What is Composition
Imagine purchasing a book and opening it only to find the pages were out of order, the text was in hard to read places, and the story rambled on in no particular direction. Well, that’s exactly the same as a badly composed imaged. Composition, everybody’s heard of if. What is it? Composition is about arranging elements in a scene in a pleasing and easy-to-read manner. When done correctly, it guides the viewer to what’s important and is overall resulting in a more pleasing and aesthetic-looking image.
In fact, I go so far to say that composition is one of the most important things that you could learn as a photographer. Yet surprisingly, So many don’t really understand it. If you go online, you’ll find 101 tutorials on how to do the basics, but almost none that go really deep, which is why I’m making this blod, so if you love photography like me you can use this guide to understanding composition once and for all.
If you read this blog, you will have learned how to correctly positions the elements of your scene to make an photo that’s visually attractive and wows your audience. Composition can best be broken down into three stages, which we’ll address throughout this video. First, the focal element, the structure and last, the balance. Let’s start with the first one, the focal element.
The focal element
The focal element is something that the viewer is drawn to immediately upon seeing the image. Now, I love this one because personally, if I find an image which I would consider to be badly composed, generally, the biggest culprit is it’s lacking a focal element or there is too many focal elements. Focal elements are so vital to a scene because without it, the viewer is left bouncing around the image wondering what on earth the whole point of it is.
Case in point, you look at this and you go, “Great. A brick wall. Thrilling. Now what?” What are we supposed to focus on? The door? Is that what’s interesting? That’s the only I guess thing that stands out here. I mean, there’s nothing here. Nothing. It’s just a brick wall. You end up reaching for that close button as quickly as you can because it’s a waste of time. There’s nothing here other than it’s a brick wall. All that time I’m putting to texturing and the lighting and the glare and getting the perspective and all that stuff was a complete waste of time because without a focal element in this image, something like this, is likely to get closed within seconds by the majority of people that have a look at it and for a right reason.
On the other hand, we have a little guy and he was standing here and he’s got his arms folded because he’s from the hood, and he was there with his little hoodie on or whatever in the background, that would be a focal element. That will be something that would get your attention. As it is, there’s nothing there, so it’s just bland and boring.
In a more direct example, let’s have a look at four chairs. Now, I would have no idea which chair you’re looking at right now because they’re all exactly identical. There’s no reason you should be focusing on any particular one. An image like this is likely to get rejected by your brain. That sounds really cheap, but no, it really is. There’s no point to it. You just turn your head, away you go. However, if you are to make something that stands out, it completely changes the dynamic of the scene.
This is just a really simple example of adding saturation to it, but this is really what it’s all about in your scene is making something which stands out from the rest of the scene. It’s so important. If you don’t have it, it’s just completely lacking. This is saturation, but there’s a variety of other ways. I’ll give you one more example here. That is contrast. This is one you see a lot, particularly used incorrectly. This is one you have to be weary of because a high contrast, basically white and black, sitting next to each other is really demand, it’s like a magnet for your eye. You’re like … and you just look at it.
You have to be weary of it because if for example you have an interior shot of a lounge room and then you have a window at the end of the scene with bright white light coming in, although window has got the most contrast in the entire scene, so your eyes are going to be drawn to the window when in actual fact, you wanted people to look at the couch. You have to be weary of contrast, which is incorrectly used in a scene because that can become the focal element even though you didn’t want it to.
Camera focus – Motion – Human face – Guiding lines – Framing
Those are few examples here. I’ll just give you just all of them here. High contrast, we’ve covered, saturation. There’s also camera focus, which is the actual whatever the camera is focused on, the rest of it is blurry. That’s also going to help. Motion, if the rest of the scene is static and then you’ve got something which is leaping through it, that’s definitely going to bring some attention. Faces or figures, human figures or a human face, you’re going to be drawn to that. Then you’ve got some influences, things you can actually add to a scene to draw focus to it, such as guiding line, which we’ll talk about a sec, framing such as a vignette or a natural frame and geometry, shapes like rectangles, triangles, circles, things like that. Your eyes are drawn to geometric shapes as well.
Let’s look at a few examples in detail. This one here is a great example of a focal element done well. You can see eye is drawn to her face, not only because it’s a face. Humans are good at recognizing and automatically focusing on faces, but there’s also some really subliminal methods used here to make sure your attention is focused on the face. One, yeah, it’s a face. Two, the lips of her are red and red, that’s the only place that red is used in the entire image. That’s saturation. You’ve also got heavy contrast against her cheek there, against the dark background. You’ve got extra lighting there making sure the focus is on there.
