What is an effective composition? What are the given rules of composition and what is the best way to learn them? If you have heard many differing opinions and are somewhat confused as to what to think, you are not alone. Ask any photographer or appreciator of photographs and you will probably find that everyone has their own take on the subject. However, the most often mentioned rule you are going to hear these days is the ‘Rule of Thirds’. In fact a Google Internet search for the phrase will return some 275,000 articles on the subject!! Now, in my opinion the Rule of Thirds is essential to understand as it is rather handy and is used so often in visual media: television, movies, commercial photography and image / icon branding, even in designing things like cereal boxes! Truthfully I feel it is really just the tip of the iceberg, compositionally speaking — a singular method out of the myriad available ways to effectively compose striking, evocative images.
My professors in art school placed a great deal of emphasis on several methods: Geometric configuration, Pattern, Texture, using Light and Shadow to ’shape’ the image as well as Color and hue to draw the eye about the canvas and add Balance, invoke Mood or be used for Symbolism or even Energy. Based off of these methods that I was taught to use, I am going to discuss many of these guidelines / methods to consider that should help you in your future compositional endeavors. So let’s look at a few images that will work as good examples:
The classic, Geometric composition for an image is a Triangular / Pyramidal form within a square or rectangle (the square or rectangle symbolizing a canvas or the camera’s viewfinder), with the apex at the top of the frame and the base at the bottom. As seen above, this rule works perfectly for portraits but it also works perfectly well for most other subject matter too. Something to keep in mind with portraiture – the Facial Expression is key — an evocative expression will pull the viewer into the frame and slightly mesmerize them, engaging them into a ‘relationship’ with the subject of the image. For best results make sure to focus on the Eyes so they are sharp – psychologically, this is the first place the viewer will look as our brains are hardwired to analyze the eyes for emotion, communication and recognition.
Another classical portrait composition above – note the use of minimal but saturated Color (red lips, green earring) to add further complementary Balance and move the eyes around the frame to other areas other than the eyes. I also messed with the shadows adding a subtle blue / purple hue that frames the figure, helping to push the orange tones of the head and shoulders forward. This is a method of using Contrasting Color to create spatial depth in an image as blue and orange are opposites. For all Rule of Thirds fans, it should be noted that the left eye is about one third from the top.
Geometry: Triangles and Trapezoids. Whether it is people, buildings or landscapes, if you can find or compose geometric underlay to your composition, your images will weigh heavier with visual interest and intrigue as the mind and eyes trace the lines and angles subconsciously. Above, a slight twist on the canonical Triangle / Pyramid composition breaks into shards of angles as strong directional lines splay in all directions. Framing. In this image, the hands are used to help frame the face, which reinforces the viewer’s attention to the area between the hands. Also of note – the cats cradle which forms an X, a crossroads of line, shape and direction, adds extra intrigue that helps hold the viewer’s gaze to a spot very close to where the shaded left eye would be if not in shadow. Remember for any viewer, an Eye is an attraction point. Light & Shadow. Using high contrasted sections of light and dark force the viewer’s eye to certain areas, as lighter areas come forward and darker areas recede. Here the dark frame of basement shadow pushes the light figure towards us. Textures and Patterns. Usually rich accessories to any image, patterns and textures can stand on their own and hold the viewer’s eye in a minimal image. Here the loops and curves mimic or copy the folds seen in the subject’s sleeves. They also add a complex layer of pattern and movement via their irregular curvature.
OK let’s switch it up and move on from portraiture. In the image above the same aspects of Geometry underlay the composition. Additionally, copious sets of Parallel Lines not only add interesting Symmetry and Repetition but also lend a Textural intrigue for the eye. Filling the Frame. Try to get your main subject matter to touch 3 or, even better, all 4 sides of the frame. This engaging utilization of the positive space strongly affects composition, engaging the viewer and making sure the viewer’s eye travels over the largest amount of the image possible. See how the purple sky (negative space) is surrounded on the left, bottom, right and even a bit on top of the frame by architecture? This is a 4-sided frame filling technique. Color to invoke Symbolism. Originally this image was completely monochromatic, and the sky was an uninteresting shade of gray. Changing the sky to the vitalizing hue of lavender gave this image instantly more visual flair as the negative space of the sky demands much more attention and in this instance also symbolizes money and power. Rule of Halves. Although I never heard this ‘rule’ mentioned in any circles, I personally have a natural affinity to divide an image into halves in certain instances — this is one of them — it creates a very strong sense of balance! Here, it works vertically.
