The following is an abridged version of the talk I gave on the ePHOTOzine stand at the Focus on Imaging show in 2007.
It covers, in easy to read sections, an overview of the principles of composition.
It’s as good a place as any to start and in truth it forms the basis of so many of the guidelines. I often hear people talk about how they like to break The Rules in their compositions and whilst there’s nothing wrong with this, those so called Rules have been in formation for thousands of years – I’m afraid to say that someone broke them long before you did. To break a rule, you have to know it, to bend a guideline, you first have to be able to use it – so we’ll start with Thirds.
Take the following image.
The composition is based fairly rigidly around those thirds. You can see that the horizon falls across the top third, the landscape fills the middle third with a couple of interest highlights in there and the lower third contains the foreground and with it the patch of heather and the rocks lying in the bottom right hand corner or lower right third. The easiest way to remember thirds is to imagine a noughts and crosses grid as you look through your viewfinder. Thirds are comfortable, they give emphasis to natural sight-lines and allow us to compose with supporting elements in mind. On the above image we can see the foreground interest and the way that it runs naturally towards the hill in the middle third. There is some blurring of the lines throughout where elements cross the divisions but this just serves to soften the composition.
But thirds are not just for landscapes; they are as useful in all forms of photography from sport…to still life…to portraiture. You can never over-use them...just be creative with them.
THE GOLDEN MEAN
The Holy Grail, if you will, of composition. Much like Pi it’s just a simple set of numbers 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55,89,144 and so on and so forth and it appears throughout nature in the such fabulous creations as sunflowers and nautilus shells and we call the ever increasing circles it creates the Fibonacci Spiral. In no time at all we can tie ourselves up in numbers and science in the relationship between the numbers which is a ratio of 1.618, the Golden Mean. So lets get simple.
Imagine a square, now we can continue adding squares around the picture, each new square having a side which is as long as the sum of the latest two square's sides and so on and so forth and then draw a line through a quarter of each square and you get the beginnings of a Fibonacci Spiral.
Artists use this method of composing on a regular basis and for them it is much easier to place elements within each square as they want, but for you as a photographer it becomes a more challenging exercise but one which, if you keep an eye open for the opportunity, will be very rewarding. Now I'm not saying you're going to suddenly spot the perfect Fibonacci Spiral, unless you photograph the head of a sunflower. You can, however, look for that curve, the sweeping line that connects the focal points of your photograph. It may only be you who knows it's there - others will just know that your image works and that's enough.
Somewhere along the line, the idea of a central horizon became the great pariah of photography. Magazine articles become so bogged down in the Rule of Thirds that suddenly the central horizon, indeed the centralisation of the whole composition becomes the major no-no of our craft.
Landscape artists, particularly of the 18th and 19th Centuries used a central horizon to convey space or coupled it with the positioning of key elements to focus our gaze. The image below uses both methods.
Not only has it got a plumb central horizon but the focal subject, the woman pointing at the lit lamp, is smack bang in the middle of the image.
Now if we start to look around the image we can see that so many of the other elements within it point in towards her and in reverse the whole composition radiates out from her too. Even the exposure time has been used to blur the foreground figures and create lines that lead in her direction.
So don’t run scared of centralisation, be it horizons or subject placement but use them to good effect.
One of the most powerful compositional tools is the diagonal, the sloped line, the little positional quirk, a new slant on old viewpoint.
Whether you find natural diagonals that appear in the viewfinder or simply tilt your camera to one side, you can use them to either break compositions up or create interesting dynamics within the photograph. We can lead with them, form layers, soften and yet also add punch. The diagonal is King.
NUMBERS AND TRIANGLES
If the diagonal is King, then his immediate family are Numbers and Triangles.
Let’s start with numbers. Nature abhors even numbers. For instance, gardeners plant in groups of odd numbers to avoid a regimented look and it’s worth thinking in the same vein, unless of course it’s absolute symmetry and conformity you’re after.
After one (think single tree, single rock etc) we come to the next odd number of three. It’s as good a starting point as any to look for groups of threes, whether they are three of the same subject or three elements with a contextual link. Start placing these trios on thirds or diagonals and you’re using multiple principles to good effect.
Just before you rush out and start going for even more odd numbers, like for heaven’s sake – fives – the threes have lead us to triangles.
The first geometric shape, one of the most used throughout history both in drawing, art and architecture and you can use it in composition, whether it’s obvious triangular shapes or simply the connection between scattered trios in your image. You can use it to lead people into an image, to point out subjects and even the subjects themselves.
Remember triangles lead while squares block and we want people to look into our images.
REPEATS AND MIRRORS.
In composition, repeats are simply shapes, colours, elements, etc that get - repeated. It might be the continual arch of a ruined cloister, a fence disappearing into the distance, a simple series of windows or street cobbles, indeed anything that appears more than once throughout the scene. We can use them to strengthen ideas, or to create a feeling of depth.
Closely related to them is the idea of mirroring. We look for shapes and colours that get repeated by separate and maybe even unrelated elements. The shape of a foreground rock appears in a distant mountain and we are reminded of the yellow in a flower by the paint on a window frame or the swirl of a tumbling waterfall is mirrored in the clouds. The next time you go searching for a handy rock to place in the foreground - look at the shapes it's going to support in the background.
Just as they sound: layers are strips of colour, land, sky, water, movement, stacking up across the photograph like a Victoria sponge cake. Imagine beach, sea, sky or field, wall, hill, each a very basic layered image.
We can use colours in so many ways. To focus attention, to lead or as punctuation marks in splashes. We can look for singular items that stand aside in the image for their colour and place them on strong compositional lines within the image.
In the image below, despite the fact that's it's a busy image crammed with repeats and mirrors, our eye naturally falls on the old postbox due to the framing, it's position and of course, it's colour.
It seems strange to talk about foreground interest at the end of a piece on composition but landscape photographers in particular can get bogged down in this to such an extent that other areas suffer as a result. I nearly called this Rock, Water, Sky in homage to the number of such photographs that exist. While we may need that interest in there at the fore of our photographs it's worth thinking of what we can use as the starting point to create that interest other than than simply the nearest rock.
You cannot force people to look at an image in a particular way. You can however try and lead or coax them into viewing certain elements and by placing emphasis on one thing or another through your composition. It's not rocket science and you'll see some discussions on composition that seem to swamp it all in convoluted nonsense but you'll get far more from your work by keeping it simple. We'd need another five pages to touch on every would be principle and guideline but in truth much of it is smoke and mirrors.
Lead the viewer in, get their attention, keep it balanced, keep it simple and explore.
...and if you need more, I'll talk composition until the cows come home on our workshop weekends.
A Colour Managed Workflow
Raw Capture Processing