As well as that, something which you might not have noticed is some subliminal guiding lines. As a photographer you should ALWAYS be looking for a lot, It’s essentially lines, curves, shapes, but that basically have a line to it. That subliminally directs your eye to something that you are trying to direct the viewer to. You know what I mean. In this case, this artist has used this flowing floral circle around to subtly guide your attention to her face. Very, very clever, really well-used. As you can see, it’s pulled off nicely.
Another example here I would say on a limb that your attention is focused on this guy right here. Number of things here which are guiding you to him. One, high contrast. He is a silhouette. He’s black against white. Two, he’s a figure. Humans are very good at identifying other figures. That’s another reason your eye is drawn to him. Another one is these guiding lines, which you might not have noticed, but the spotlights are all pointing down making sure that your focus is on that guy there. As well as that, you’ve also got the motion of him. He’s jumping. Out of the rest of the scene, everything else is stationary except for him. You’ve also got some framing such as the vignette around the edge there, which is making sure your attention is brought inwards.
Symmetry – Guiding lines – Repetition
This one, I love. There’s so elements here at play making sure that your focus is on that house at the end there. Let’s address them quickly. The biggest one is I guess the road. Roads are super easy and really effective at guiding your attention. It’s a guiding line essentially. Roads, pathways, rivers, things like that and having this road lead directly up to the house and just end, perfect way to make sure everybody’s attention stay there.
Not just that, it’s also using symmetry. It’s mirrored basically on both sides, making sure that … Essentially, with symmetry, your eyes are then drawn to the center of the mirror, which in this case is the house, which is great. It’s also making use of repetition. All of those trees there, that rhythm of the trees acts as a guiding line. It’s also visually pleasing having repetition in there. As well as that, you also got a really strong use of framing, which is the trees around the outside directing you pretty much to the only area of contrast in the whole scene, which is the house itself. It’s specifically the top of the house. You got heavy contrast against the sky. You’ve also got geometric shapes, which I mentioned before, squares, rectangles, as well as the triangle. The only place in this scene where you’ll see geometric shapes and the camera focus as well. Lots of elements there making sure that the focus is kept on the house. Really, really clever.
Only one Focal element.
Here is an example of a focal element done badly. This is a scene I did I’m hoping over a year ago. This is a great example of when it doesn’t work because you’ve essentially now got two elements which are fighting for your attention at the same time. We’ve got this spaceship here, which is zooming towards the camera. There has been a motion there, bright contrast, everything like that.
As well as that, you’ve got the earth, which is completely in focus. It’s heavily saturated. It’s got a lot of contrast due to the texture and it’s familiar to us, so we’re drawn to that as well. Two elements equally important, both fighting for your attention. You’re not sure which one is which, so it’s irritating to look at. An image like this just isn’t pleasing. It’s just not fun. This is an example of how it can fail. Make sure you have just one focal element and that will result in a much more visually pleasing image.
The natural focal elements are…
Again, these are the natural focal elements: high contrast, saturation, camera focus, whatever the camera is focused on, motion, having something jumping against a stationary set, faces or figures act as very good focal elements. Then you’ve got some influencers to help influence a scene such as the guiding lines, the framing like the vignette, as well as geometry, adding in some squares, rectangles, triangles and circles.
The structure of photography
Anyways, that is the focal element. Moving on, let’s talk about the second stage for composition, which is the structure. This is what most people think of when they think of composition. Structure is essentially the organisation of the elements in the scene based on a rule. This rule, for example, the rule of thirds. Everybody knows about the rule of thirds. That’s an example of structure. I want to stress the point that it doesn’t matter what structure you use or that it falls into one of these rules that are listed in a photography book or anything like that.
Any structure is better than none at all. For example, let’s have a look at this just random bunch of chairs in no particular order. It’s very displeasing and your mind basically rejects it immediately because you’re not sure what to focus on. There’s no clear indicators as to what the point of the image is. It’s just a bunch of random chairs. It’s just irritating, right? On the other hand, let’s look at this. Now, this doesn’t fit in to any one of good photography principles, but you’ll agree that it’s much more pleasing than this. This is anarchy, chaos. There’s no order. This one, there is.
It’s using the Gestalt principles of design, proximity. Chairs that are together, you think they’re grouped, whatever. It doesn’t really matter. Just the fact that there is some sense of order, that’s what we’re looking for, some sense of order, some structure to the scene. Some other examples, this is just random, but it’s better than nothing, circle, as supposed to the randomness. Anything will work better than just having a random-looking scene. That’s what I wanted to stress here.
