A photograph is a way of capturing light to create an image. And it is how we choose to capture the light in the image that makes us photographers. The key secret to remember is that whilst the human eye sees selectively, the camera does not. You, as the photographer, are therefore the visual communicator. Depending on the purpose of your image and what it is you want to communicate, you need to choose what you want to include in your frame and how to present it. This will make it easier for the viewer to interpret and understand your image. This is composition – so be intentional with it! The focal point of your image is the part that captures attention, it is the anchor of the image’s composition. This is often the subject, but it may also be part of the overall scene that draws your eye to look towards the subject.
Composition is the elements in your photograph that come together to make it visually pleasing. When thinking about captivating composition our goal is to create visual impact with our photographs. There are many ways we can do this, and as we have discussed when talking about style, the elements mainly fall into emotional and visual impacts.
Composition enables you to draw the viewer’s eye to a specific part of the image. The brain needs to differentiate your subject from its background to understand its importance, and elements of your composition can provide that separation. By learning ways to define your subject in a shot through separation, you can start to control the perception of your viewer and deliver ‘wow’ shots. There are many ways to create that separation and communicate with your viewer – colour, contrast, position, angles, and shapes and we are going to look at some of them in this post.
The most obvious way to pull your subject from the background is to use a shallow depth of field. This method instantly draws focus to them and provides pleasing background bokeh, aka blur. But taking this one step further we need to arrange compositional elements by looking for space in the image, give the subject it’s own space to separate it from a cluttered background – this ‘space’ will be made useful by its different colour or size. For example a dark subject on a light background, or a light subject on a darker background helps distinguish them.
Whilst the wide aperture is one of our first strategies to help with separation, we can still consider further compositional elements. Take a good look at what is in front of you – is the overall image dark or light, is the background busy, is there much space for your subject or subjects, are there structural elements you can use, what mood is set by the colours, is there interest you can utilise in the background or the foreground…. ? Observe first and then compose.
It can be difficult at times but always trying to avoid distractions will help define your image, so knowing the space you have to work in becomes an important part of shoot preparation!
Photographs that ‘wow’ feel visually balanced, and whilst we may not know why at first, we know the image provides a good feeling. Symmetry creates balance, in fact the very definition of beauty is a balanced, symmetrical face. Similarity can also be perceived as interesting, as can repetition and continuity, encouraging the eye to look through the image.
The opposite of this can also create an image that makes your viewer stop and look because it provides tension through a dynamic anomaly or contrast. A break in a pattern, juxtaposition, or high contrast are all compositional elements.
Becoming aware of form and shape can have a huge impact on your images. The use of the triangle shape in family or group compositions is very popular as we are programmed to see shape first and our brain will recognise this and interest is created. Placing people in a triangle placement does not have to be obvious but the shape becomes apparent when looking at the final image.
Looking for dynamic and unusual angles can also add a strong compositional element to your images. Look for angles that generally people don’t see or capture. A higher angle accentuates depth, for example the ocean, and a low angle accentuates height, for example trying to make a person or object look very tall. A dynamic angle can create tension in your image whereas balanced shapes provide a more harmonious feel depending on the purpose of your image.
Colour is a further way to captivate with composition. Using similar colour tones and a low contrast from the colour wheel creates harmony and balance, whereas using contrasting ‘opposite’ colours on the colour wheel separates parts of your image and brings attention to a specific element.
Let’s begin by breaking down various elements of composition into three segments.
Your subject is in the centre of your image, providing symmetry. This makes it compelling for the viewer. This is a simple composition so to do it really well you need to think beyond the obvious and provide some additional elements of perspective. Combining converging lines into this composition can create depth, the single point of perspective at the end of the lines draws the eye in.
Leading lines appear obvious but they have to have 2 basic compositional elements to be successful. Firstly, the line must lead the viewer’s eye to something specific, it can’t just be random and this creates confusion in the viewer. Secondly, the line should lead TO the main subject not away from it if there is one. The lines should draw the viewer in and there can often be other compositional elements like balance, colour or contrast required for this to be effective.
The diagonal lines are implied and give the feeling of movement or direction of movement – eg kicking a ball, a flag blowing in the wind, autumn leaves falling. The movement is not straight down, it moves diagonally across the image creating interest. You can use your camera angle to create the diagonal or introduce it in post production if you want to add the direction to your image.
