Principles of Composition

Principles of Composition
Helping to create successful
What is photographic composition?
• Photographic composition is the pleasing
arrangement of subject matter elements
within the picture area.
Why do my photographs need good
photographic composition?
• By developing photographic compositional
skills, you can produce photographs that
suggest movement, life, depth, shape and
form, recreating the impact of the original
What makes the composition good?
• Good or correct composition is impossible to
define precisely.
• There are no hard-and-fast rules that ensure
good composition in every photograph.
• There are only the principles and elements
that provide a means of achieving pleasing
composition when applied properly.
Principles and Elements
Of Good Photographic Composition
Centre of Interest (Focal Point)
• The area of a picture which first captures the
viewer’s attention.
• Each picture should have only one principal
idea, topic, or centre of interest to which the
viewer's eyes are attracted.
• When the picture has one, and only one,
dominant "point of interest," the viewer
quickly understands the picture.
Where is the Centre of Interest in this photograph by Brian Day?
Centre of Interest
Where is the Centre of Interest in this photograph by Susanna Majuri?
Centre of Interest
Subject Placement
• Sometimes good composition is obtained by placing the
centre of interest in the centre of the picture, creating a
formal and balanced photograph.
Sally Mann
Tereza Vlckova
WARNING: BE CAREFUL as it can sometimes divide the picture into equal halves and make the picture uninteresting.
The Rule of Thirds
• Is a good general guide for placing your centre of
• In the rule of thirds, the intersection of lines that
divide the picture area into thirds are marked by O’s
(fig.5-5). One of these points is a good location for
the center of interest.
How has Benoit Paille used the Rule of Thirds to compose this photograph?
Centre of Interest
How has Nick Knight used the Rule of Thirds to compose this photograph?
Centre of Interest
• Simplicity is the key to most good pictures.
The simpler and more direct a picture is, the
clearer and stronger is the resulting
• Instead of photographing an entire area that
would confuse the viewer, frame in on some
important element within the area.
• A last point of simplicity-tell only one story.
Select a viewpoint that eliminates distractions
so the principal subject is readily recognized.
Photographers using Simplicity to create effective photographs:
Loretta Lux
Shirin Neshat
Fiona Pardington
Viewpoint and Camera Angle
• The proper viewpoint or camera angle is an
important factor in good composition. It can
also help to change the ‘reading’ we have of
the subject matter.
• “Viewpoint” is the camera position in
relationship to the subject.
• "Camera angle" is the angle in which the
camera lens is tilted.
Elliot Erwitt used a Low Viewpoint (worms-eye view). This adds interest to
the photograph and makes the subject more imposing to the viewer.
Notice he has used a straight camera angle.
Susanna Majuri also employed a Low Viewpoint (worms-eye view) when
composing this photograph.
Notice that the camera angle is slightly tilted-up.
Wolfgang Tilmans & Abelardo Morell used a High Viewpoint (birds-eye view).
This captures a different range of information and makes the viewer feel
more powerful and perhaps voyeuristic over the subject matter.
• Balance in photographic composition is a
matter of making pictures look harmonious.
• Composition is kept in balance by two
different methods: symmetrical, or formal,
balance and asymmetrical, or informal,
Symmetrical balance
• Symmetrical, or formal, balance in a
photograph is achieved when elements on
both sides of the picture are of equal weight.
• The idea of formal balance can be related to a
seesaw. When there are two equally weighted
objects on the seesaw and they are
equidistant from the pivot point, the board
will be in balance.
Ruud Van Empel & Erwin Olaf both employ symmetrical balance in
composing their photographs.
Asymmetrical balance
• Asymmetrical, or informal, balance is usually
much more interesting than symmetrical balance.
• Instead of mirror images on each side of the
picture area, the subject elements are notably
different in size, shape, weight, tone, and
• Asymmetrical balance is introduced when the
presumed weight of two or more lighter objects
is equalized by a single heavier object placed on
the other side of the imaginary pivot point.
Francesca Woodman & Oleg Oprisco both employ asymmetrical balance in
composing their photographs.
There are many other factors to consider in order to make
pictures appear balanced. Some of these are as follows:
An object far
from the center
of the picture
seems to have
more weight
than one near
the center.
Elements on
the right side of
picture appear
to have more
weight than
elements of the
same size on
the left side of
the picture.
Objects in the upper part of a picture seem
heavier than objects of the same size in the
lower part of a picture.
seems to
increase the
weight of an
objects seem to
have more
Philippe Halsman
Regular shapes
seem to have
more weight
than irregular
• Lines can be effective elements of composition,
because they give structure to your photographs.
