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Composition is the backbone of a great photo. We often call them compositional rules but in reality, they are more like guidelines.
We can choose to adhere to them rigidly, use them as a template or simply ignore them completely. There are a significant number of compositional techniques that we can apply to an image, many you might know, some you might not.
Today we are going to take a look at six, more advanced techniques that you can use to enhance your images.
In general, things that are unbalanced jar our eyes. The same is true in photography. We might have a great subject positioned on the bottom third of the frame but we are distracted by a much smaller element perhaps in the top third.
This is where negative space comes in to play. We isolate our subject on a clean background, perhaps a sky or glass-like lake surface. We then frame the subject so that the “nothingness” in the background inherently draws our eye to the subject.
It's a tricky technique to get right. If our subject is too small in frame it gets lost. If it is too big, we lose the impact of that negative space.
Get it just right however and you will end up with an image with huge visual impact from relative simplicity.
We can use color in our images as a compositional tool as well as creating the mood of the photo.
By using a combination of strong primaries, we can create well defined strong compositions, a red barn on a green hillside, or redbrick houses with deep blue skies. Contrasting primary colors can focus our eyes quickly to the main subject matter within an image and give a vibrant optimistic mood to a shot.
As well as using the strong primaries we can use variations of the same color to create subtle compositional cues. For example, variations of green grass on a hillside can lead the eye to a remote farmhouse. Using similar color tones gives a subdued, pensive mood to an image
The Golden Ratio exists everywhere we look in life. It defines the size of a person’s head in relation to their body, the form of a leaf, even the movements of financial markets.
It can, however, be notoriously difficult to use as a compositional technique. The ratio is 1:1.61803398875 which in practical photographic terms means nothing. However, if you set up a shot based on this ratio, rather than the more common rule of thirds, the composition will appear more pleasing, more balanced.
This technique is called the Golden Third.
There is, however, an even more tricky but rewarding variation on the Golden Ratio, that is the Golden Spiral. For this, you need to imagine a single line spiraling out from one of the thirds of your image. Its curve increases to the ratio we mentioned above and by placing subjects at points where the spiral intersects thirds we create a complex but visually balanced image.
Some of us love symmetry others not but as a compositional technique, it is right up their with the best. A symmetrical image is one that will have two equal elements creating a balance. They might be in the vertical plane, horizontal or even both.
The elements might be the subject or the symmetry might serve to highlight the subject. Symmetry in its most simple form could be a perfect reflection of a landscape in a lake. The lakeshore would be positioned directly on the centreline of the frame.
It could be two people a few meters apart looking at the same painting in an art gallery or two sides to a straight road disappearing into the distance.
To obtain great symmetry, we need to make sure that the positioning of our symmetrical elements is perfect. Even slightly of will degrade the composition.
Visual balance is a technique similar to negative space. Instead of using a clean background to add weight to our subject, we use a smaller contrasting element in the scene to add balance to the shot.
Visual balance can be obtained using physical subject matter, using color or light and shade. With a physical subject, we might have a small object that we wish to be the primary subject matter. We then might have a larger object in the background to contrast it.
By moving closer to the main subject and perhaps, using a wide-angle lens, we can make the larger secondary object seem less important but balanced.
Similarly, we use the same technique with color and light. Like with color contrast, we can use primary colors to balance the image visually.
Red is more visually striking than blue, so we can have a red subject matter balanced by a larger but less significant blue background.
Frames Within Frames
Frames within frames is another powerful technique to enhance your photos. It is a relatively simple technique that can be hard to achieve.
In its most simplistic form, its a pretty landscape take through an old window, but it can be much more complex. For example, a frame could be a combination of a lamppost on one side of the frame, dark clouds at the top and a person on the opposing side.
All of these individual elements will draw the eye through to the main subject beyond. The main difficulty is often in nailing the exposure. You need to have definition within the framing elements yet maintain good exposure on the subject.
Composition is never as simple as following rules. The above techniques are guidelines that you can apply to your images.
Many of them will work well together in combinations to create great photos, you don’t have to adhere to just one technique at a time. Next time you are out with your camera, see if you can work one or more of these techniques into your shots.
For More On Nailing Your Composition
- Advanced Composition – If you are interested in taking the composition of your images beyond basics such as framing and the rule of thirds, we highly recommend Kent DuFault's guide from Photzy
- How to Master Framing in Photographic Composition For More Powerful Shots – see Frederico's pieces on framing to improve your shots
- 6 Can't-Miss Composition Tips & Tricks – some pointers from our friends at Contrastly
- Use These Simple Techniques to Change the Composition of Your Photographs – Rob has some tips that can improve your shots
- Improve Your Photography Composition: 5 Free E-Books to Inspire Your Vision And Creativity – check out these free guides to get you on the path to well-composed photos