'The Magic Of Selective Vision'
By Arnold John
Photo composition is the
foundation upon which we build our photo images by the correct selection, arranging,
organizing and combining the visual elements within the picture area to produce a
harmonious and pleasing photograph.
The following rules of photo-composition are for guidance only, not for absolute and
complete obedience by photographers. No picture was ever made by rules alone, since
Photo-Composition involves your personal tastes and preferences. Your natural instincts
are worth more in photography than many rigid rules.
However, your must know the rules before you can break them and only break them when you
have a good reason for improving the photographic image.
Photo-Composition is based on artistic composition up to a certain point. The
artists of old always used composition in all their works and of course broke the rules
when they thought it was necessary for the improvement of the painting or drawing.
Artists of course have the advantage over the photographer. They can move objects around
in their picture frame to suit their own artistic desires. Thus, if a tree is not in the
right place in Nature, the Artist will move it to another place on his canvas to make a
better composition. If a fence or house is not situated correctly in the natural scene the
Artist moves them around to suit his own artistic needs.
Photographers are limited to the use of objects in the scene before them. But that
does not mean they have to photograph them like a tourist, head on, without looking around
for the best angle and lighting conditions in which to take the photograph.
A photographers job is much harder than that of an artist who can take artistic
liberties by moving objects around to suit their needs. The photographer must find a scene
that has the best composition by finding the right angle, choosing the right
lenses, being there at the right time of day for the best lighting condition and using
The Basic Elements
Photo-Composition Is Composed Of:
MASS - LINE - FORM - VALUE - COLOR
objects, such as trees, houses, mountains, lakes or any other large or small object within
the picture area. These are the objects the photographer is stuck with and has
to do the best with what is in front of the cameras lens. MASS comes in two
sections: Formal Balance and Informal Balance.
FORMAL BALANCE: Sometimes called Equal Balance or Classical Balance.
It illicits feelings of Dignity and Repose but makes Static, Unimaginative photo images as
the objects in the picture area are of Equal Size, one balancing the other equally like
two children of equal size on a playground seesaw. The seesaw will not move up or down. It
stays horizontal with each child balancing the other on the board.
This type of balance has been
used in large public buildings where each side of the building matches each other with
wings and the entrance is in the middle. It makes the building uninteresting and boring
after the first look.
A photograph with this type
of balance will also be boring and very un-interesting so be sure to avoid it whenever
possible, unless you have a definite reason to use it.
INFORMAL BALANCE: Gives UN-even or UN-equal Balance in the picture area. If you
have a LARGE object in the picture it should be COUNTER-BALANCED with a smaller object or
Objects to make a good Photo-Composition.
Pictures the seesaw again with a 5 year old boy on one side and his Father on the other
side. The BALANCE will be UN-even as the Father is larger and will make the seesaw heavier
on his side. The boy will be high in the air and the Father will be at the ground level.
In a photographic scene, if
you have a Large tree on the right side of the picture frame then you must try to balance
it with a smaller object such as a house, a small tree or even the figure of a person on
the other side of the picture frame.
The way you balance the objects in your picture frame will determine the success or
failure of the image. Many times you will have to resort to the use of different types of
lenses in order to create the balance you want.
A 24mm wide angle lens can create unbalanced composition very easily by taking the objects
in front of the lens at close range. This will make the front objects appear very large in
the picture frame while the rear or distant objects will appear smaller even though they
are actually larger.
Another way to create unequal
balance is to find a position that will cause one object to appear larger or smaller
because of the angle you took the photograph. The next time you are out creating
photographs be sure to keep these rules about Balance in mind and try to incorporate them
in your work.
BULLS EYE COMPOSITION: A definite NO, NO in good
photo-composition. When you place the Main Subject right smack in the center
of the picture area it is called a Bulls Eye. This should be avoided at all times,
unless you have a definite reason for doing it.
With the main subject in the
center of the picture frame the eye will go in to the picture and stay in the center of
the frame looking at the Bulls Eye Main Subject and will not move around in the
picture to see and enjoy any other items. The eye will get tired very fast and lose
interest in the photograph.