• Lines can unify composition by directing the
viewer's eyes and attention to the main point of
the picture or lead the eyes from one part of the
picture to another.
• Lines that lead the eye or direct attention are
referred to as leading lines. A good leading line is
one that starts near the bottom corner of the
scene and continues unbroken until it reaches the
point of interest.
Laurence Aberhart used leading lines to direct the viewers eye to the centre
of interest, the angel.
Vertical, diagonal, horizontal, and
curved lines create different moods:
Vertical lines communicate a
sense of strength, rigidity, power,
and solidarity to the viewer as
seen here in Wilma Huskainen’s
Vertical, diagonal, horizontal, and
curved lines create different moods:
Horizontal lines represent peace,
tranquillity, and quietness as seen
in Hengki Koentjoro’s photograph.
A generally accepted practice is to use a vertical format for pictures having predominantly
vertical lines and horizontal format for pictures having predominantly horizontal lines.
Again, this is a generally accepted practice, NOT a rule.
Riitta Päiväläinen and Olivia Parker ‘break the rules’.
Vertical, diagonal, horizontal, and
curved lines create different moods:
Diagonal lines represent
movement, action, and speed.
A picture with diagonal lines
conveys a feeling of dynamic
action even when the subject is
static, as seen in James Welling’s
Vertical, diagonal, horizontal, and
curved lines create different moods:
Curved lines present a sense of
grace, smoothness, and dignity to
a photograph.
The most common curved line is
the S curve as seen in Werner
Bischof’s photograph.
• Creating your pictures around repeating
elements or patterns provides picture unity
and structure.
• Pattern repetition creates rhythm that the
eyes enjoy following.
Motoi Yamamoto & Gabriele Basilico both capture repeating elements that
create a sense of pattern in their photographs.
• Lighting is also an important creative element
of composition.
• By controlling the light and directing it where
you want it, you can subdue objects or
distracting elements in the scene to give more
emphasis to the main point of interest.
Camille Vivier uses lighting to highlight her centre of interest and to diminish
the importance of the negative space/background.
Shadows can help to create a
sense of 3 dimensionality in
From a compositional
standpoint, black shadows can
be very useful in balancing a
scene and directing attention to
the point of interest.
Abelardo Morrell uses shadow
to heighten the sense of drama
and theatricality to the
• Texture helps to emphasize the features and
details in a photograph. By capturing "texture"
of objects being photographed, you can create
Peter Peryer and Marcel Christ both capture varying textures within their photographs.
• Tone may consist of shadings from white-to-grayto-black, or it may consist of darks against lights
with little or no grays.
• The use of dark areas against light areas is a
common method of adding the feeling of a third
dimension to a two-dimensional black-and-white
• The interaction of light against dark shades in
varying degrees helps to set the mood of a
Aaron Siskind & Nelli Palomaki have differing tonal ranges in their photographs. The
strong contrast in Siskind’s work helps to heighten the sense of drama. Palomaki’s
gentle tonal-range gives form and softness to the photograph.
• Positioning of subject elements to create
contrast gives them added emphasis and
directs the viewer's attention.
• When we speak of contrast as it relates to
composition, we are referring to tonal
contrast, as in black-and-white photography;
contrast is the difference in subject tones from
white-to-gray-to-black or from the lightest
tone to the darkest tone.
Olivia Parker & Damion Berger have different contrasts in their photographs.
Their is strong contrast in Berger’s work and much less in Parker’s.
• Framing is another technique photographers
use to direct the viewer's attention to the
primary subject of a picture.
• Positioned around the subject, a tree, an
archway, or even people, for example, can
create a frame within the picture area.
• Subjects enclosed by a frame become
separated from the rest of the picture and are
Arthur Tress uses architecture to frame off a distant figure, drawing attention
to that area of the photograph. Annette Messager uses actual frames to
suspend cropped images of the human body in a photography installation.
• A large percentage of otherwise good pictures
is ruined, because they include unnecessary or
distracting foreground.
• This common fault is usually the result of the
photographer standing too far away from their
David Hilliard ensures that everything in the foreground and background is
pleasing compositionally and adds meaning and balance to the photograph.
• In photography, perspective is another illusion you use
to produce photographs of quality composition.
• Use all elements to create perspective
• Line (ie vanishing point)
• Height on the foreground (the higher up an element is
physically on the foreground the further away it looks)
• Overlapping elements
• Diminishing size (elements of the same size will appear
smaller the further away from the viewer they are)
• Lighting (darker / greyer objects appear further from the
Riitta Päiväläinen uses lines of perspective to create a sense of space and
vastness in her photograph.
Lines of
scale create a
sense of 3dimensionality.