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.
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.
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
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.
3. A horizontal
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.
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.
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
6. Achieving image
If a single weight is placed on
one side, the picture is immediately unbalanced
7. This picture is
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.
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
9. Creating a
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).
10. Combining it
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