10. Photography composition
Composition in photography
Composition refers to how we lay the picture out and how we position subjects within the frame to get the most aesthetically pleasing results.
The purpose of good composition is to guide the viewer’s eye through the picture. We can achieve this through careful framing, arrangement and placement.
Although there are many well-known compositional guidelines (such as the rule of thirds or golden ratio), they are simply that – guidelines. Some of the best images completely ignore traditional compositional conventions. So why is it important to know and understand them?
Following compositional guidelines doesn’t guarantee a great image. But it will give you a much better chance of capturing a good one.
Rules of composition
What is the rule of thirds?
The rule of thirds divides the image into three rows of three, splitting the image into nine equal blocks. The idea is to position important elements so that they fall either on the dividing lines or at the points of intersection.
Placing objects within these areas helps to create more interest in the image than if you were to simply centre your primary subject.
The golden ratio is a mathematical formula that relates to Phi (1.6180339…). Two quantities (a and b) fit the golden ratio if b is to a what a is to the sum of a + b. In this ratio, a is 1.6180339 times bigger than b. This formula forms the basis for other compositional rules, such as the golden spiral and even to some extent the rule of thirds.
Developed by Fibonacci, the golden spiral is, contrary to its name, composed out of a series of Phi Grids. These grids determine the path of a snail-shaped spiral (known as the Fibonacci Spiral), which guides your eye around the image to the focal point.
In addition to compositional rules, there are a number of compositional techniques you can use when creating your images.
Leading lines are lines (or curves) that guide the viewer’s eye to the subject. From fence posts to winding roads, leading lines can be straight, curved, diagonal or converging. These lines help keep our eye in the frame and draw attention to the subject.
Although it contradicts the rule of thirds, symmetry can be very effective when used correctly. In addition to creating a pleasing sense of harmony in an image, symmetry can help remove or minimise additional distractions and focus the viewer’s eye.
See the images above and below for examples of symmetry.
Colour is an important part of photography. When used creatively, it can help us to achieve some interesting compositional effects. For example, we can use colours to influence the mood and feel of an image, or to draw attention to particular elements within it. Juxtaposing colours can be a particularly effective way of catching the viewer’s attention, as I demonstrate in the video.
In the images above and below, colour theory is used as a compositional technique.
Framing means using secondary elements within an image to frame its primary subject. It’s a great way to create depth and three-dimensionality. The elements you use to frame your subject add perspective and a sense of scale, as well as additional points of interest.
Your goal as a photographer is to catch and maintain your viewer’s attention by keeping their eye in the frame. In addition to using the compositional rules we’ve explored, you can achieve this via various techniques linked to the human visual system, such as left-to-right bias, contrast, narrative, and so on.
Of course, good photography comes down to far more than just good composition. That’s why it’s important to understand everything we've covered in this introductory course: how cameras work, how time and aperture can be used together for creative imagery, optics and their differences, the importance of light for conveying emotion and the different types of recording mediums and how these relate to image quality.
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