Media Studies: Audiovisual Production: Fotographics

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Composition in photography

Fotografie v0209-166.jpg
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What is needed to make a good or even great photograph or picture. There are two important parts we have to deal with.

  1. Technique. You need to have knowledge of the technical side of making photos and all possibilities available to you to be able to use them well. We are talking here about aperture, shutterspeeds, depth of field , lenses and perspective and so on. This is what I talked about last week. Technique and the applying of it is something that can be learned.
  2. Artistic. Now here we reach a part that is much more difficult to learn or maybe even not to be learned. Because here also a sense of feeling plays a major part. Feeling for the image and for the relations in an image. So you need feeling for composition.

You could say that about 90 percent of photography can be learned.
The other 10 percent is determined by a feeling for an image which is necessary to make a really good image that also moves other people.

Now what is composition?

There are several ways to describe what composition means.

The word composition is used in art , music and writing to convey the fusion of separate elements to form a whole. A music composition is the sum of its individual notes. A written composition is the sum of all its words. Likewise a photographic composition is the sum of all its graphical elements. The main subject, the foreground, the background and any supplemental subjects within the frame.

Composition is the start of the photographic process on the creative side.
On the technical side we start with “light” which is the raw material for our image and work with the exposure controls or technical elements: shutter, aperture, lenses and so on.

Composition is the placement of elements within the restriction of the frame. With a 35mm or SLR camera this a rectangle either in landscape or in portrait position.
In either case the frame is going to see less than our eyes so the trick is to decide what to point the camera at.

A photo has two major parts.

light & dark
light & dark

First is the subject which is what we take a photo of.
Second is treatment which is how we arrange that subject within the frame. How we compose the photo.

What makes a great composition is a very subjective thing. How someone responds to an image depends on their past experiences (memory),their interests and what they are looking for. This is why the same picture often receives a variety of responses from different viewers
So to create an effective image the photographer must understand the way people respond to the various kinds of visual organisation. For this there are a number of “rules” of composition that if used well will give a good photograph.

There are several classic ways to compose a photograph. To use these methods you will need to train yourself to see your subject in terms of lines and shapes. Sometimes lines in a photograph are obvious, like the horizon in a landscape. Other times the lines are not that obvious.


A line represents a "path" between two points. A line can be straight, curved, vertical, horizontal, diagonal, or zigzag. Lines imply motion and suggest direction or orientation. A line can also be implied, that is filled in by the mind when several points are positioned geometrically within a frame. Placing four dots on a page in the shape of a square can imply the points are linked as the mind searches for recognizable patterns. The direction and orientation of a line can also imply certain feelings. Horizontal lines imply tranquillity and rest, whereas vertical lines imply power and strength. Oblique lines imply movement, action and change. Curved lines or S shaped lines imply quiet, calm and sensual feelings. Lines that converge imply depth, scale and distance - a fence or roadway converges into the distance provides the illusion that a flat two-dimensional image has three-dimensional depth. A line is an effective element of design because it can lead the viewer's eye. To create more effective photographs actively look for lines and arrange them within your viewfinder to invoke specific feelings.


Shapes are the result of closed lines. However shapes can be visible without lines when an artist establishes a colour area or an arrangement of objects within the camera's viewfinder. Some primary shapes include circles, squares, triangles and hexagons all of which appear in nature in some form or another. Space is defined and determined by shapes and forms. Positive space is where shapes and forms exist; negative space is the empty space around shapes and forms. For images to have a sense of balance positive and negative space can be used to counter balance each other.

Form - Light & Dark

Form refers to the three-dimensional quality of an object, which is due in part to light, and dark areas. When light from a single direction (e.g. our sun) hits an object, part of the object is in shadow. Light and dark areas within an image provide contrast that can suggest volume. Factors that can affect our feelings towards an image include the direction of the light source, from above or below, and the gentleness or abruptness of the half tones. Light coming from behind a subject can form a silhouette resulting in object that is completely black against a lighter colored background. Silhouettes appear as two-dimensional shapes lacking form. The absence of colour often enhances our perception of form for instance in black and white photographs. Light emitted from above and to the side when applied to portraits creates what is often referred to as "Rembrandt lighting". This form of lighting emphasizes edges and depth. In landscape photography oblique lighting occurs early and late in the day where it enhances the natural texture of the landscape and is often accompanied by warm or cool colour casts.

The rule of thirds and the golden mean.

thirds grid
centered image
thirds image
photoshoped result
thirds image

One of the most talked about rules in photography is the rule of thirds,
which is the rule where a picture is divided into three sections vertically and horizontally and the lines and points of intersection represent places to position important visual elements. It is not necessary to try and match up lines in your scene to the exact grid. The focal point should be placed near or on any of the four intersection points created by those lines.
The origin of the rule of thirds derives from another “rule” called the “Golden Mean” also called the “Golden Ratio”. The “Golden Mean” and its application are similar although the golden ratio is not as well known and its points of intersection are closer together.
The golden ratio is comprised of two parts that follow the Fibonacci sequence.

