movement to the image than horizontal or vertical lines. An increasing diagonal keeps the attention of the viewer on the picture for longer, and appears more stimulating. In the example image below, the image has been reversed for the second picture. This is a trick that you should almost never use, because it is in many cases noticeable, and in others too great a distortion of reality. It is only in self-portraits that this might appear more natural, because you are used to looking at yourself in the mirror.
The decreasing diagonal creates a relatively calm picture structure, though the attention is drawn away from the picture quickly and the viewer spends little time on the details. On the right side, the image has been mirrored to show the different effect of an increasing diagonal. The attention is retained better, so that it can spend more time on the facades of the houses and Porto’s harbour promenade. Overall, the picture seems livelier.
If you hold the camera straight, the horizon lies in the middle of the image. It is rarely visible, though, because it is hidden by objects in the foreground. Even then, however, the vanishing point still lies on the horizon. With geometric subjects, the viewer will always try to work out where the horizon lies. A horizon that lies in the very middle is dull, will not produce converging lines, and often results in the most boring picture variations. Moving the horizon away from the middle of the picture is therefore often advantageous, and the resulting position of the horizon will have a strong influence on the mood of the picture. If the horizon sits lower down in the picture, the depth and breadth of the landscape is emphasised, the picture appears light and open and, in the truest sense of the word, airy. This is because the sky comprises a large part of the picture. By moving the horizon towards the top of the picture you emphasise that which is heavier and nearer. The lens is tilted downwards and captures more of the ground. This arrangement in a picture produces a landscape through which the eye can wander until it comes into contact with the edge of the sky. That atmosphere of a picture taken this way can sometimes be quite oppressive, an effect that increases the higher the horizon lies in the image. The horizon may also sit above or below the edges of the picture, of course, which simplifies the picture structure. If the horizon lies above the image, it appears somewhat closed, if the horizon lies below the image, the subject stands out against the sky, or is the sky itself.
The pier at Le Treport: The gaze of the viewer cannot wander off to the horizon, but instead stays focused on the image. The image structure is clearer and more graphic. The location of the horizon towards the bottom of the image on the right lets it appear particularly light and airy. You can almost feel the wind.
That beach photo on the right would look both sharp as a wood print, while also adding a calming accent to your decor
Symmetry is extremely common in nature. You yourself are symmetrical, or at least largely symmetrical. The same is true for a large number of living beings and a smaller number of plants and plant parts. We perceive symmetry at a very deep level of awareness, and sense it’s beauty immediately.If you are taking photographs of symmetrical objects, you should either reproduce the symmetry exactly or deviate from it substantially. If you are shooting an interior, you should therefore either place yourself exactly in the middle and point your camera from the central axis out, or should move far away from the central axis and not attempt to reproduce the symmetry in any way. When taking photos of a symmetrical subject, I advise always taking a picture that represents the symmetry perfectly.
The long focal length prevents distortion of the perspective, and the tanks contrast well with the balks.
If our brain is able to recognise patterns, repeating elements arranged evenly, we often perceive this positively. Images containing a lot of detail will appear calmer and will have a unique charm if these details are arranged in a pattern. If the pattern itself is the fundamental content of the picture, the image may come across as an aesthetic gimmick, something that is nice to look at but somewhat boring. Patterns can be found in engineering, architecture, and nature. They often emerge as the result of a particular property of an object, or from the optimisation of a construction plan. A good example here is honeycomb. The hexagonal shapes in honeycomb offer the mathematically optimum use of space and level of material efficiency. Form follows function, with the result also pleasing to the eye. It is interesting to break the pattern with an irregularity, particularly if this is the actual subject. To emphasise a pattern within an image you must pay attention to the perspective and the edges of the image. The pattern appears clearest when it is not distorted or broken messily at the edges. Patterns can help you bring order to a picture and make subjects easier to identify. They bring out their own aesthetic charm.
The order of the scaffolding is contrasted by the disorder of the planks that lie upon it. The construction work on this block of flats in Moscow appears somewhat fragile and insecure. On the right, the workmen’s houses in Cornwall are squashed together in a slightly irregular pattern. The picture was taken from a nearby hill using a 400mm focal length.
Urban Skylines make for a thrilling contribution to your home decor. There is very little more inspiring, or more interesting, than a well-composed cityscape, customized as a metal print.
If you want to take a photo of three people, the most boring variation is to arrange them standing next to one another. If the heads form a triangle the composition is more interesting, and the picture generally looks better. If the point of the triangle is facing upwards, the structure is at its most stable and the picture appears calm. If the point is facing downwards, the impression is one of instability. If the triangle sits at an angle, more dynamism is brought to the image.
Left: The triangle formed by the heads is tilted and brings dynamism to the picture. Through the central position of the mother and the way she holds her hands, however, the image gives off a sense of security. (Hungary, end of the 19th Century). Right: The parents have the same pose, and their heads lie at the same level. Together with those of the parents, the head of the child forms a triangle standing on its point. Between the parents, the child appears somewhat lost, an impression that is reinforced by the image composition (Hungary, 1931).