Your purpose in taking photographs is to have people look at them, enjoy them, talk about
them and buy them. If they cannot get interested in a photograph they will not bother to
look at it and will definitely not buy it.
It is best to always have the Main Subject OFF CENTER. Even if it is just
a little Off Center it will improve the pictures composition and not give you a
Bulls Eye picture.
THE GOLDEN MEAN: Sometimes called The Rule Of Thirds. The artists of
old discovered it and good photographers always use it to improve their photo-composition.
When you take a picture area and divide it into thirds Horizontally and
Vertically, where the lines cross in the picture area is a Golden Mean, or the
best spot in which to place your Main Subject or Object of Interest as it is the Focal
Point of your picture.
Rule of Thirds
There are Four Spots where
these lines cross:- the Upper Left the Lower Left, the Upper Right and the Lower Left .
You will note that all these Golden Means spots are away from the center
Bulls Eye position in the picture frame. The two best Golden Mean spots
are the Upper Right and the Lower Right because the eye enters the picture frame at the
lower left hand corner of the picture frame, travels to the center of the picture area and
then reaches the right hand Golden Mean position where it stops to look at the
Center Of Interest.
The reason the eye enters a
picture at the lower left side is because we are taught to read from Left to Right. This
is a psychological fact that has been proven over the years.
Next time you are in an art
gallery or art museum that shows the Old Masters paintings, notice how many have the
Center Of Interest, a figure, a haystack, a house, an animal, etc. in one of these Golden
Be very careful that you do not place to centers of interest in two Golden Mean positions,
especially on opposite sides of the picture frame. This will cause the eye a lot of
trouble as it will keep going back and forth from one Center of Interest to the other and
will get confused and tired and want to leave the picture area.
Get use to visualizing the view finder in your camera as having the cross lines of the
Rule Of Thirds (Golden Means) and try to place your main subject at a Golden
Mean position. You will find your photographs have more style, interest and impact because
IMPLIED LINES HOLD THE PICTURE TOGETHER
Implied line are not actual lines that you can see in the picture area, they are
implied and are made up by the way objects are placed in the picture area.
Sometimes actual items or objects do make lines such as, railroad tracks,
telephone wires, etc.
These implied lines can actually create a response in various ways:
THE VERTICAL LINE:- It denotes Dignity, Height, Strength, and Grandeur. We find
vertical lines in trees, tall buildings, fences, people standing up, mountains, etc. A
tall building shows height, strength, dignity and grandeur. Trees show height and
THE HORIZONTAL LINE:- Denotes Repose, Calm, Tranquillity and peacefulness, such as
a person lying in the grass sleeping, flowers in a field, the flatness of a desert scene
or lake. You can make your photograph illicit these feelings if you look for them in the
picture area and use them in your photographs.
THE DIAGONAL LINE:- This like gives the sensation of Force, Energy and Motion as
seen in trees bent by the wind, a runner at the starting line or the slope of a mountain
as it climbs into the sky. By knowing this you can create Force, Energy and Motion with
your camera easily by tilting the camera to make objects appear to be in a diagonal line.
A dignified church steeple when photographed at a slant will change to a forceful arrow
pointing towards the sky and show motion.
THE CURVE:- Here is a line of great beauty and charm and nothing gives a better
example than a beautiful female form with all its lines and curves. Of course there
are other examples: The curve in a river or a pathway through a flower garden.
THE S CURVE:- This line goes further than just a plain curved
line. It is called the Line Of Beauty. It is Elastic, Variable and combines
Charm and Strength. It has Perfect Grace and Perfect Balance. You have seen this
S Curve hundreds of times in drawings and paintings and other works of art.
Examples: the double curve of a river makes an S curve. A path, row of trees
or bushes that curve one way and then the other way create the S curve. Look
for this type of design and use it in your photos to add interest and beauty.
THE LEADING LINE:- The line that leads your eye in to the picture area easily like
a road or fence, a shoreline or river, a row of trees or a pathway. A successful
Leading Line will lead your eye in to the picture and take it right to the
Main Subject or Center of Interest
An UN-Successful Leading Line will take the eye in to the picture but
will ZOOM the eye right OUT of the picture if there is no Stopper to hold the eye in the
picture frame; such as a tree, house or other large object on the right hand side of the
picture frame which will STOP the eye from going out of the picture. The Center of
Interest or Main Subject will act as a Stopper and hold the eye in the picture frame.
