The hammerhead tower in Dortmund Eving fits perfectly inside the window of the adjacent building. The position of the camera had to be carefully selected to make this picture possible (Large analogue slide from 1993, 90 mm wide-angle lens; equivalent to a 24mm shift-lens on a digital camera).
It is not always this easy to draw the viewer’s attention to the main subject. It did take me some time, however, to ensure there were no distracting elements and still show the arrow pointing directly at the building.
Information: 17 mm | f15 | 1/60 s | ISO 125
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.
Attention of the Viewer
The eye scans over every picture and is drawn to certain elements more than others. Bright spots, strong contrasts, faces, and letters, all draw the attention of the viewer. Lines channel attention in a certain direction, and the (culturally determined) natural reading direction of the viewer also plays a role. If the image structure helps the eye to identify the important details, the picture as a whole benefits. It can also bring unimportant elements to the fore, however, or force the eyes to jump around uncomfortably. Look at a good picture and see for yourself which path your eyes follow. Try to identify what the photographer did to ensure the image had this effect.
The structure of a picture can even create the impression that certain objects are moving. This happens when the image composition generates a dynamic, or suggests a tension between two components. There is a kind of "visual gravity" which creates an attraction to certain objects in the picture, so that the viewer longs for movement. This is somewhat comparable to a drummer delaying the beat slightly so the listener almost wants to beat the drums himself. If you place objects further away from where they would sit harmoniously, if you arrange objects on inclined lines, or if you use a distorted perspective to set picture elements at an angle, all of these techniques will bring movement to the picture. Plain surfaces barely give any support to an image. The viewer will follow any lines leading away, or the eye will look for the nearest strong contrast. Do not let your image structure be determined by technical details. The position of the auto-focus measuring point in the viewfinder should not be allowed to dictate the location of your subject in the image. Practice taking multiple images and free yourself from the default settings of your camera.
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. Information: 20 mm | f5,6 | 1/100 s | ISO 200
In the left half of the picture there is almost nothing on which the gaze of the viewer can rest, apart from on the dew, which draws him deeper into the background of the picture. The yellow line on the right supports this effect. Sometimes, however, the eye is drawn back to the dew at the top left, attracted by the strong contrast there.
Information: 12 mm | f16 | 1/100 s | ISO 200
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
Information: 140 mm | f8,0 | 1/800 s | ISO 160
Here 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. Information: 300 mm | f6,3 | 1/500 s | ISO 400
The location of the horizon towards the bottom of the image lets it appear particularly light and airy. You can almost feel the wind.
Information: 17 mm | f11 | 1/250 s | ISO 125
The famous GUM shopping centre in Moscow. The central focal point helped to set the vanishing point exactly in the middle. The symmetrical image structure enhances the symmetry of the architecture. Information: 17 mm | f9,0 | 1/125 s | ISO 400
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.
Information: 400 mm | f9,0 | 1/320 s | ISO 200
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. Information: 40 mm, f9, 1/400 s, ISO 100
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.
Information: 400 mm | f6,3 | 1/500 s | ISO 200
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The lamp, the man on the left, and the woman on the right combine to form a calm triangle, which stands in contrast to the movement of the approaching underground train.
Information: 17 mm | f5,6 | 1/30 s | ISO 1 600
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.
Information: 100 mm | f2,8 | 1/1000 s | ISO 400 | Macro lens
The golden ratio divides a section so that a : b = (a + b) : a. This means that larger section has the same relation to the smaller section, as the section as a whole has to the larger section.
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.
The boat is arranged according to the golden ratio. Even the relation between the height of the picture and its length is in accordance with the golden ratio.
Information: 22 mm | f7,1 | 1/60 s | ISO 640
The Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds also helps to ensure a harmonious image structure. It has become very popular in recent years, because it is easy to explain and is now featured as a tool in Photoshop and certain camera displays. The image surface is divided into three equal areas both horizontally and vertically. The aim is then to align the important image elements with the boarder lines of these areas – or on the crossings
I personally prefer to see the rule of thirds as more of a useful tool that can help you move the subject away from the middle. Over time you should learn to trust your own instincts and position the subject where you feel it fits best. Don’t forget that it is not always about creating harmony; sometimes you want to bring tension into a picture, in which case this balance is not needed. With many cameras you can have the grid overlying the display, and it can also be overlaid in photo editing software such as Photoshop CS5. Even if you don’t want to stick to the rule of thirds exactly, the grid can be useful for positioning. The rule of thirds, though useful, does not come close to the importance of the golden ratio, an eternal principle that the Romans named "divine proportion".
The rule of thirds with an overlying grid. The unedited, original version of the image is more exciting and elegant, because it does not adhere to the rule of thirds exactly. Information: 24 mm | f10 | 1/800 s | ISO 160
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). Information: 24 mm | f11 | 1/40 s | ISO 100 | Tilt-Shift Lens
2) This image is comprised of contrasting slopes. Despite the cool colours it comes across as very dynamic
Information: 12 mm | f8,0 | 15 s | ISO 1 600
3) In this image there are only horizontal and vertical lines. Though in portrait format, and though the vertical lines are stressed, the overall impression created is static and calm (Vodafone tower, Düsseldorf).
Information: 40 mm | f11 | 1/180 s | ISO 100 | APS-C-Sensor | Perspective correction with Photoshop
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.
Information: 50 mm | f1,4 | 1/100 s | ISO 800 | APS-C-Sensor
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.
Information: 50 mm | f2,0 | 1/60 s | ISO 250
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.
Though, 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 trimming, the subject has more room in the picture, the format is better and, apart from the passers-by, there are almost no distractions.
This photo of St. Basil’s Cathedral 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.
Information: 22 mm | f5,6 | 1/1250 s | ISO 100
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