How to improve your images: Basic photographic composition concepts
A common mistake in photographic composition is to put too much information into a photograph. Everybody is familiar with this situation: We want to document a specific scene and thus consider it necessary to incorporate as many objects as possible in order to accurately capture what’s in front of us. But simplicity is often better than to overload a frame. To keep a frame clean, every object should be carefully chosen. Only the things that add information to whatever it is that you’d like to express with your image should be included. Simplicity of the frame helps the human mind to better process the information – faster and more efficient than it’d be the case if the observer is confronted with an overloaded image.
The example chosen here to demonstrate the concept of simplicity in photographic composition show only the silhouettes of recently washed laundry dancing in the wind on top of a building. There are no details, everything is stripped down to its very basic forms that yet allow to identify at first glimpse what kind of scenery is documented on the photograph. The wind picking up the laundry adds a bit of dynamics to a rather quiet scene.
By incorporating lines in your image you are able to guide the look of the viewer. In the example I chose above, the diagonal lines spread out from different points around the border of the image and then all lead towards one specific spot: the circle at the top of the fire ladder. It’s a very simple principle, but it can be a powerful tool of photographic composition if used right. As you can see, lines can be the form or shape of elements like the bars of this staircase. Or they can be produced by shadows or reflections.
Incorporating lines in photography does not only serve as a mean to direct the eye of the observer to an important object within your image, but they can also add rhythm and dynamic to the whole photographic composition. The upward perspective of the image reinforces the sensation of action as it is the direction one would normally take climbing up a ladder.
More examples of using lines in photographic composition
3. Rule Of Thirds
The rule of thirds is a concept used in photographic composition to harmoniously divide a frame. It’s the simplified version of the much more complex “golden ratio” technique.
The golden ratio (or “golden section”, “section aurea”) describes the division of a line in two uneven parts in such proportion that the longer part divided by the smaller part equals the whole line divided by the longer part.
The golden ratio is expressed in the number 1,618. Throughout history painters, architects and other artists have referred to that concept in their work.
Applying the ratio to a rectangle o photographic frame, it translates in a division in the proportions of more or less 5:3. To make it easier, it’s very common to talk of the rule of thirds in photography.
The idea is to divide the frame into nine equal parts by drawing two equal horizontal and vertical lines:
The four intersections of the lines give a point of reference as to where to place the important objects or subjects in your photograph and thus obtaining a harmonious composition of the frame. It’s a very helpful guide that indicates how to easily structure the scene. Most cameras even provide a grid when you look through the viewfinder, so it’s really easy to put the rule of thirds into practice. For a better understanding you might also want to check out this very comprehensive video about shooting with the rule of thirds.
The example below illustrates how to apply the rule of thirds in photographic composition. If you imagine the grid placed on the image, the center of attention, which is the cat, is placed in the lower left intersection of the horizontal and vertical line:
Sometimes if you want to show a great amount of something, it’s better to zoom in with your camera than trying to capture the whole scene. This picture was taken of a flock of sheep in Patagonia. There were hundreds of them crouched together on a farm. Even by focussing only on one sheep the observer gets the idea that there where many more. The human mind imagines and complements what’s around the frame. It’s a very powerful technique of photographic composition.
5. Placing The Horizon Line
This concept is especially useful in landscape and nature photography. You just divide the frame into three even parts with three horizontal lines. The idea is to give 2/3 of the frame to the objects that you want to emphasize and draw the most attention to. Here are two examples of how to incorporate the concept of placing the horizon line into the photographic composition of your images:
If you’d like to learn more about the concepts of photographic composition mentioned in this article and others, I recommend checking out the following books which I find very useful. There’s a very good one by David Präkel called “Composition”. The same author has published more basic manuals about the fundamentals of photography. Among them titles about Lighting, Black and White Photography, and Exposure.
In addition to that “Creative Composition. Digital Photography Tips & Techniques” by Harald Davis and “Train Your Gaze” by Roswell Angier are excellent resources to learn about photographic composition.
On “Top Photography Films” you also find more advice on how to take your photography to the next level. Check out what featured artists reveal about their creative process and how they developed their own unique photographic language.