In this trestle detail shot above there are already several factors at work that we have discussed. Let’s list them: Rule of Thirds, Triangles and Trapezoids / Geometry, Parallel Lines, Repetition, Light & Shadow, Filling the Frame, Symmetry. Parts of this bridge touch all sides of the image frame, making this another strong composition. Additionally, a strong Diagonal from bottom left to mid photo right is used to create upward eye movement through the frame, a term that is also called Leading Lines. Color here is used, not for Symbolism, but to break up the monochrome, adding another element of interest by way of Mood and subtle Color Contrast. The green water lends a calming, introspective quality to this image.
Here there are many elements of composition at work: Foreground, Middle-ground, Background (which divides the image into planes that the eye can traverse) along with Pattern, Shape, Texture as well as nearly every Tonality from white to black (see reference points A-G above). Color in this instance is used for Energy. I could have chosen to use any number of several colors for the sky as it was lifeless — here the choice of bright pink really adds an eccentric, unexpected jolt to the image resulting in visual intrigue. Mimicking – see how the rectangle windows of the skyscraper in the background mimic the diagonal line of painted rectangle shapes on the brick wall? These shapes in turn mimic the dark windows at the bottom of the frame. As opposed to a minimal set of subject matter, this image has a great deal of detail in the different shapes and patterns and textures — the idea of so many differing elements in one image make this a unique collection of visual intrigue.
This image here has an interesting twist — Not only am I using the foreground shadowed top and bottom elements of the image to Frame the light into Geometric shapes holding the viewer’s eye, I am also using a variation of the Rule of Thirds. Let’s call this Triangular Thirds. See how the image is divided up pretty much equally from top to bottom? The angles themselves are quite different, but the amount of space in each portion are relatively the same — when spaced is divided equally, visual balance is the result. It could be thirds or fourths or fifths — it doesn’t make a difference. Here again is my personal Rule of Halves… I visually cut this image straight down the middle (blue line)… something many people would not advise you to do! As you become more comfortable utilizing the many different aspects of composition you will find yourself beginning to experiment and come up with your own compositional parlor tricks. Don’t be afraid to intentionally break the rules…!
Continuing on: Diagonal / Leading Lines in this image move the eye left to right or right to left and Parallel Lines come into play with the supporting posts and above them in the rafters as well as in the wonderful dark Textures in the wood and metal. The purple circle at the left is being used to illustrate the idea of using the Corners of an image to place interest in your photo, not all of the action needs to happen in the middle areas. Here the most visible figures are grouped into the foreground of the bottom left corner. This photo also qualifies as a four-sided Filling the Frame image. The silhouetted / dark areas of this structure touch all four sides of the frame!
Finally, what elements do you think I chose to use while composing this shot? The first is that naturally your eyes should quickly make their way to right Eye of the subject – the crisp and detailed eye. The second element I have employed is the use of Color (the bright red stripe on the left is too bright to miss for very long) to pull your eyes back towards the left-hand side of the frame. The bright red pulls your eyes leftward — otherwise your eyes would remain on the right-hand side of the image and you would miss a good deal of the rest of the photo! Contrasting Color tensions of the red and the green as well as the yellow and the blue / purple hues in close proximity to each other, make for nice visual intrigue.
OK, so we have gone over quite a few things to keep in mind when you are composing – I hope this has got you thinking of many different ways to compose your images in the future!! Mix it up, have some fun and practice using these elements of composition to make unique images of your own. Now this list is not meant to be exhaustive – I can think of even more elements that can be used for compositional purposes, but I will leave you with only one more to consider… and it is important! Make Each Composition Your Own!! We all have our own way of seeing, and we all have our own personal styles — take the time to make the images you create uniquely yours — set out to make them different from everyone else’s!! Practice using all of these guidelines and then go out and use them in your own way — don’t try to be just another photographer in the crowd!!
Jaycee Crawford is an artist, DJ and world traveler at heart. An avid collector of electronic music, he also routinely ‘collects’ people, places and ideas from all walks of life and all over the globe; all of which inspire him to create his imagery. He currently lives in New York City and is developing a small business in creative portraiture and boudoir photography.