In photography and visual arts, the arrangement of elements within a frame can elicit stronger feelings than the actual subject. This awareness, intention, and organization of elements are known as a photograph's composition. A well-conceived composition directs the viewer's attention. It invites them into the frame, guides them around inside, and holds their attention. Although our photography tastes are subjective, the techniques for creating a stunning photograph, over the centuries, have proven indubitable.
So let’s explore some of photography’s most well-known and not-so-well-known techniques for creating powerful compositions and help take your next shot to a higher level.
Rules of Thirds, Triangles, and Ratios
There’s a lot of divine innuendo in the language of photographers, but this holy vocabulary begins to make sense once you’ve seen a setting sun's final reach through a set of clouds at dusk. However, in post-production, we often notice the clouds or beams of light have lost their majesty — a consequence of our camera’s sensor’s inability to capture the mood without direction. Three tips for avoiding this problem are known as the Rules of Thirds, Golden Triangles, and Golden Ratios; compositional techniques created long before photography that will remain a foundation of the visual arts long after. These techniques range from quick and dirty to exquisitely complicated, appropriate for every genre, including macro and wildlife photography.
The Rule of Thirds is a fundamental principle of photography composition used by artists for centuries. Based on the idea of dividing an image into nine equal parts, with two horizontal and two vertical lines intersecting at the four points of interest, photographers can create more balanced and aesthetically pleasing photos by placing the subject along these lines or at their intersections. In addition, this technique can create dynamic compositions that draw the viewer’s eye to the subject and add interest to an image. Although a straightforward strategy to employ, masters like Ansel Adams have volumes of work demonstrating the Rule of Thirds.
The Golden Triangle is another powerful compositional technique photographers use to create visually appealing images and enhance storytelling. However, its core layout is askew compared to the traditional Rule of Thirds. It involves arranging the elements of a photograph in a triangular shape, with the most important part placed at the triangle's apex. This technique helps to draw attention to the main subject and create an aesthetically pleasing image. By using this technique, photographers can ensure that their photos are well-balanced and have an impactful visual appeal.
The Golden Ratio, also known as the Golden Section, Golden Mean, Fibonacci Spiral, Phi Grid, or the Divine Proportion, is a mathematical concept used in photography compositions for hundreds of years and many other artistic mediums and expressions. The core idea is that specific proportions between elements of a photograph can create aesthetically pleasing results which lead the viewer through the entire photo. The Golden Ratio is an advanced technique better utilized in post-production than on the fly during a fast-paced shoot like sports photography. A natural phenomenon expressed algebraically, The Golden Ratio resembles the shell of a Nautilus mollusk, with the most detailed part of your image falling into the tightest coil. Understanding how this ratio works and applying it to your photographs can create beautiful, engaging, and balanced imagery.
These techniques, working as a guide, are a series of lines usually overlaid on a screen within your camera or in editing software. But did you know that there are often lines within your scene that can also work to create stunning compositions?
Lines are integral in everyday life; they guide us, help us travel, structure our anticipation (Next!), and frame our homes, schools, and businesses. Lines and the human experience are so intertwined that we romantically gaze toward the horizon while the sun falls behind one. The use of lines, whether verbal, figurative, physical, or literal, is a powerful compositional technique known as Leading Lines — a technique artists and photographers use to compose some of the most engaging compositions in photography.
Leading Lines are a powerful compositional tool for photographers to create captivating images. When used correctly, Leading Lines can draw viewers’ attention and guide them on a visual journey, creating a sense of depth and motion. This technique is beneficial when shooting landscapes or architectural photography. For example, imagine a symmetrically composed snapshot of an eerily quiet San Francisco morning. In the foreground begins a city street with businesses lying on either side. The street’s lines vanish as they direct our eye toward the background, revealing the herculean Bay Bridge, a concept known as converging lines. Using lines, the photographer gives his viewer more context instead of straight documentation of an all-important bridge. In this case, besides visual direction, the lines provoke communication between the subject and the audience. How critical is that bridge? Those lines might lead the audience to believe there is only one way out of the city. Furthermore, Leading Lines, alone, can also become the subject of the composition turning the vast distance from the foreground to the bridge into the conversation garnered between photographer and viewer. Possibilities aside, Leading Lines help a photographer compose a sense of direction within an image and help guide the viewer’s eye to or from the main subject or become the main subject entirely.
