Seven Steps from Basic to Advanced Composition: How to Frame Your Photographs Effectively
The overall layout and placement of subjects within the frame can make or break your photos. You may be familiar with the rule of thirds and the golden section, but composition goes way beyond that, and most are about simple geometry.
There are people for whom composition comes naturally. My wife, for example, can pick up a camera and take a perfectly composed shot every time. I have a friend who can do the same. They are both talented artists; I’m not. For others less blessed, myself included, getting the image layout right is something that needs to be studied, and it’s a never-ending journey for me. But something I realized a long time ago is that most compositions that work are based on geometry.
I could write a chapter on each of the following; here, I’m just scratching the surface. However, I hope this brief summary gives you some pointers on what to delve into if you want to delve into the world of composition.
1. Starting with the basics, the rule of thirds is a simple composition technique that is probably the first most of us learn in our introduction to photography. In case you didn’t know, it involves splitting the screen into a tic-tac-toe board. In its simplest form, we place the horizon on one of the horizontal lines. We can also place objects where the lines intersect. We get pleasant images, but the look can become a cliché. There are so many images of the Rule of Thirds that sometimes it seems like we’ve seen them all before.
The image below is cropped in two ways. On the left, it is coupled with the rule of thirds, on the right, with the golden ratio (see below).
2. Symmetry is an effective tool that is often derided, especially in landscape photography. Have you ever been told not to put the horizon in the middle of the frame? Well forget that and instead look for scenes where the bottom of the image mirrors the top.
There should also be no symmetry at the top and bottom. Left and right also work, as does diagonal or rotational symmetry.
Square frames work especially well for symmetrical images because they have four reflections, plus four rotational symmetries inherent in their shape. Symmetry can give a sense of balance and calm to a photograph.
3. Most of us then progress to learning the golden ratio. It’s a more aesthetic way to divide an image than the rule of thirds. But it’s more than just placing the horizon closer to the center of the frame than on the third.
You’ve probably seen images of spirals like this overlapping paintings and photographs.
Unlike intersections on the rule of thirds, it is not just about positioning horizons, or even points on a photo, but about placing objects, sometimes of different sizes, in areas of the frame. It also guides us where the lines cross the image. It is a technique used by many great artists and photographers. Indeed, Henri Cartier-Bresson spent his photographic career exploring this.
The proportions of the golden section are based on a series of numbers that we call the Fibonacci sequence. This is where each number is added to the number before it in the sequence to get the next number, thus:
1 + 0 =1,
1 + 1 = 2,
2 + 1 = 3,
3 + 2 = 5,
5 + 3 = 8,
8 + 5 = 13,
13 + 8 = 21,
These numbers can be represented graphically and the resulting proportions are found throughout the natural world, including in the formation of the snail’s shell.
The sequence is named after 12th century mathematician Leonardo Bonacci, also called Fibonacci, but was known long before. The Roman architect Vitruvius (80-70 BCE) used proportions in his designs. However, long before that, the 4th century BCE Indian mathematician Virahanka had discovered the same sequence. Moreover, the triangles that form the Great Pyramid of Giza are also in proportion, and this was built between 2550 and 2490 BCE.
In the following image you can see how JMW Turner used the spiral of the golden section to approximate the position of the subjects in the frame, the sweeping shapes of the clouds and the sea, as well as where the horizon falls at the edge of the frame. Of course, in landscape photography, it’s much more difficult than painting because the layout of the natural world rarely positions itself to be consistent with our ideals when we look through the viewfinder.
The golden section is universally pleasing to the human eye. It evokes feelings of aesthetic fullness. To us, an image built to fit the proportions of the golden section seems fair.
4. If you have scrolled through the various crop overlays in Lightroom – press O on the keyboard – in addition to the golden spiral, you will have discovered the golden triangle. This is where a line is drawn from corner to corner, and then perpendicular lines run from it to the other two corners. It’s a little-used composition device, so little that I didn’t have a photograph in my catalog that illustrated it.
However, artist Frans Snyders used these strong diagonals in many of his brutal hunting and animal paintings. Wild boar hunting is a good example. Note the strong, dark diagonal line running from bottom left to top right, and the line perpendicular to it to the bottom right corner.
This diagonal composition is suitable for the violent scene. Although the composition works, there seems to be a tension, a dissonance that puts the viewer on edge. It is the polar opposite of the calm evoked by symmetry.
5. Another technique is the folding of the rectangle. Draw a 90 degree line through a rectangle, positioned to form a square at one end. You can repeat this at the other end of the rectangle, creating two parallel lines.
As in the example on the left below, the topic(s) of interest can either sit on one or both of these rows, or you can insert topics into the boxes, as in the example on the right.
6. Rectangles contain other geometric shapes. By drawing lines from corner to corner, corner to midpoint, and midpoint to midpoint, you end up with a geometric pattern called the armature of the rectangle.
Again, this can be used as a guide for structuring a composition, using both the crosspoints and the areas formed by the lines, as in the example below. Note that it is rarely possible in photography to match subjects with intersections of this shape, and not all intersections or areas will be used either, but it can be a useful tool to use in composition, especially when cropping.
The armature pattern can also be simplified, like the image at the top of this article.
7. As we have seen with all the examples above, placing objects in a frame so that our mind easily accepts them is consistent with mathematical and geometrical rules. So, looking for simple geometric shapes suggested in our photos – not necessarily actual shapes, but those that are suggested to our mind – is another effective way to create a compelling image. If individual objects are lined up with each other, our brains will see them as a line, like the dogs in Snyder’s pain earlier. Similarly, three objects apart will naturally form a triangle. I wrote more about this phenomenon in a previous article.
We can break these rules if we want. However, we should carefully consider the reason for doing so; there should be a discernible purpose for unusual compositions, otherwise the picture will simply look poorly done.
A great way to train your eye is to experiment with the crop tool. I think it’s the most powerful tool in any editing software for learning composition. With practice, you’ll begin to see good compositions through the viewfinder. If composition doesn’t come naturally to you, it’s something you can learn.
As I said at the beginning, this only scratches the surface of composition techniques, and I encourage you to dig deeper. There is much more on this subject which I will write at another time. If you found this interesting, you might like my recent articles on perspective and topic separation.
Do you consciously consider composition when framing a shot? Or maybe you are one of those lucky ones who have always been able to see a composition without thinking about it. It would be great to know what methods you use.