Focus On Composition: The S Curve


Concepts and guides in photography are building blocks to creating and capturing wonderful images.  While the rule of thirds is among the most common building block in composition, the S-curve is also one to be on the look out for.

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Photo by Nickton

What Is The S Curve?

The S curve is a type of leading line which when used correctly can improve the composition of the image helping to create strong images that can keep viewers engaged for a longer period of time. Since the shape of the leading line looks like the letter “S” or part of the letter “S”, it is called the “S Curve.”

Why Are Curves More Powerful In Photographic Composition?

The human eye tends to follow lines and hence, incorporating lines or curves in photographic compositions can be a great way to keep the viewers engaged by creating powerful images. S curve can be applied as a compositional tool to any genre of photography, but is most commonly used when composing landscape and cityscape shots. 

s curve used when composing landscape and cityscape shots
Photo by Lachlan Gowen

The S curve takes the viewer through a visual journey into the scene towards the subject and helps the viewer to explore the scene while passing through other important elements along the way. It also adds a layer of visual interest to the images and can lead the viewer into or out of a scene, start at the bottom, top or side, but fundamentally it will roughly shape the letter S and either define the photograph or split the composition into two sections. S curves can add a sense of movement to a dull and static image or add visual depth and add an interesting perspective to the scene.

Hence landscape photographers use it as a compositional tool to create interesting photographs that are more dynamic and have depth. Use the S curve just like how you would use the leading lines to create powerful photographs.

s curve on a landscape
Photo by Blair Fraser

What To Look Out For When Composing Using The S Curve?

When using an S curve to compose images, it is better to watch out for some important things so your image looks pleasing. Look for elements or parts of the scene that are shaped like the letter “S.”

  1. Make sure the S curve is not distracted by lines or other elements that tend to break the curve on its path. For example, other lines cutting in between, fallen branches, trees, and other elements, because these can break the flow or movement of the viewer and lead the viewer away from the main scene.
  2. Break in S curves can get in the way of a neat and pleasing composition.
  3. Depending on the nature of the scene, you can use strong or subtle S curves. Where you need the S curve to stand out in the scene, use a stronger one, but if the curve is part of a subtle / minimal scene, it is ok to have a gentle curve.
  4. Look for perspectives that will bring more emphasis to the curve. Try shooting from various perspectives and choose what works best for the scene.
Look for perspectives that will bring more emphasis to the s curve
Photo by Jeremy Bishop

Where Can You Look For The S Curve?

Some elements that can be used as an S curve for composition in a scene are:

  1. A river
  2. A stream
  3. A road
  4. A path through a field
  5. A railway track
  6. Fences
  7. Waterfalls
  8. Light trails on a road
  9. A coastline
  10. Plant or trees planted along a curve
  11. Man-made structures like a bridge or other structures
man made structures as s curve
Photo by Silas Baisch

In the photo below, you'll notice that it doesn't follow the rule of thirds for the horizon placement but that's OK.  The S-curve is placed into the right third most of the frame, so vertically speaking it does separate the composition in a pleasing manner.  Utilizing an S-curve is all about balance.

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Photo by Rick Rogers

S-curves also don't need to be used as separators or dividers, they can also be utilized as the focal point of the photo, as seen below in this winter photo at the mountain.

While these examples show mostly landscapes, S-curves are visible in most all types of photography, including shooting people and groups.  The key is to look for and exploit the opportunities you have to utilize these soft, flowing lines to either help create compositional separation in the frame or utilize the curve itself as the focal point and featured portion of the image.

Further Reading:

  1. Using Leading Lines For Captivating Composition
  2. 25 Great Shots That Use Roads And Paths To Enhance The Composition
  3. Use These 5 Elements To Compose Great Photographs
  4. How To Use The Elements Of Composition
  5. Landscape Photography Composition Techniques | The S Curve
  6. Professional Composition Techniques: “Pattern & Rhythm” & “S-Curve”

About Author

is a professional photographer. See his site at Mike Panic Photography.

When I think of “S” curve composition I immediately think of Ansel Adam's Snake River photograph. I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to recreate that photo in the summer of 2009.

Here's a video of the experience:

A women's body can be a wonderful example of an S-curve. Wedding photographers are always looking for the wonderful pose for their portraits.

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