10 Things that will Transform Photographic Composition

“Composition is the strongest way of seeing.”

This powerful quote by Edward Weston sums up the art of finding the frame that best suits an image.

Seeing a composition comes after a healthy amount of practice. But what do we practice to get better at composing photographs? Here are some things we learned from a week of shooting at Imagine That Photography Tribe.

1. Move the frame to get the best shot.

Tribe member Schalk Ras took a shot of some lines. The lines formed by clouds, and the line formed by a body of water. But he wasn’t that happy with his composition, and thought about what to do to get a better image. So for the reshoot, Schalk moved his vantage point.

Copyright Schalk Ras 2012.

Moving the vantage point is one of the ways you improve a composition. By moving closer to his subject, Schalk simplified it, focusing more on the lines he spotted. The resulting image illustrates that moving vantage point can improve composition.

2. Use leading lines.

In Schalk’s photo, the cloud line and the water line converge at a point in the background. These lines lead the eye from one point in the composition to another.

Here’s another great example from another Tribe member, Mihaela Limberea. Mihaela used a curved line to lead the eye from the frame to the background.

Leading lines can help the viewer’s eye move from one point of the composition to the next, making it easy for their eyes to view the image. Providing the viewer with a way into and a way out of the image is a way for the photographer to form a connection with the audience.

3. Use the lens to help the composition.

Tribe member Vincent Ng used a wide angle lens to create this image. The wide angle lens helped Vincent to use lens distortion to create depth in the photo. The child in the left bank looks considerably smaller than the person fishing in the right bottom part of the photo. This difference in size creates the illusion of one element being near and another element being far—and creates depth in a two-dimensional image. Knowing the effects a lens has on a subject can help you create a composition with a three dimensional effect.

Copyright Vincent Ng 2012.

4. Use a triangular design.

Vincent also succeeds in applying a triangular design in his composition. Notice the three people in the photo. If you connect them with lines, you’ll have a triangle in the photograph.

Triangles are stable, solid shapes. They anchor the eye in the image.

5. Find balance.

Tribe member Sarah Darr used balance in her composition. She gives us an image divided by clear horizontal layers: one layer is the sky, followed by the line of trees, then the reeds, and finally the water. But a prominent peak at the upper right hand side and ducks on the lower present variations in the uniformity of the layer’s colors. These two elements in her composition give us the balance that we need, forming an attractive diagonal across the image.

Copyright Sarah Darr 2012.

Below, Cynthia’s image achieves balance by placing the angular roof of the house at a diagonal with the snow covered peak at the upper left of the composition.

6. Use color to compose the image.

Cynthia Swidler, another Tribe member, composed her winter scene in clear layers of color and texture. Notice in her image that the colors are similar in the top and bottom of the photograph. A dark layer cuts through the middle of the photograph, but sets off the line of trees, and gradually lightens again into the snow at the bottom of the image.

Copyright Cynthia Swidler 2012.

6. Use the rule of thirds.

Cynthia also places the house in the bottom right of the composition, using the rule of thirds to design the image.

7. Use negative space.

Negative space is the space that seems ‘empty’ in the frame. Negative space can be used to balance a composition. Placing the subject in one side of the frame and using the space beside it to balance the frame can result in an attractive composition.

Using negative space.

8. Anchor the composition with a strong horizontal and strong vertical lines.

This photo of the Batan Lighthouse is a simple graphic composition that has a strong line from the grass on the bottom, and then a strong line of the lighthouse on the right side. The eye moves to the lighthouse and then exits through the line of the grass.

A blocked compo, using a strong horizontal line and a strong vertical line.

9. Use the S Curve

S curves are great leading lines, and if you find one, you need to photograph it, quick! The S curve helps to move gracefully from one end of the frame to another, giving the eye a pleasing and relaxing journey into and then out of the frame.

An S Curve.


10. Cluster similar shapes.

Taking a photo of similar shapes create pattern in the composition. Patterns are great and help to organize the image. Patterns are attractive to the eye, and satisfy the human need to harmonize what we see.

Shapes echoing each other, forming a patterned composition.

Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, “Our eye must constantly measure, evaluate. We alter our perspective by a slight bending of the knees; we convey the chance meeting of lines by a simple shifting of our heads a thousandth of an inch…. We compose almost at the same time we press the shutter, and in placing the camera closer or farther from the subject, we shape the details –taming or being tamed by them.”

Composition may not be something that we can study like a science, and follow rules to reach impactful images, every time. But by practicing some of the ways that effective compositions have been achieved, we are well on our way to “taming” the frame, and transforming the way we see.

If you want to journey with me as I rekindle my love for all kinds of photography in 2012, and learn lots of things along the way, head on over to our new Facebook page (and like us!), where you can participate in project modules, get some feedback, talk photography, and have your photography featured in a monthly roundup!

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That!

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Composition and the Use of Color
Hey Photographer! Who are You and What do You Believe?
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Are You Paying Attention?
Finding Good Photos where they Hide


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