Composition Overview

October 11, 2014

Composition Overview

Snaefellsnes PeninsulaWindswept ValleyFrom the Snæfellsnes Peninsula,
West Iceland

Read more about "Windswept Valley" or purchase a print by visiting
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It’s appropriate to start my first article on composition with a discussion of different techniques the people use to compose their photos.  I’ll cover point-and-click, the “rule” of thirds, composing by emotion, composing for a personal style, and composing for balance (my way of composing).



Point and Click Composition

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This hardly needs explaining— we all started somewhere, and for many of us, this means just pointing the camera towards the object that catches your attention, then taking the photo.  Granted, this can certainly lead to good photos (the above is a good example of a point-and-click photo I like), but it is not a particularly thoughtful mode of composing photos.  Often times, although not always, the most important object is placed very close to the center using a point-and-click mentality, which, though not necessarily wrong, is not appropriate for every photo.  The best way to get good photos using a point-and-click method is to take a ton of photos and then have someone who knows photography sort through them all to find the best.  This is the "throw everything at a wall and see what sticks" mentality.



Composing for the Rule of Thirds

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I titled this section “rule of thirds,” but in reality I mean any of the well-known styles of composing a photo, including the golden mean, the golden spiral, or other traditional framing techniques.  In my opinion, the “rule” of thirds is just as thoughtless a way to compose a photo as pointing and clicking.  Some photos look great when composed roughly around this “rule,” whereas other photos would be destroyed by such a composition.  



The sad part is that many students of photography and some otherwise advanced amateurs will follow this style of composition without trying to dig deeper into composition.  Sometimes, photo instructors will tell their students that the rule of thirds is a good strategy to use initially but that eventually the students will be good enough that they can move past the rule.  Although this is better than some people who always attempt to compose to the “rule,” I even disagree that it’s helpful to use initially.  I think that photography students would take generally better-composed photos if the instructor were to remind students that it is not always best to center their subjects, completely avoiding mention of this misleading rule.  



Some people call it a “guideline” of thirds, again something that I find misleading.  As a prime example, one of Ansel Adams’s most famous photos, Moonrise Over Hernandez, is composed about as far as possible from the rule of thirds.  I would even say, as far as my experience goes, there is no guideline of composition that works for the majority of photos, especially not in relation to lines which intersect an empty frame.



There are two exceptions to the above rule: if you are planning to enter a photo contest, and if you have a very specific personal style.  For people entering a photo contest, the truth is that some contests (especially lesser-known contests) may have judges who were raised on the rule of thirds mentality.  In this case, if you have a fantastic photo which would not look appreciably worse following the rule of thirds, it may be worth it to compose two frames: one for the best possible composition by your definition and one for the rule of thirds.  It may not be a better composition in reality, but it’s possible that it would tick an important box for a photo contest judge.



The second reason that you may want to consciously follow the rule of thirds for most of your photos is much rarer, but is still valid for some people: it is a part of your personal style.  If you are trying to create a series of photos with a similar feel, it can be worthwhile to decide beforehand what type of composition you want for the photos in a set.  If all of the photos follow a relatively similar style of composition, that could make the set more powerful.  Thus, even if an individual picture could look more appealing with a different composition, it is possible that you would want to shoot it using the “rule” of thirds in an effort to help it fit with the look of a series.



In terms of the golden mean or the golden spiral, I believe that all styles of composing a photo before knowing what you are photographing are equally useless.  These, though, are not going to be immediately recognizable by minor contest judges and thus they are even more useless than the “rule” of thirds.  All that they are good at is reminding people that the best composition for a photo is not always in the center of the frame 



Check out my article "Photography is not Like Writing" if you want to read more on the subject.



Composing for Your Style

Yosemite Tunnel View sunrise"Dawn in Yosemite"When I saw this scene, I was looking over Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View. I was awe-struck by the way the morning sun sculpted the valley, igniting it with color.

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- Finalist image in Outdoor Photographer of the Year competition.



When I talked about using the “rule” of thirds if it is applicable to a specific project of yours, I was in fact talking about what I’m going to outline in this section: composing for your specific style of photography.  



Everyone is different in some way in their photography.  For the most part, people won’t even recognize their “personal style” until they look back on years of work to find similar themes.  Some people naturally compose photos with, for example, wide expanses of space between the main elements of a photo.  Others are acute at exposing for brilliant highlights, letting shadows fall very dark in the photo.  However, it is only a true “personal style” if it is a frequent occurrence which happens when the photographer does not think about it.  



After recognizing a personal style, though, a photographer may choose to emphasize that style for certain photos.  For me, I have realized that I tend to use strong vertical lines in my photos, especially when they intersect directly with the center of the frame.  This is completely contrary to the rule of thirds, the golden mean, and the golden spiral, and yet many of my best photos follow such a pattern.  Now that I have recognized this, I have (relatively rarely) found myself shifting my compositions so that I can have a vertical line intersect with the middle of the frame.  This is not my thought process behind most of my photos, especially when there is no strong vertical near the center in the first place, but I do sometimes consider it.  



If you haven’t recognized your personal style, or if your style has little to do with the photo’s composition, this is clearly not a good way to compose your photos.  Also, don’t be too quick to label your personal style, since, at least initially, it is not something that should be conscious.  You don’t want to take two good minimalist photos and then believe that all your photos need to be minimalist to fit with your style.