You’ve probably noticed by now that intersecting and converging lines create shapes: squares, rectangles, triangles, and diamonds, to name a few. Likewise, shapes create frames, leading us to one of my favorite techniques for creating engaging compositions.
Frame within a Frame
Frame within a Frame is an effective and creative photography composition technique that creates stunning and moving imagery. The method involves using a foreground element(s) to frame the image's main subject — designing a sense of depth and perspective. This technique allows photographers to draw attention to their subject while providing context. In addition, the foreground element can be anything within the frame: think window, doorway, or archway; your imagination only limits this technique, so just use those to start. A favorite trick of mine is to illustrate the bustle of a heavily populated location by shooting between two people so that their silhouettes work as a frame in the foreground, leading the audience to infer that there is barely enough room for the camera. Cinematographers often use this technique in chase scenes through parades or congested subways. Contrasting dark and light, blurry and clear, aids in directing a viewer's eye to precisely where to look.
Once mastered, if you feel limited by the appropriateness of this technique by assuming it only works in specific contexts, just remember that a Frame within a Frame doesn’t have to be literal. And some of photography’s most engaging and influential photographers accomplish this through visual metaphor.
Unequivocally, contrast composes a photograph like no other technique. Contrast’s ability to create mind-blowing compositions is why we saved it for last; although it is one of the most exciting techniques to employ, it can quickly become one of the most intimidating. Contrast happens when juxtaposing parts of your composition, such as light and dark tones, colors, shapes, textures, and scales, to name a few.
Tonal contrast plays a crucial role in achieving an impressive composition but is often overlooked in favor of color contrast. Highlights naturally work as a focal point within an image when contrasted against shadows and generally provide more detail than their counterparts. By manipulating the light and dark areas within your frame, you’ll be able to direct your audience’s attention. For example, imagine a spotlight on a theatre stage. The spotlight’s contrast against a dark backdrop informs the audience where to focus.
Using contrasting colors in photography can result in gorgeous visuals. When snapping photos, look for colors placed at the opposite ends of the color wheel - such as red and green. For example, a great way to make someone stand out in a photograph is to dress them in green and place them against a red wall. This eye-catching combination of colors will capture attention and create an aesthetically pleasing composition. Use a color wheel to discover other contrasting color combinations.
An honest mistake when thinking of color is getting stuck in an overly saturated vision — color pops but not as well when everything else is just as vibrant. For example, if you think about the Design Pervert Karim Rashid, his furniture designs flaunt fantastically saturated and vibrant hues; however, he places his pieces within white rooms. In this case, the Design Pervert contrasts a white wall and saturated designs to further “the pop.” So if we were to reverse this technique in photography, we could create a sense of melancholy by juxtaposing a desaturated subject with a vibrant background.
Texture is often one of the most overlooked types of contrast — however, fewer techniques rival texture’s ability to create earthy, organic, and robust moods. In addition, texture forces the audience to inject their previous experiences into the photograph. For instance, a photo of a hand gliding across the hood of a sports car elicits a different response from the audience than a mechanic’s overly worked hands wheeling away a recently changed tire.
Contrast is everywhere, place big near small, old near young, distance near close, and so on. But don’t stop there because some of the most engaging photographs are new types of contrast, or combinations of contrast, discovered by the photographer. What’s more, by creatively combining these techniques, photographers can create stunning compositions that capture the focus and admiration of their audience.
How You Shoot It
Nearly every compositional technique strives to create balance within an image, an endeavor known to photographers as harmony. Harmonious compositions maintain a sense of refinement among photography’s drastically different genres. Also known as unity, this harmonious balance is why street photography, in all its grunge and glory, can be appreciated among enthusiasts just as much as high-end fashion or food photography. And why all photography will remain one of art’s most sophisticated mediums.
So whether you’re using leading lines to guide your viewer across a cityscape or utilizing a lantern’s glow to beckon your audience down a long and dark hallway, there’s a compositional technique to help tell your story.