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Enhancing Photographic Composition

By John Boyd (article from WPS Impact, March 2000)

Your editor, obviously being very short of material, has asked me to try and put into text the thoughts about composition expressed at a recent meeting. So at the risk of over-kill, here goes.

First it is appropriate to recognise the importance of photography's interpretation of the classical proportions of 3/5ths, by dividing of the frame into thirds vertically and horizontally. Undoubtedly the strongest points of any picture are the intersections of these lines, but especially the top right intersection, irrespective of whether your format is vertical or horizontal. But when it comes to the arrangement of the picture’s components, remember that the film will not necessarily place the same emphasis on various elements that you do. Shadows will gain an importance they do not have in real life and come across as solid components, colours will command attention as to whether they are advancing or retiring, backgrounds may command the same attention as foregrounds. You need to translate these things when arranging the frame.

To me, composition is simply a matter of flow and balance. Let's deal with flow first.

It is recognised that the eye enters a picture from the bottom left and generally moves through an image from left to right. All elements should be organised to facilitate this. The leading line moving from left to right is an easy path for the eye to follow , but should lead to the focal point.

Figure 1. Give the eye something to follow using leading lines.

Turn the line the other way and instead you have a barrier which contains the eye.

Figure 2. Turning the line the other way creates a barrier.

However, this barrier does work where the line itself is the focal point and it is that which you want the viewer to look at, a wave for example. Just remember that the area beyond might be dead space and that the best filler will likely be dark and undemanding in terms of definition.

Imagine your eye having to physically walk through a picture commencing from the bottom left. It comes to a fence strung from side to side.

Figure 3. A horizontal barrier.

This represents a barrier that literally prevents further progress unless there is an open gate for the eye to move through, or some form of bridge. A strong vertical such as a tree will provide that bridge (Fig.4), but be aware that such a vertical is likely to be the most commanding component in the composition and therefore needs to be carefully placed.

Figure 4. A well-placed vertical can be used to bridge the barrier.

The final aspect of flow is the importance of containing the wandering eye within the frame. This is achieved by ensuring that not only are no lines leading out of the picture, but that there is some sort of physical barrier in the top right, particularly, to contain it. Monochrome workers can achieve this simply by darkening that corner, or it is often done by judicious framing with a branch for example, or at least making sure that corner is never lighter than the rest of the image.

Figure 5. Blocking lines moving out of the picture (preserving flow).

And now, let us consider balance. Imagine the centre bottom of the image resting on a fulcrum.

Figure 6. Achieving image balance.

If a single weight is placed on one side, the picture is immediately unbalanced

Figure 7. This picture is unbalanced.

Note that in this illustration the donkey, although in the strongest part of the picture, is looking to the right, and consequently, (and in accordance with the theory of flow) note how the eye stays in front of the donkey, which effectively contains the viewer within the right side of the frame simply through our following the direction of its gaze.

Figure 8. Compensating balance.

In contrast, Fig.8 has the same lack of balance but the direction of the donkey's gaze allows the eye to comfortably view most of the frame. The direction in which people or animals are looking, or objects we expect to move in a particular direction are pointing, are therefore very important factors to consider.

In Fig.9 the imbalance is addressed with the introduction of another component. To ensure balance, just as you would balance weights on a central fulcrum, a counterweight is placed more closely to the margin. It might take more than one counter weight to balance the focal component.

Figure 9. Creating a counterweight.

And so, we conclude with Fig.10, representing the combination of the above, and hopefully the basis of a traditionally well composed picture. The same applies whether the format is horizontal or vertical. (The vertical format normally being the stronger, but the choice should be commensurate with the picture content).

Figure 10. Combining it all.

If you think about an image in the above terms you should be able to readily identify why it works or why it doesn't work, and how it could be improved. It is a logic that can usefully be applied through the view finder, but please, never allow it to prevent you from squeezing the shutter when your intuition says "shoot". It is a starting point, a discipline, departures from which can be very successful but which can always be explained through extension of the same sort of logic. As with all things, if we have a sound foundation, we can build and extend with confidence.

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