Composition isn't just about knowing where to place elements in a frame. It isn't just about finding lines that lead to your subjects, or identifying patterns that potentially fit S-curves or golden spirals. There are different skills involved in composition. Some of these abilities are obvious while some are not.
We were given certain rules or guidelines to follow when we were starting out. “Follow the rule of thirds”, “place an element here to make it effective”, “make sure horizons are straight”, or “frame your subjects this way to make it stand out” are instructions filled with much wisdom. But to develop composition skills require knowing and enhancing certain abilities available to photographers who are willing to get better.
Photo by Ulisse Albiati
There are those who develop these skills over time without even noticing it. But like a body builder who can effectively develop specific muscle groups in their body, knowing these skill areas beforehand will allow you to work on your composition the same way. There are several skill areas available but I want to share with you six essential ones today:
1. Ability to Intuitively Determine Balance
Have you ever seen a photo where with just a glance you knew that somehow it felt it was tilting to the right or left, or perhaps heavy on the top than the bottom? The intuition skill of balance is necessary in photography composition. Leveled landscape horizons are quite obvious to see but it doesn't necessarily translate to balanced composition. It’s even more difficult when horizons aren't too defined or when only objects populate your frame. In these cases, an intuitive approach to composition becomes a requirement.
If a photo feels awkward or makes you want to tilt your head then that’s intuition at work. Not only is this ability necessary during the process of taking a photograph but also during post processing where you get to determine how the final product will look like. If it feels as though something is off, there’s a good chance there probably is.
Photo by David Martyn Hunt
2. Ability to Recognize Eye Flow
Eye flow is the movement the viewer’s eye takes when looking at an image. Being able to find elements that point to your subject is great and that’s why leading lines are a great tool for eye flow. However, can you determine how your eye navigates through a photograph in the absence of prominent lines? In an empty canvass where you only see white, do you have that ability to determine where the eye is lead to look? How about in a photo crowded with elements? Sure selecting interesting subjects draw attention, but it is eye flow that keeps viewers focused on your photographs. Understanding eye flow is so valuable that is actually the key to breaking the rules of composition.
Photo by Hannah Nicole
3. Ability to Recognize Tonal Range
Recognizing tonal range is another unique ability. The great Ansel Adams understood tone so much that he created the zone system that classified highlights, mid-tones, and shadows in different levels as used in exposure and metering. Tones aren't just used in exposure, but it is also used in composition. Being able to create balance of contrasts using whites and blacks or dark and lighter hues is an ability. It is an advantage to those who understand its effect in composition.
4. Ability to Highlight the Subject
The goal of composition is to highlight a hero. It is to be able to present an idea to your viewers using a subject which can be formed by a single element or multiple elements. You should be able to identify, define, and highlight your subject in your frame in a way that you intend it to look. You can do these using lines, tones, shapes, and other elements that can support your subject.
Photo by Peter McConnochie
5. Ability to Identify Distractions
Related to highlighting your subject is the photographer’s ability to identify and eliminate distractions. Using supporting elements can highlight subjects, but there are other elements that take attention away from an intended subject. These are elements that can be very distracting. A strong element on the corner or edges of a frame, tree branches sticking from behind a person’s head, or even dust from your sensor located on a very visible part of an image are just some of these distractions that should be avoided or in some cases, fixed. This can be done in a variety of ways including re-framing, retouching, or re-shooting at a different perspective or orientation.
6. Ability to Recognize Abstract From Reality
Photographers have to go beyond seeing an object as an object or seeing a tree as a tree. It is necessary for photographers to merge their ability to see things in the natural, but it is equally important to be able to see basic elements of composition at the same time. The basic elements of composition include points, lines, shapes and color.
Photo by Scott Wylie
When you see a beautiful tree on the horizon, sitting across a meadow of green grass, you should be able to recognize the form or shape of the tree and the prominent line that the meadow is creating.
This distinction merges the natural with design elements as if you’re not just seeing a tree, green grass and a blue sky. Rather, you also see a beautiful tree-shaped figure sitting in the middle of a green lower space and resting on a bluish upper space with a curvaceous horizon dividing it.
How many of these skills are you familiar with? If there things in the list that are new to you, try to find out more about it. Here are other resources on composition you can check out: