Different people find different things beautiful. But there are some images considered attractive by most people because of how they are composed. Finding techniques for composing images so that they are attractive to the mind’s eye is a skill that sets photos apart from the crowd.
Designing images sounds strange, especially since you can snap just about everything you find in front of you. Often you do not have the luxury of being able to arrange those elements in ways you would like, but you just have to capture what is there. The trick is to find the vantage point that allows you to design the composition in ways that are beautiful. Here are four principles of design that have worked for me and many other photographers, over and over.
Patterns are attractive to people. Humans have evolved to recognize and appreciate patterns, such as the patterns of planting cycles and weather, so the human brain likes having those patterns to recognize, and that has transferred to our conceptions of beauty. Finding a vantage point that allows you to capture unity in a pattern helps you compose an attractive photo.
Repeating patterns. Copyright Aloha Lavina.
Use variations on a theme
Recent brain research tells us that momentarily, the brain gets bored with just a pattern. This is like having the same menu for your meal every day—after a while, you no longer get stimulated by the flavors because you’ve become desensitized to them. Visually, what keeps something interesting is not only that there is harmony in the patterns but that there is variation as well. Something that is just slightly different from the pattern makes your photo attractive. What really turns on the mind’s eye is this break in the pattern without wavering from its theme.
Variation in a pattern. Copyright Aloha Lavina.
Use Leading Lines
Everyone knows that ‘leading lines’ are something that we need to use in our compositions. Leading lines are real or implied lines that help guide the person viewing a photo. Changing your vantage point so that you have a line that leads the eye, from one end of the photo to the other, helps the photo’s attractiveness because it makes it easy for the viewer to understand the image.
The two types of leading lines you can create are linear and circular. Linear leading lines are outright straight elements that guide the eye from one direction to another.
Lead the eye from one point to another using linear movement. Copyright Aloha Lavina.
Lines that spiral in circles, based on Fibonacci’s spiral, are also beautiful to see. This is a pattern that you find in nature, so it makes sense that we would appreciate it; some of the common objects that give us a spiral composition are seashells and sunflowers. Making a ‘circular’ composition that leads the eye is another way you can design the photo so that you can guide the viewer around your image.
Circles in a circle. Copyright Aloha Lavina.
Balance is a design principle that is often mistaken to be the same as symmetry. Symmetry, having equal sides with the same elements on each side, is a mathematical approach to composition. But like a predictable pattern, this sort of composition might become boring to the viewer after a while; there is no break in the pattern that would spike the viewer’s attention. So the trick to achieving an attractive balance in a photo is to balance asymmetrical things—things that may not be the same shape or size, but can hold similar weight in their meaning.
You can achieve balance using space. Spatial balance is something you can achieve in your photo by composing around elements that are distinctly separate things. They may have lines that separate the elements from one another, or something separates the frame.
Distinct elements create balance in the frame. Copyright Aloha Lavina.
Depth foreground and background balance is another type of balance you can capture in your image. ‘Fooling’ the brain into thinking that your photo is three-dimensional is a great trick to achieving balance using depth of field.
Using principles of design can help you make conscious choices when you create photos. By changing your point of view, you might discover the beautiful ways you can arrange your world into compelling imagery.
Aloha Lavina is an Asia based photographer whose photographs have appeared in CNNGo (USA), UTATA Tribal Photography Magazine (USA), Seventeen magazine (USA), Estamos! (Ecuador), The Korea Times (South Korea), and several books. You can see her work at her website, read her articles on her blog or follow her on Twitter.