What about composition?

posted on 11th of may, 2009

Hi to all! Here is your amateur adviser again:)

I was encouraged with fact that my last article about shooting objects on white came up on "Useful articles" section. I don't know how those lists work but I think enough of you clicked on small "useful" button :) I guess that this should give me even more encouragement to finally start producing quality DT photos. I was preparing for this for long time, reading many practical books from world famous photographer, buy myself some so-so equipment. I must admit that even I feel an urge to read my own article because theory and practice are huge difference. I have too many images refused for lack of composition that is is almost embarrassing to write this article. I must admit that refusal explanations on DT actually adds much to my theoretical knowledge.

Today I will write what I have learned about composition rules and principles and how this eventually affects happy living on DT. Regarding my personal success in this article I'll use some others great images.

Composition of image is one of the elements that defines images aesthetic value. If you are shooting objects with purpose to be used by designers then some composition rules will not apply. You just center that thing on center, isolate it well and that's it. Designers will decide what to do with them during creation process.

By my opinion, on DT, the most important category where good composition is a must is conceptual photography (not only one, but one of the top, you may consider portraits as well, and so on). This applies on your computer generated concepts too. Conceptual images are mostly used as a backgrounds for advertisements or images that graphically supports a story with some higher sense. In both cases such images are at request to bring a message or raise some emotion to viewer. To achieve this, your photo must be photography at the best sense, like it is not only one of million stock photographs, but your masterpiece which you want to have framed on the wall.

Making impact to viewer is closely related to human mentality, sense of aesthetics, habits in observing the world around etc. Foundations of this knowledge was known even from old Greeks and was extensively used in art. Photography is one of the arts so visual impression principles applies to it as well.

I dont like the term "rules", but rather I use the term "principles". Understanding some basic principles gives you opportunity to experiment with them as they may serve you in both directions.

In terms of rules we consider them as "following" or "breaking" the rules. Both can make proper impact if you do this well.

Lets see an example: The "horizon" principle requires that your horizon on photo must be horizontal, at zero degrees. If your horizon is at 3 degrees angle it will look like a mistake. But you might express some action or movement by changing the angle of horizon which will emphasize and unbalance the image to give certain emotion. In first case, a boat on the sea will look good at zero degree horizon, but a man falling from bicycle may look more interesting with angled horizon, as our idea is to express unbalance. The principle here is that if you break the "perfect horizon rule", then really break it. Use strong angle so your intention is obvious.

Horizon rule is just one of compositional elements. There are many of them and I want to try to explain a few that are most important.

Rule of Thirds is one of the most famous compositional "rules" around. It says that center is not so valuable as are the sweet lines and sweet spots. Divide your image in three thirds horizontally and vertically. You will have like 3x3 net over your image. The lines between thirds are sweet lines, both horizontally and vertically, the points where lines intersects are the sweet spots. There are four of them and they are considered as most valuable positions on image. That's what the "rule" says, and in most cases it works. Which line or spot you will use to align your point of interest on depends on your object and scene. Note that symmetrical images, and mirror reflections likes center more then sweet spots, because centering emphasize the symmetry. Choice of spot really depends on the object and the impression we want to send out.

How are your objects positioned inside your frame? What are they doing? What is the main point of interest in image and how it interacts with background and other subjects? Is it interesting to look at, is it pleasant, does it bring any emotion? That is composition.
Regarding balance you must consider all graphical elements, namely lines, curves, shapes, verticals, diagonals, patterns, textures etc. Let your objects be aligned to them.
We, humans, mostly have habit to read from left to right (with few exceptions, of course). We do the same when we enter a room, we scan from left to right and then back. On our image we want to have this in mind too. It is important that all compositional elements and positions tends to guide an eye of observer through the image to the point where we want him to stop. Don't let the observers eye to run outside of image.
Also keep in mind directions of moving objects, like people, cars etc. If someone walks to right, live him a space in image to walk into. Align him to left sweet line, for example, and leave one third of image behind his back, and two thirds in front of him. That is the rule, but principle says that if we for some reason want to show concept of "leaving" we can have walker on right sweet line, leaving two thirds behind his back, and only one in front. Missing any of sweet lines in both concepts will look like a bad composition.
If you have faces on image, note that observer will probably follow the direction where your portrait looks. Many possibilities how you can get compositional advantage of this.
Move closer to the subject, fill the frame, avoid unnecessary intersections, and tree branches growing from peoples heads. Check the background, it is important what is seen behind your subject, Avoid busy backgrounds and unnecessary distractions which has nothing to do with your image theme.
One very important thing: if you need to "cut" human body with image frame, target for "bones", don't cut hand on wrist or elbow, don't cut leg on knee or heap. People will look like invalids. Try to play with cropping on your images and see the difference.
Take care of depth of field. Sometimes it is good and sometimes is pain. Depth of field affects environment of your point of interest, thus affects your composition
Choose interesting angles of your shoot. Image is more interesting if you record it from angle which is not common. Many have seen puppy dog from above. It is more interesting to lower your camera on puppy's height. You will make better impression on how the world looks like from that perspective.
Dreamstime encourages personal touch, creativity, and thinking out of box. I like that approach. Unusual is interesting. Did you ever think about shooting backyard from inside dogs house. Placing camera inside and using timer or remote triggering? Could look great with some experimenting.

Not all of this theories and ideas will apply for DT acceptance. There is a difference between RF stock photo and artistic impresion which you would like to sell for $500 for a framed wall poster. But lets put it this way, formula 1 pilot first must to know how to drive a regular car too. That is why we read, learn, observe, and then try to put it into practice. Someone succeed, someone don't. Otherwise, no one would buy, and everyone would sell.

Until next time - keep shooting.

Comments (5)

Comment by Amyemilia on June 02, 2009

At least one school of thought says that you have to know the rules in order to break them effectively. That probably applies to the Rule of Thirds too.

Nice article!

Comment by Wildmac on May 12, 2009

This is an excellent article. I consider it to be a 'must read' for everyone that's having images rejected because of composition. Keep up the good work! :0)

Comment by Petroruth on May 11, 2009

thank you for this informative article this really helps the learning process.

Comment by Alexhor on May 11, 2009

Thanks Rebecca, I also found this composition of yours interesting for few things that I was talking about. Leaving space in front of the person, following her eyes to the point of interest, correctly cutting in the middle of upper arm, the same for the leg, and also diagonal division of filled and empty space in frame. Everything at the end leads to the tummy. I added this image to the article. Good work!

Comment by Rebeccaosborn on May 11, 2009

Great article! Thanks! I also like to see the composition 'rules' just as mere guidelines when i am shooting, sometimes they assist in creating great images, and sometimes i prefer to be a little more creative and free! Either way, they are definitely good to be aware of when shooting!

Good luck! Rebecca

Comments (5)

This article has been read 1451 times. 2 readers have found this article useful.
Photo credits: Alon Othnay, DuĊĦan Zidar, Rebeccaosborn, Skifenok, Victoria Alexandrova, George Tsartsianidis, Yuri_arcurs.

About me

I am not a pro, but I like digital photography. I still don't have any recognizable direction in photography, so I'm trying, experimenting and learning extensively... My real background is in design and interest in visual arts. Computer aided graphics, 3D modeling, comics etc. Some of this work may be also presented here. My collections: >>Vector illustration - vehicles and transportation >>Vector illustration - business and industy concepts >>llustration - 3D generated characters My latest blog article >>Commitment (Last count: 377 reads) My most read blog articles (3000+ r... [Read more]

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