a22 April 2014

Tutorial: Photo Composition Primer

You know that - some images work perfectly and look very interesting but other images that are similar doesn't look that good and appealing. They may have same subjects, use similar colours but one thing might be different for them - composition. Composition is the key to create interesting and powerful images, ones that will attract viewers attention. Composition is the first thing you should think of when taking a picture.

In this tutorial I will try to teach you some most common rules of composition and give you some general tips on achieving better composition in your images. As a landscape photographer I will illustrate the concepts with landscape photos but most of the ideas described here can be applied to any type of photography.

1) We read images from left to right

What many people don't know is that the fact we read text from left to right (or from right to left in some countries and cultures) and from top to bottom means that we also 'read' images in the very same way. It means that we find the images that have 'action' in the right part more appealing and natural.

Now the interesting thing is that you can do completely opposite - i.e. to put something interesting in the left part - to provide some twist and make your image more intriguing.

2) Avoid center composition

One of the common mistakes that beginner photographers make is to put their subject in the middle of a frame. I remember making this mistake myself and putting horizon in the middle of image height. Unfortunately most of the images with center composition look boring and not really interesting to our eyes. That's why you should avoid this composition most of the time.

However, there are some exceptions when center composition works quite well. Some photos of flowers are one example. Another one is when there is symmetry and reflection (which are described later).

3) Rule of thirds

Rule of thirds is one of the most well-known and easiest to apply rules of composition. It is about dividing the image frame into virtual 3 x 3 grid where each of the cells has exactly same size. The idea is then to put your subjects either on the lines of the grid or in one of their 4 intersections.

This rule can be also applied to landscape photography. In such case you should put your horizon either in 1/3rd or 2/3rd of height of your image. However, sometimes it doesn't work well especially when sky is very boring but foreground is very interesting. In such case you can try putting your horizon in 1/6th of image height instead.

What's more not all lines and intersections work equally well. As stated above we read images from left to right and from top to bottom. This means that many images will look better if you put subject in the bottom right intersection of the grid. This works especially well for landscapes if you put some boat or rock there.

In the image below I used rule of thirds to place horizon in 1/3rd of image height and also to put the end of the road in one of the grid intersections. Moreover, two other roads pass through bottom grid intersections:
Rule of thirds

4) Golden ratio rule

It's a bit modified version of the rule of thirds described above (in fact it's the opposite - rule of thirds is simplified version of golden ratio rule). In this version of the rule cells of the grid don't have equal sizes anymore. Instead dimensions of middle cells are equal to 0.618 of dimensions of surrounding cells.

Golden ratio rule usually produces images that are even more appealing than the ones which use rules of thirds.

I used golden ratio rule in the image below to put rocks in the intersections of the grid. Look at how I utilized all intersections in this image to put something interesting in them:
Golden ratio rule

5) Golden triangles rule

It's another rule that will create very powerful and visually attractive images. In this case instead of dividing the image into set of rectangles we divide it into 4 right angled triangles.

This rule works especially well for diagonal compositions or ones with strong leading lines but in fact it can be used in some way for virtually any image and almost all images will benefit from it. It's because human eye likes triangles.

Take a look at below examples. Left one is pretty obvious - leading line was put on the edge of the triangle. The second example is less obvious as there are no real lines in the image - they are virtual and connect various rocks.
Golden triangles rule
Golden triangles rule

6) Use frames

One of the most effective ways of focusing viewers attention on the middle of an image is to frame it. By "framing" I mean using such elements that will close the image on either one or a few sides. Frame can be virtually anything from tree, stone column to the bridge.

In the photo below I used tree branches on left and right side and some sort of rope at the bottom to close the frame from 3 sides thus focusing viewers attention on the building and its reflection.
Use frames

7) Level horizon

It might be obvious but too many photographers forget about this - levelling horizon is essential. Otherwise it will distract viewers attention. The worst thing for me is seeing an image that is excellent but the horizon is just slightly off (eg. by an 0.2 degree).

In the image below horizon is off by just about 1.0 degree. It's very disturbing and simply - looks bad and unprofessional.
Horizon that is slightly off doesn't look good

8) Symmetry and reflection

Although I myself don't like symmetry in general because I find it boring (and there isn't much symmetry in landscapes) I do like reflections because they add some amazing depth to the image. You can find reflection not only in the mirrors, lake surfaces but also in car's body or in a puddle. Search for reflections as they really add another dimension to your images.

Also images that have symmetry or reflection in them are often good candidates for centered composition.
Symmetry and reflection

9) Leading lines

Leading lines are one of my favourite compositional elements. Most commonly these are straight lines going from foreground to background (like a bridge for instance) leading the eye through the image.

Other example of leading lines are all sorts of paths, roads that guide viewer through the image. So by leading line you should understand any line (straight or not) that leads the eye through or out of the image.

First of the images below has some very strong and obvious leading lines in the bridge. Plenty of them in fact. The other one has single path that is also a leading line because it leads the eye through the whole image and then finally outside of the frame.
Leading lines
Leading lines

10) S-Curve composition

S-Surve shapes are one of the most appealing shapes to human eye. So if you can find some in your frame - make sure to make full use of them. If you're photographing landscape it's easiest to find s-curves when looking on some roads. In portrait or beauty photography you can make use of human body to get s-curve.

Below photo uses s-curve shape for path in the mountains (although not whole path is clearly visible). If the path would be straight, it would be pretty boring but thanks to curves it looks quite interesting.
Path through Hala Ornak

11) Layers

Layers are very nice concept especially for landscape photography. The idea is to provide distinctive layers of landscape, like sky, forest, ground, water thus creating separation between various elements.

The layers might be completely separate and have strong edges (eg. mountains and sky) or they might smoothly transition from one into another (eg. when there is fog that softens the edges between layers).

I used layers in below photo. Starting from top, they are:
  • sky,
  • mountains,
  • fog in the valley,
  • forest,
  • snow in foreground.
Using layers in landscape photography

12) Play with colours

There are some colours that when combined together in a frame create very strong images and contrast and make the image more interesting. They are so called complementary colours. The most commonly used combinations are:
  • blue and orange - which can be easily found during blue hour in the city,
  • yellow and purple - can be found during sunset and sunrise,
  • red and green - can be found eg. during autumn when some trees are already turning yellow and red but there are still some greens remaining.
Below photo uses exactly this concept by combining blue and orange colour to create powerful image with very strong colour contrast:
Use of complementary colours

13) Leave some breathing space for subject

If you deal with a moving subject (like a car for instance), animal or a person it's important you leave some space in front of them to give them room for movement. Otherwise the image will look like being very crowded and you will give your viewers impression that subject doesn't have enough space to move.

Take a look at below images. Bird on the left has plenty of space for movement, the other one has much fewer space.
Subject has enough space
Subject doesn't have enough space

14) Foreground element

It's especially important concept in landscape photography. You can add some interest to your foreground by putting some elements there. It might be rock, single leaf, a boat or virtually any distinctive and interesting subject. It's even better if you have more than one foreground element and they are placed in such a way that they are working as non-obvious leading lines leading the eye through the image.
Use of foreground elements

15) Finally... break the rules

Once you master all above rules, it's time to break them. When I compose my images I don't focus to much on any of the rules. I just try to compose an image in such a way that all elements are working together in the most interesting way.

Also after you gain some experience in composing your images you will often use more than one rule at a time to create even more interesting images.

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