The best Leading Lines will start at the Lower Left area of the picture frame but not in
the exact corner. Again, the eye likes to enter a picture frame at this point and the
Leading Line will help it get in to the picture easily and swiftly.
IMPLIED FORMS ALSO HOLD A PICTURE TOGETHER
Implied Forms are a combination of Implied Lines and they help to
hold a picture together. The eye enjoys these interesting forms and will stay in the
picture area to examine each one of them, if they are present.
THE CIRCLE:- Is made up of a continuous Curve and its circular
movement keeps the eye in the picture frame. There are many circles in nature and man made
objects and if you find them in an image before you, be sure to make good use of them in
Circles can be made up of children playing ring around the roses or a small
pond or lake is usually in the form of a circle and of course many race tracks are a form
THE TRIANGLE OR PYRAMID:- This has a solid base and will show
Stability. It also has Height and Strength. The Pyramids of Egypt have survived for
thousands of years while other types of solid buildings have crumbled in to dust in less
A Triangle can show up in your viewfinder as three points in the scene, such as two trees
on the grounds pointing to a cloud in the sky. Sometimes a fence in combination with a
stream and a farm house can form the Triangle Composition.
THE RADII:- Is a connection of Lines meeting in the Center and it is
also a expansion of Lines leaving the Center. The Radii is usually found in
Nature Subjects. The best example of the man made Radii is the spokes of a wheel.
The eye has two ways to go when it comes upon the Radii. It can either be drawn in to the
picture area or it can be led out of the picture area. You must be careful how you used
the Radii and try to have the eye led into the picture.
THE CROSS:- A showing of Opposing Force that will give the picture a
feeling of Cohesion and Relationship. The horizontal bar of the Cross will act as a
stopper while the vertical pole can act as a leading line. The windows in a
large skyscraper will form crosses and will keep your interest in the building.
The Cross also has religious meaning and the subtle use of the Cross can give hidden
meaning to a photograph.
THE L OR RECTANGLE:- This makes an attractive frame. It can
be used to accentuate important subjects. Many times it is a frame within a
frame. A tree with an overhanging branch at the right side of the
picture area will form a Rectangle and help frame the Main Subject in the
picture. By doing this you will make the Center of Interest stand out and be noticed
VALUE OF COLORS
Color can also help in Photo-Composition by drawing attention to the subjects and objects.
The eye will ALWAYS go to the Brightest and Lightest coloris in a photograph.
You must watch the play of Colors at all times and make sure they are doing what you
desire in your image.
VALUE:- The Value of colors are Intensity, Brightness and Luminance Factor. Thus
colors are said to have Strong or Weak Values. They can be Warm or Cold, Advancing or
Receding. The longer wavelengths from Red to Yellow are usually described as
Strong, Warm, Advancing colors while the shorter wavelengths, the Greens and
Blues may be described as Weak, Cold and Receding colors.
Pastel colors are Quiet and Moody while Bright colors are Strong and Active. However,
certain colors react very strongly with each other to give Strong
Contrasts and to many people these will become Discords rather than
HUE:- Is the scientific counterpart for the more popular word Color.
Red, Yellow, Green and Blue are the Primary HUES, while Orange, Blue-Green, and Violet are
COMPLIMENTARY COLORS:- Colors that go with each other will Compliment each other
and are desirable in any painting or photograph. If you place the Primary and Secondary
colors on a Color Wheel you will find that Red will be opposite Green; Orange
will be opposite Blue and Yellow will be opposite Violet. These Opposites are
Complimentary Colors and can be used together to create the best Color Harmony.
For example, a Red barn in a Green field of grass has harmony. The Blue and Orange sky of
a sunset has color harmony. Always look for Complimentary Colors in the visual image you
plan to photograph and use them to create better photographs.
Copyright 1997 by Arnold
John Kaplan, APSA-AFIAP
All Rights Reserved