If picture elements are so small that they no longer play a role as surfaces, only their position, brightness, and colour remain important. They will then be seen as artistic points. Through its position a point can be calming or can build tension, it can lie in relation to a surface, or can form an almost musical formulation together with other points. Generally speaking a point is a more dynamic element. The viewer connects the positions of points with each other, allowing them to create shapes, or curved lines.
The yellow blossom in front of the stream draws the eye strongly towards it, but the image still appears relatively calm because the points almost create a sense of balance.
Dynamic or Static Structure
The composition of an image alone can determine whether a picture appears calm or in motion. If you stand in front of a house, for example, you can position yourself parallel in front of the facade and, if you are shooting something up above, can balance the falling lines completely. The result will be a calm picture, though the architecture in itself will not appear dynamic. Alternatively, you could position yourself at the corner of the house, with the facade extending into the distance and the falling lines unbalanced, and could tilt the camera to photograph something high above. The vertical lines have then disappeared, the image is dominated by inclined lines, and the building appears to lean. Whether or not you want a house to have this impression of movement is up to you, but in certain cases it is definitely worthwhile. For subjects that are actually moving, you should plan these design elements in advance: A photo of a racing car or an animal in flight does not usually work well if it seems static, because this doesn’t fit with the theme. However, the contrast between content and structure can often give an image a unique charm. Even if you structure the image in a dynamic way, you should try to balance the composition. The photo may otherwise come across as disturbed, which in turn makes the viewer nervous, as a slanted picture hanging on the wall does.
Despite the very dynamic structure, the composition is particularly clear. The corners of the image appear to support the lean somewhat. The image is not simply at an angle, but has been designed very carefully (St. Peter's Church, Lübeck).
The Flexibility of Architecture
Architecture photography can be tricky - its inherent geometry can lull you into complacency, as you match the obvious parameters and contours of buildings or bridges to the felt needs of photographic composition. Take each photograph on a case-by-case basis, and rather than determining in advance how it should be best displayed, take your time to browse through our diverse collection of photo prints, until you find the right one.
If you want to take a great picture your goal should be to remove everything that is unnecessary, rather than to include as much as possible. Why include an element that doesn’t have any meaning? Why use a stylistic device that doesn’t benefit the effect of the image in any way?
It is not just that uncluttered pictures are easier to understand; they are also more appealing to the eye. This applies not just to photography, but also to architecture and design. The idea that “less is more”, from Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe, is still almost universally applicable today. It can be fun to break away from this principle every now and then, to create pictures that are almost overflowing. In the long run, however, a minimalist approach will take you much further. You will often have enough difficulties shooting a subject free from annoying or distracting elements. If you are able to take a picture that is simple, you should do so. Some photographers have developed habits that work against this. For example, the need to have elements in the foreground that frame the actual subject, or paying too little attention to what is in the background of the image, which leads to unwanted details. Don’t just enjoy your good pictures, have a look at the bad ones too. Why didn’t they come out as expected?
A winter's dusk. The focal point was set on the branches in the distance. This was an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of a Japanese Haiku sketch. On the right: I came across this tailor’s dummy when I was shooting the company portrait of a fashion firm. It produced a remarkably clear black and white image.
It is not always possible to remove all of the annoying details when taking a photo. Sometimes there just isn’t a section that really works and that also fits inside the frame provided by the viewfinder. When you look at the picture on your computer, however, you have more time to look at it, and are often able to produce a much better image by trimming the original. You may be able to cut off something annoying, or ensure a much more harmonic arrangement of the picture elements in the final format.
In my analogue days, I belonged to the photographers who always enlarged the full negative, I was at that time able to use cameras that offered four different frame sizes. Today, I prefer to put more effort into using the sensor resolution and ensuring the utmost technical quality of my shots. This provides greater flexibility for trimming afterwards. Where possible, of course, I always try to capture the original picture in the perfect format.
After cropping, the subject has more room in the picture, the format is better and, apart from the passers-by, there are almost no distractions.The photo of St. Basil’s Cathedral on the right was taken almost in passing. The subject is too central and much of the content is unnecessary. The right third adds nothing to the picture, the fence is annoying, and the whole area to the left, behind the monument, is also redundant.
The Golden Ratio
The golden ratio is a rule of design that has been known since antiquity. An area is divided in such a way that the relation of the smaller part to the larger part is equivalent to the relation of the larger part to the surface as a whole. For an area of size 1, the division therefore occurs at around 0.618. In reality the number is infinitely long, but you will not be able to work with it in such precision. To express this in another way, the ratio is 1:1.618. It is no coincidence that the decimal places are identical - this is a consequence of the mathematical uniqueness of this relationship. The golden ratio is a relationship that can be seen often in nature, but you will also see it in architecture and art, as well as in typography and product design.
Fotos: Galileo Press / Unsplash / Stocksy
After You’ve Mastered Photographic Composition: Enter the Focal Point and Start Printing
When it comes to composition in photography, even the basics can at times seem daunting. But, as we said above, the most important thing really is your personality and your style. Photography 101 is just that - and the rest is up to you. Rather than incorporating all of these small lessons at once, we suggest paying attention to one or a few of them at a time. Pretty soon, you’ll be a photography pro, without ever knowing what hit you.