Rule of Thirds
One of the most well known compositions for all photographers. Divide the frame into 3 equal segments vertically and horizontally to create 9 segments and 4 intersections. By placing your subject or point of interest on one of the 4 points of intersection, adds visual impact.
Whilst this can be done in camera, it can also be re-created later in post-production if your image needs tweaking to make it work better.
This rule can also be used to simply split the image into 2 segments ⅔ and ⅓ either vertically or horizontally which is more interesting for the viewer, particularly with landscape images. Dividing the frame in this way creates imbalance which maintains viewer interest.
Rule of Odds
This one goes back to early artists who discovered arranging objects or subjects in odd numbers is more compelling for any composition, particularly in 3s. You can use this by becoming visually aware of supporting elements in your images. It is also very useful when organising groups of subjects, keeping them in groups of 3 is more harmonious to the human eye.
S & Z curves
These curved lines (S more fluid then Z) are classic compositional tools that add drama and movement to your images. The eye is drawn to the curves as they are more appealing than straight harsh shapes and lines. Think curves and look for ways you can use them in body shapes and general surroundings.
Repetition and Pattern
This type of composition can be visually pleasing when photographing structural or environmental elements, it is less used within people photography although could occasionally be cleverly used if it added to the story of the photograph. For example 2 ladies wearing the same dress at a wedding, or tartan kilts lined up next to each other. This would typically involve filling the frame to bring the pattern to the forefront of the image’s purpose for the viewer.
This means using two things side by side that are opposing or contrasting for example old & new, black and white, small & large. They must each have their own visual strength within the image for the viewer to be drawn in by the contrast.
This is the empty or unoccupied space in your image that surround your subject and help to define it. You can use negative space to carefully position your subject to create a shape within the space and make it stand out. This may be for visual purposes, so it de-clutters the image and looks more appealing, or it may give context to the setting, or it may produce an emotional element such as a restful feeling of calm or peace. Negative space works when there is little additional visual interest so your subject is defined by the calmness.
Filling the frame
Filling the frame enables your subject to become the obvious purpose of your image. This can be achieved by getting very close, or by using a telephoto lens if you cannot get physically close. Filling the frame is very impactful and can dramatically tell the story of the details of your shoot, whether that be people of surroundings or part of an object.
Foreground & Background
Adding some foreground in your image gives definition to where you are which may be part of the story. It also creates depth, which in turn creates visual interest. Adding a component into the background which has significance to your subjects or their story is also another compositional element which can add to your image.
Layering works when you have at least 3 distinct layers in an image. Often this will be foreground, mid ground and background. It creates interest when there is maybe not much else in your image, it adds impact to the scene and leads the viewer into the shot. A telephoto lens can compress the layers in a scene to make their more defined. To be effective in layering your position as the photographer and your choice of lens and focal length is important to make the layering element visually obvious.
A sight line is the ‘line of sight’ of one or more of the subjects in your image that attracts attention from the viewer. This element of composition creates an emotional response in the viewer. For example capturing the look between a bride & groom, or mother & baby. As a viewer we follow the line of sight of the subject and it draws us into the photo and the emotion. It may be that the subject is looking out of the image or away and as the viewer our eye is drawn to follow that.
Using colours that oppose each other on the colour wheel can make a subject stand out from its background as the colours are strikingly different – eg green on a red background.
A silhouette is a dark object in shadow against a light background. By nature the subject is separated from the light background because it is thrown into absolute shadow as there is not light falling on the front of the image. It is visible because there is light behind it throwing it into a silhouette.
Lightness or darkness
The opposite effect of the silhouette is to put your subject in a beam of light. This draws them out from the shadow and darkness. Light & dark can also be used like colour contrast to bring attention to part of your image – light on dark, or dark on light.
Frame within a frame
Utilising natural frames within your image boosts the visual weight of your subject within your image. For example doorways, shooting through trees, windows and other structural elements both natural and structural can add interest and weight to your compositions.
So in summary, there are many ways you can improve the composition of your photographs and create WOW images. Sometimes you won’t have time to consider all the elements, but the more you practise the more you will be able to ‘read’ the scene and pre-visualise what you think you can create, this will become second nature over time. Sometimes, you will be ready and waiting because you have assessed the scene and you know when to anticipate what will happen next. This becomes so important in fast moving shoots like weddings and family photography!
Primarily start with the basics – your angle of view as the photographer, the focal point of your photograph, and the position of your subject. Good luck!