0-1-1-2-3-5-8-13-21-34-55 etc

Each succeeding number is equal to the sum of two preceding numbers. The ratio formed 1:1.618 is called the golden ratio or golden mean. If you look at the lines in the image they make up squares. All of these squares put together in this way come together to form a rectangle . the ratio of the squares in this rectangle is composed of the number 1.618 which is the golden rectangle.
Now if you divide each smaller window with the same ratio and join their corners you end up with a logarithmical spiral. This spiral is a motif found all over the natural world. For instance in the Nautilus shell , in flowers and flower petals in pines etc. Flower petals and pinecones are two examples of spiral design that use the golden ratio. Why this ratio of 1.168? this ratio provides the flower petals and pinecone with maximum exposure to sunlight and allows raindrops to flow down to the roots in the most effective way.
The sunflower positions its seeds in a golden ratio spiral because it is the most effective manner of having as many seeds as possible in a given amount of space and allowing them to remain un-crowded within that space.

  • In music compositions symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven can be broken down into this ratio.
  • Leonardo da Vinci based all sorts of his artwork experiments and theories on the golden mean. Here we see his famous painting “the last supper”. And also the Mona Lisa is based on the golden ratio.
  • In Architecture there are also some very well known building and architects that use the golden ratio in their design.
  • The Egyptians used the golden ratio for their pyramids and the lay out of the three great pyramids of Giza use the curve of the golden ratio.
  • The Greek recognized it as “dividing a line in the extreme and mean ratio” and used it fot beauty and balance in the design of the Parthenon for instance.
  • Yet another example is the “Notre Dame” in Paris.
  • And of course there is Le Corbusier who developed a scale of proportions which he called “Le Modulor” based on the human body whose height is divided in golden sections commencing at the navel.
  • Finally, Studies on top fashion models some years ago revealed that their faces have a large number of characteristics with exactly the ratio 1.618.

Because of the fact that the golden ratio occurs so frequently in nature it may be that we , on some basic instinctive level tend to find beauty in things that correspond with this ratio and use it as a major composition element.

But there are more rules that we can use to accomplish a nicely balanced and composed image that will keep the attention of the viewer.

Rules of Compostion

leading lines
frame within a frame
negative space

1. Simplicity

The best way to present a clear message in a photograph is to keep the composition simple. The fewer elements you have to work with, the easier it is to design a pleasing image and control the viewer's eye movement. There are several ways to simplify a composition, but the primary method is to move in closer to the main subject. Photojournalist Robert Capa said it best: "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." Whether you physically move the camera position closer or zoom in optically, getting closer allows you to fill the frame with the subject, paring the composition down to its essential components. It removes visual distractions from the edges of the frame, eliminates superfluous elements and defocuses the background. Shallow depth of field helps to isolate the subject from a busy background by blurring objectionable clutter, and may even create soft pools of complementary color behind the subject.

2. Leading lines

Another compositional technique to create energy and movement in a photograph is the use of leading lines. Whether they are graceful curves or dynamic diagonals, all lines should lead the viewer's eye to the focal point. But be careful with the use of leading lines. They can also work against you by directing the eye away from the subject or, if the line divides the photograph in two, leading it right out of the image.

3. Frame within a frame

Another way to strengthen a composition and to focus attention and the sensation of depth is to use objects or shapes in the foreground as a frame within a frame. All sorts of things can be used as frames: archways, door and window openings, a hole in a wall, the overhanging branches of a tree and even the play of shadow on a scene. Frames work best if they are darker than the main subject.

4. Rhythm

Rhythm refers to the regular repeating occurrence of elements in the scene just as in music it refers to the regular occurrence of certain musical notes over time. In photography the repetition of similar shapes sets up a rhythm that makes seeing easier and more enjoyable. Rhythm is soothing and our eyes beg to follow rhythmic patterns. To be effective, rhythm also requires some variability - rhythm that is too similar or perfect may be boring. Therefore when composing your images look for repetition with variation. For instance if you are photographing a fence - one that is perfect will not hold a viewers interest for long, but one in which some of the posts are bent, broken, larger or smaller will generate more viewer interest.

5. Color

On colours there has been a lot of research on its effect and how we respond to different colours. Colour effects us emotionally with different colours evoking different emotions. So colour can be used in composition to draw attention to the subject. The so called warm colours (red orange yellow) tend to draw attention in an image. The cool colours (blue violet and green) seem to go more to the background. You can also use colour to create specific effects. With careful framing and camera angle you can draw attention to a relatively small but bright coloured subject against a more subdued background. But bright patches of colour can also divert the eye to minor parts of the scene.
Analogous colours are colours that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel, e.g. yellow and green Analogous colours on the colour wheel "get along" and are referred to as being harmonious. Analogous colours are often used in visual design and have a soothing affect. Complementary colours are colours opposite to each other on the color wheel, e.g. Blue-violet and yellow. Complimentary colours exhibit more contrast when positioned adjacent to each other -for example yellow appears more intense when positioned on or beside blue or violet.

6. Negative Space

Negative space is a term used in photography that implies only a tiny fraction of the frame is taken up by the actual subject. Negative space is usually used either to make the subject seem very small, or to give the impression of the subject being in a wide-open space.


centered composition

Now having said all this about the rules of composition that you have to use to get a nicely balanced, visual attractive photograph, we all know that rules are there to be broken. So see them as guidelines and use them as such.
Often you'll get a far better picture by intentionally breaking the rules - placing the horizon across the middle of the picture, or your focal point in the centre. The thing to remember is that whatever you do, make sure you have a reason for doing it. Knowing why you do something and what effect it will have, leads to good composition.