I realize that this section sounds a bit like me saying “don’t think about a blue elephant,” but it’s true that you shouldn’t think about your personal style.  You shouldn’t even try to develop one.  I feel as though I could recognize the work of most of my favorite photographers without a second thought, and yet I can rarely articulate how I know it is theirs.  Personal style is usually best when it is subtle, which means that it is best

when you don’t compose in an attempt to follow yours.



Composing for Emotion



JökulsárlónWakingFrom Jökulsárlón lagoon,
Southeast Iceland

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A moderately-known technique of composition (one which is less common to learn in schools but relatively common online) is to compose photos based on your emotional reaction to the items in a photo.  If a scene makes you feel calm, or if you want the viewer to feel calm, compose the photo so that the composition is calm.  



Here’s an example: you see an old bench which is broken and twisted, and you want a photo.  In order to convey a feeling of disorder and confusion, you could potentially tilt the frame slightly, use a wide-angle lens, and exaggerate the lines of the bench by moving close to it.  On the contrary, if you want the bench to seem peaceful, you may want to compose a simplistic photo around sunrise/sunset when the bench is in front of a peaceful backdrop of tree leaves.  



If this sounds like a vague technique, it is.  It’s easy enough to know what qualifies as happy versus sad (a bright, warm photo versus dark, empty, blue photo), but more complex emotions are much more difficult to translate into photos.  How would your composition of the same subject differ if the scene made you feel confused versus making you feel satisfied?  Maybe some people can answer this, but I can’t.  Any division that I can create ends up being very polarizing: happy/sad or crowded/lonely, for example.  There isn't much of a way to portray the middle emotions in a way that viewers will understand.



Also, maybe it’s just me, but when I was trying to use this technique to take photos, I ended up trying it for the first few frames and then losing enthusiasm about the idea.  If I have my camera on a tripod and I’m slowly tweaking the composition, I tend to forget about aiming for a specific emotion in the frame just because it is so vague and difficult to accomplish.



In the photo above, I underexposed the frame and used dark blue tones to emphasize the ominous tone of the image.



Composing for Balance (or not)

"Serendipity""Serendipity"When I first saw this scene, I hardly believed that it was real. Here was a perfect waterfall in Norway with a perfect tree and a perfectly foggy background. I wanted to stand and admire the scene for hours, but the fog was rolling away quickly. I managed a single shot before the serendipitous scene disappeared forever.

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Lastly, the technique that I personally use is to compose my photos in terms of balancing the items in the frame.  The way I see it, there are only two extremes at play: a balanced frame, or an imbalanced frame.  Balanced compositions are inherently calm and often happy (though sometimes lonely).  Imbalanced frames are tense and sometimes annoying, and they can make your viewers dislike the photo if they cannot tell that the imbalance was intentional.  The few people who can create an irritatingly-imbalanced frame and still garner positive reactions are likely artists who already have fantastic reputations.  The better an artist is, the more likely that his/her compositions are deliberate in every way, especially the unbalanced compositions.  



At the other end of the extreme is a perfectly-balanced photo.  Technically, for this to be the case, the frame would need to be made up of repeating patterns spiraling out of the center of the photo.  However, this isn’t exactly practical in real life, so minimalist photography was born.  Although minimalist photos are not necessarily well-balanced, it certainly is easiest to manipulate the balance of a relatively empty frame.  



Between the two extremes of balanced and imbalanced, you have a range of compositional options.  You could have a balanced photo with one out-of-place element that draws the eye, or you could have a photo which is split into left and right halves, each of which acts as its own balanced composition.  It’s also easy to see the emotions of a balanced photo: calm, peaceful, serene, and beautiful.  On the contrary, imbalanced photos are tense, dramatic, and angry.  I don’t suggest using the composition itself to portray an emotion in between, just because it becomes very difficult to differentiate.  Instead, if you are trying to suggest a mood such as contemplative, ask yourself whether the frame should be balanced or not.  Usually, the answer will be yes.  You can improve the contemplative mood itself based on the subject of the photo and the lighting.  For nearly every frame on this site, I intentionally balanced the frame as well as possible.



So, then, how do you balance a photo’s composition?  I cover that topic in this article, but I’ll give a few hints here.  At its most simple, balance means that the average “weight” of everything in your photo will land on the vertical center line of the photo.  The horizontal line does not matter as much for balance.  This is a complicated phenomenon, but as far as I can tell, the photo acts as a two-sided scale of sorts.  As with a traditional balance/scale, it’s only the distance apart and the weight of the objects that changes the direction of the balance.  I would consider the composition below to be balanced because, horizontally, the frame is almost identical on both halves of the photo:



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The top and bottom halves of the photo aren’t even remotely similar to each other, but the left and right halves are similar so this is clearly a balanced photo.  



I get into more complicated explanations of balance in my other article, but I hope that this gives you something good to think about.  A lot of balance is intuitive, just a feeling you get from the photo; even if the left and right halves aren’t as similar as in the above photo, you can still “feel” whether or not there are more interesting things on one side of the frame or another.  Take the below photo as an example— it isn’t a symmetrical frame from left to right, but both people are equally far from the vertical midline.  This makes is a balanced photo.



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I hope that helps!  Stay tuned for a few more composition articles coming up.

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