Composition - why is it important? What are the "Rules" and can they be broken? What makes
a pleasing composition? We humans tend to be creatures of habit in many ways. In reading a
book, magazine or newspaper our eyes travel from left to right - the same holds true when
viewing photographs or paintings. We tend to start at the bottom left of an image and
work our way up and to the right.
The ancient Greeks always strived for perfection in their art - and being great
mathematicians came to the conclusion that there needed to be a certain "balance"
for a composition to be pleasing to the eye of the viewer. Hence, they developed what
is known as the "Golden Triangle" or "Golden Mean". Mathematically, they found that
the relationship between 5 and 8 worked best. Thus, they took their canvas and divided
it equally into 8 parts both horizontally and vertically, then counted 5 stops in
from the left and then from the right horizontally - and the same 5 stops in from
the top and the bottom. The resulting grid is shown in Figure 1.
The "Power Points" created by the intersecting lines were where they wanted the viewer to focus their
attention - and it worked! By placing the main subject on a power point, it brought
the focal point of the image to the subject. If there was more than one main subject,
placing them on any of the other points worked in the same way - drawing the viewer's
attention where the artist wanted it to be and giving the composition "balance".
Of course, it's not easy to divide a viewfinder into eight equal parts while trying
to compose a photo, thus, the Rule of Thirds was developed.
This concept simplified the grid - being much easier to imagine three equal
sections (see Figure 2) versus the somewhat tighter grid of the "Golden
Triangle". Both rules use "power points" as the focal points in the image.
We'll talk about "breaking" these rules a bit later, but first let's discuss
general overall components that need to be addressed when choosing
Balance and Weight:
To be pleasing to the eye a composition must be well balanced.
Dark colors add weight to an image, while lighter colors add space. In most cases,
you don't want the subject to appear to be "floating" in space, so something to serve
as an "anchor" will give the image balance. In the image on the right, the Green Heron
is placed strategically on the power points allowing the viewer to follow him up from
the left, ending at the focal point (the intent look on his face).
The foreground gives some balance to the image and "anchors" the composition while the
water accents the subject, as well as complementing the other colors in the frame.
Simplicity: Keeping the scene limited to only what you want the viewer to see (that is,
keeping any unnecessary elements out which may be distracting or detracting from the subject).
Key Element(s): This ties in very closely with the simplicity of a composition. Most
compositions have one or maybe two main subjects that are the focal point(s) of the
image. Always try to make sure there is some sort of relationship factor with the
subjects that complement each other. Next, let's look at some finer points on
composition that give added value to an image.
Color: Colors or tones that complement themselves work very well in a composition,
as does a "splash" of color that is dramatically different from the major portion
of the background. It's up to you but keep in mind your focal points when adding that
"splash" - if it's not the main subject and not placed strategically in the frame it
can detract from the focal point of the composition.
Light and Atmospheric Conditions: Light is an integral part of any composition since
you want it to emphasize the subject, as well as any other components in the composition.
I'm a sucker for "foggy" shots, but make sure that you have a main subject that is
the focal point otherwise the viewer may get lost in all that "gray".
Lines and Patterns: Is there a certain "flow" to the composition with diagonal,
vertical or horizontal lines or patterns? Keep in mind the orientation of your subject
when trying to compose the frame - use these elements to enhance the subject and not
detract from it. Also always remember to keep the horizon line "LEVEL" in the frame.
A level horizon will give the viewer some symmetry to the composition.
Motion or Subject Perspective: If there is a main subject, such as a bird or animal,
always try to give it breathing room. That is, if he's looking in a certain direction,
try placing him on the best power point so that it appears he's looking "into" the
frame with room in front of the eyes. Landscape and scenic are a bit different in
this respect, as you generally don't have motion unless you are shooting a mountain
stream or river. However, placement of key elements in a landscape or scenic photo
is critical for a properly balanced composition. When shooting a flowing stream remember
the power points and choose the area of the water you want to have as the focal point
in the frame (if the stream is your main subject).
Format: Horizontal or Vertical - which is going to give the "most" visual impact to
the viewer? Continue to imagine your "power points" even in a vertical composition. Is the
subject standing up, leaning forward or on the move in one direction or another?
Remember the previous point - Motion or Subject Perspective? Normally, a moving bird
will work better in a horizontal composition as it gives it more "room to move into
the frame", while a stationary subject that is sitting on a branch or a post might be
better in a vertical format to accentuate the focal point.
Now let's Break The Rules! Many photographers ascribe to the notion that a "centered"
subject is not a good thing and that it should rarely, if ever, be located dead center
in the frame. This does work in some instances however. For example, a stationary bird
that is looking straight at you - you don't need room on either side for him to look
in to the frame, nor is there any motion you have to contend with. The trick here
would be to make sure that the subject is the ONLY focal point in the frame. Keeping an
uncluttered background with some sort of anchor to tie it to the bottom or top edge of
the frame will work in this situation. Be careful when anchoring to the top though -
remember I mentioned that humans tend to view from the bottom left and move up and to
the right in a frame? You don't want them to be lost in the space at the bottom with
nowhere to go.
Likewise, you can break the rules a bit with having top, bottom or center-weighted
compositions. Take a mountain landscape for example - are you trying to focus on the
mountain as well as the clouds or sky above? Remember that dark colors add weight
to an image and lighter colors add space.
In a bottom-weighted photo of the mountains as in the photo on the right, the darkest
layer would anchor the composition while still allowing the viewer to wander up and around
in the frame to view the other components. While there is a bit of empty space at the top,
it's not "dead" space as there are varying gradients of color in the hazy sky.
Be careful on using a top-weighted format! You don't want too much "empty" space at the
bottom, as it will throw off the balance of the image. In this situation you have to
determine how much foreground to include that will produce some semblance of balance
even though your focal point will be in the top half of the frame. Using a center-weighted
composition requires having the main focal point just that - centered in the frame.
For example, perhaps you want to focus on a line of trees with fall foliage - having
them dead center in the frame would work, but make sure that the composition is balanced
with some complementary subjects on both the top and bottom of the subject (i.e., the
sky and lake, etc.). However, keep in mind what impact these types of compositions will have on
the viewer - you may be striving for a certain "look and feel" to an image that
the viewer may not see.
This article just touched on the basics of composition - both the Rules and Breaking
The Rules. The decision on which avenue to follow lies with you, the photographer, but
keep in mind the viewer when deciding which trail to take at the fork in the road.
About the Images:
Figure 1 - The Golden Triangle, created in Photoshop 6.0, August 2002
Figure 2 - The Rule of Thirds, created in Photoshop 6.0, August 2002
Green Heron (grid) - Sugar Land, Texas - Kodak DCS 330 Digital, Sigma 400mm APO
Tele/Macro, F/5.6, July 2002
Hybrid Mallards - Sugar Land, Texas - Kodak DCS 330 Digital, Sigma 400mm APO Tele/Macro,
F/5.6, August 2002
Wichita Mountains NWR - The layers viewed from Mt. Scott on a foggy morning sunrise in
October 2001. Nikon N90s, Sigma 105mm, F/2.8
Editor's Comment: Let us know what you think! Please email the
Editor or the
to let us know your thoughts. Michael is the Editor and a Field Correspondent
for PhotoMigrations. He has had photos published on Gloria Mundi Press, PBS.org
and Wildportraits.com. In addition, his articles have appeared on PhotoMigrations.com,
Wildportraits.com and NaturePhotographers.net. Feel free to visit his website -
Michael's Natural Images and peruse
the many galleries of the flora and fauna of Texas and Oklahoma.