Photo Basics – Composition I

Continuing on with the Photo Basics series, I’m going to move into some concepts on composition. Since there is so much that can be said about the topic, it’ll be broken down into a series of articles on its own.  What I’ll do, over the next few articles, is go over some of the basic guidelines for composition.  Note I said “guidelines” and not “rules” (although one of the most well known is called “Rule” of Thirds).  I say guideline because none of these should be considered hard and fast, must-do-one-in-every-shot-or-else, break-them-at-your-peril kinds of things.  These guidelines have been developed over centuries of art history and they’re used for a simple reason – the work.  In general, making use of these compositional aids creates a more aesthetically pleasing image.  But there are times when the guidelines can be ignored to very good effect.  We’ll take a look at some of those instances later in the series.

Before getting into the actual compositional guidelines, it would be helpful, I think, to look at why they work.  As noted above, these compositional tools have been used by artists for centuries.  DaVinci’s ‘Vetruvian Man’, for example, is considered a nearly perfect use of the Golden Ratio in its construction.

What is “composition”?  Well, very simply, composition is the way elements of a scene are placed to create an overall image.  It can be as simple as placing and positioning a person in a portrait against a blank background.  It can be as complex as the many elements within a scene in a large landscape vista.

However simple or complex the scene we’re photographing, the concepts of composition work the same way.  The goal is to create interest through movement.  Movement?  In a static photograph?  Yes, movement.  What I’m talking about here isn’t necessarily movement conveyed in the actual image but rather movement in the way the viewer looks at the image.  What we want to do is create an image that takes the viewer through it from bottom to top, top to bottom, left to right or vice versa.  We want the viewer’s eyes moving from a starting point we choose to an ending point and landing on different elements within the image along the journey.  Truth be told, the viewer doesn’t really even know s/he’s doing this.  It’s largely unconscious.  The reason for that is that most of these compositional tools play on human nature and psychology.  Yes, that’s right, psychology.  These guidelines take advantage of an innate sense of what we find pleasing to look at.  Long before the idea of psychology came into being, artists still knew these tools worked because of their own in borne sense of beauty and order.

Some of these tools, such as the Golden Ratio or Golden Mean, are based on mathematical equations.  Going back to DaVinci’s ‘Vetruvian Man’, there have been numerous articles written breaking down the drawing into its various mathematical constructs.  Mathematicians consider the Fibonacci sequence to be a true thing of beauty and the Fibonacci sequence is based on the Golden Mean.  Architects have used the Golden Mean for millenia in designing buildings.  What also makes some of these guidelines appealing is that they appear in nature.  The shell of the nautilis, for example, closely follows the Golden Mean.  The Roman architect Vetruvius (ca 40 BC) is sometimes credited with development of the Golden Mean but examples of its use have been found in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece, long before Vetruvius was born.  Elements of it can be found in the writings of Euclid as well (ca 350 BC).

Now, back to the idea of what is composition.  As I noted above, it’s simply the placement of objects or elements within a scene.  The placement of these objects, the numbers of objects, their spacial relationships and size relationships; when done well, work together to provide a path for the viewer’s eyes to move through the piece.  Stopping in some places to take note of a more important element then moving on along the path we create to the next element.

The choice of how we compose our images can also help to communicate a feeling or message.  Composition is not just about the placement or organization of ‘things’ in the image.  It’s also about how we use the space around and between these things.  A tight composition with lots of scene elements can look busy and confused if the space in and around these elements isn’t used well.  A loose composition with only one or a few scene elements can look sloppy if the empty space (also alled negative space) isn’t used well.  Another key component in composition, and one that’s often not considered, is lighting contrast.  Using light to accentuate certain aspects of an image and deemphasize others creates visual interest and can help lead the viewer through the image.

The next few articles will each take a single compositional guideline and break it down.  We’ll look at the Rule of Thirds, the Golden Mean, leading lines, S-curves, the Rule of Odds (there’s that nasty ‘rule’ word again) and maybe some others.  At the end, whenever that may be, we’ll also look at breaking the ‘rules’, discuss when it can be done and how it can be successful.

I hope you’ll follow along as this series continues and as always comments and feedback are most welcomed.




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