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the art of photography - composition


  • the human brain has evolved to respond positively to sensory inputs, and generally these need to have a pattern and this pattern should not be too simple that it is boring or too complex that it can't be well appreciated
  • an analogy is how our brain and bodies respond to rhythms, it seems we all have a built-in “metronome” which responds to rhythms, and humans are unique in that in early childhood, our brains develop entrainment to music whereby we move our bodies spontaneously to the beat of music which presumably evolved from primitive drumming which then became the neural evolutionary fore-runner to speech. African drumming tends to have rhythmic ambiguity with mixed rhythms which make it more interesting for our brains.
  • likewise our brain responds to visual patterns - preferably not too simple but not too complex

Compositional "rules", elements and considerations

gestalt psychology of visual perception

  • how the mind perceives an overall image and attempts to organise it and relate it to past visual memories to determine what the “object” in the image is, what is it doing and where is it going, and then also can assign aspects of aesthetics, emotion, interest, etc.
  • the eye is generally drawn to the area of highest contrast and to the brighter parts of an image and through the process of emergence, attempt to identify the whole before identifying the parts that make up the whole
  • law of closure
    • the mind will tend to extrapolate parts of an image to fill in the “gaps” (reification) in virtual lines to close the image as a recognizable subject even though it may be just an abstract image
    • the viewer can be led to see such virtual images if they are primed by getting one into a “perceptual set”
  • law of similarity
    • the mind tends to group similar objects (either similar shape, color or pattern) together
  • law of proximity
    • the tendency to group objects based upon proximity
    • can create connectivity but also a visual tension, eg. two hands almost touching
    • conversely, distance can also create visual tension between subjects who “should” be close
    • it is used to create depth between foreground and background
      • larger, brighter objects tend to be perceived as being closet
  • pragnantz
    • people will perceive and interpret ambiguous or complex images as the simplest form(s) possible.
    • images can create perceptual dissonance if this is not possible or remains ambiguous
  • figure-ground relationships (FGR)
    • clear separation of subject from the background
  • law of continuity to connect subjects to create movement and unity by using flowing tools such as:
    • the curve of an arabesque or an ellipse
    • coincidence - edge to edge relationships hidden imaginary lines can “join” subjects
    • radiating lines
    • enclosures such as triangles
  • greatest areas of contrast to direct the viewer to your subject
  • dynamic symmetry grids
    • eg. a root 4 rectangle containing 3 x 1.5 ratio rectangles and phi 1.618
  • law of symmetry
    • sometimes the subject in the center is what your image needs especially if it creates a balanced image!
    • an off-centre subject usually needs a secondary subject to counter balance it otherwise one gets imbalance and unwanted negative space which may paradoxically take attention away from the subject
      • negative space can be used to advantage to portray isolation and loneliness
    • an image often needs vertical space above and below the horizontal center line to give breathing room, and space to the left or right of midline to provide gazing direction
  • gamut
    • limiting the number of directions of straight lines in an image (perhaps to only 1 or 2 directions)
  • minimizing edge distractions
    • high contrast areas near the image edges can take the viewer away from the subject


  • photography generally differs from painting as instead of adding in elements, the photographers usual compositional task is to simplify the scene and take away elements or at least de-emphasize those elements which do not add to the image

use of lines

  • most images contain lines whether real, implied or suggested
  • the photographer can use these lines to:
    • lead the viewer to the subject
    • divide the composition
    • create drama
      • vertical lines can symbolize strength and solidarity
      • horizontal lines tend to give a more calm type of solidarity of a foundation
      • diagonal lines tend to suggest dynamic motion or energy
      • patterns of lines can create aesthetic beauty or sense of order, or add intensity

use of shapes

  • can be geometrical, organic or abstract and each may have their own psychological impacts
  • shapes can be abstracted by super-imposition, blur, light and shadows, distance, cropping, etc
  • shapes can act as metaphors for other subjects

use of negative space

  • generally bland areas can provide balance too and center attention on the subject as well as provide the subject with a story-telling spacial dimension
  • the tone of the negative space can add emotive impact

rule of space

  • using negative space that relates to the subject to provide a sense of motion or conclusion
  • a common example is having negative space in front of a moving subject to “allow” it space to move into

rule of thirds

  • divide the image into 9 regions separated by 2 vertical lines and 2 horizontal lines which are a third in from an edge
  • one can use this to place the centre of attention at one of these intersections but generally you then need to counterbalance this with a secondary subject
  • one can place the horizon on one of the horizontal lines providing more weight of teh aspect of the scene you wish to emphasize rather than having the horizon splitting the image in half (although this can work too - once you understand rules, you can break them!)

rule of odds

  • odd number of objects (usually a group of 3 or perhaps 5 at most) tends to be more relaxing, balanced and harmonic compared to an even number of objects which tends to be more competitive

use of sub-framing

  • placing your subject within a frame (real or implied) inside your image can generate more focus on your subject

use of depth

  • landscape painters often create a sense of depth by having a foreground lit area offset by a more distant lit area

dark and light balance

  • images often work better if dark areas are balanced by substantially larger light areas

the middle line

  • many portrait artists and photographers create compelling imagery by placing the nearest eye on the middle vertical line
  • examples include the Mona Lisa

rhythm and direction of the story

  • the placement of compositional elements such as light and dark areas, and leading lines tend to lead the viewer from one area to another
  • viewers tend to go first to the brightest area, and they tend to prefer to “read” the image from left to right
  • if you brightest area is not related to your subject in any way then it will be distracting and should probably be de-emphasized or removed
  • flipping an image horizontally can dramatically change the rhythm and direction, it is generally better to have a leading line coming from the viewer to the subject placed starting on the left of the image rather than on the right
photo/composition.txt · Last modified: 2019/12/26 10:00 by gary1

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