Let’s talk about the common structures, examples. These are ones you’ll find in a lot of photography books. Biggest one, rule of thirds, golden ratio, a pyramid structure, symmetry and full frame. Let’s go over these in detail. The first one, rule of thirds.
The rule of thirds – golden ratio
Everybody knows about this, but for those who don’t, I’ll just briefly explain it. Essentially, it’s cutting the image into thirds along the horizontal and the vertical axis. Then where those lines intersect, there are four points of intersection you can see here with the circles. You essentially place something of importance there. If you’ve got a character, you place their face right there.
Often, it’s good to counter that. If you’ve got a face, you obviously want to counter it by having something on the opposing point there. Anyways, that’s the rule of thirds and it works really well. It’s essentially a simplification of the golden ratio, which is a little bit more complex and I’ll get to that one next. It works really well. It’s used a lot in movies and TV shows. It’s just great if you have a character and you want to show the rest of the scene.
Here’s some examples. This you can see with the rule of thirds overlay, you can it’s perfectly lining up. You got the explosion point almost exactly on that intersection there. The good thing about having rule of thirds for this kind of shot is that you’re now able to see the rest of the scene. It’s not just an explosion by itself, it’s a city surrounding it. There’s a whole, you can add the rest of the story to it. It works well for this type of scene.
Another one right here, add the rule of thirds over to that. You can see the cat’s face there, the main character, the main point of focus for the scene is almost lining up with that intersection there. Now, it’s not lining up exactly, but it’s close. That’s the thing. You don’t need to become a slave and make sure everything’s perfectly lined up like in the bridge of the nose. I mean, that will help I guess, but it’s not essential. It’s just enough to have it near it and get the basic broad strokes of the scene according to these lines here.
You can see what’s more important is you’ve got the cat there, but then you’ve also got this really high element of visual interest, which is the meal, the seafood itself, so it works really, really well.
Here’s an example of some photography by the US Army and I’m almost certain this was cropped deliberately. I can’t imagine that this came out of the camera this way because as you can see, it lines up beautifully with the rule of thirds. As you can see, it’s just a visually pleasing image.
The rule of thirds is also used a lot in movies and TV shows because it’s perfect for characters. It allows you to see not only the character’s relation to the environment around them, but also great for dialogue because it allows the two characters to face each other or face off camera and have a discussion. It’s just a really powerful technique in keeping an aesthetic shot while it’s also continuing to tell the story.
The Golden Ratio – Good for nature, good for your photography
Next up, let’s talk about the Golden Ratio. Oh, boy! Everybody’s heard of the Golden Ratio. Almost nobody knows what it’s for. I mean, everybody knows, “Yeah, the golden ratio. I’ve heard a bit about it, so what?” There’s a whole bunch of myths about it that it’s just naturally going to make everything look amazing, and that’s not true. Essentially, the story behind the golden ratio is that throughout nature, you will find instances of the golden ratio being present such as in seashells. You’ll find it in nature like plants and flowers and things like that, as well as the gravity around planets. It’s very interesting. A lot of people have come to theories as to why this exact ratio works in the real world. It’s just there.
Because of that, some designers had influenced, have taken that design theory and influenced their design because of it. The iPod made use of it and famously, the actual violin was designed because of it. Now, there are some speculations. Some people are against the idea that it just makes things naturally beautiful because there’s also the theory of suggestion, the fact that because we see this so many times, because it’s so familiar to us, we automatically just think that it’s beautiful because the more we see something, the more we’re familiar with it, the more it becomes attractive to us essentially. There’s that theory as well.
Here are some examples
Essentially, it does work because it’s seen all so often throughout nature and it’s been proven through a lot of designs to work well. Here are some examples. This beautiful image here by James Gardner, you can see is pretty much lining up exactly with the golden spiral, the golden ratio, however you want to call it. I’m almost certain that was not an accident.
Now, this could have been with the rule of thirds and it probably would have looked just as nicely, but it’s using the golden ratio. It’s looking really … It obviously has a really striking result. You can see the other jellyfish wrapped around the spiral as well. It creates a great result.
Here’s another example here. At first, I thought this one was using the rule of thirds, but put the golden ratio over and you can see that it lines up pretty much spot on with that. The main focal point is of course that jet, which is flying out from the camera. You can see that towards the top here, specifically where this building is, you can see this wraps around almost exactly with that spiral there, which leads me to believe that this was fairly deliberate. It creates a very nice pleasing looking image.
That’s essentially the golden ration, but I do want to stress, don’t start implementing the golden ratio thinking that it’s just naturally going to make your scene look amazing because believe me, there are countless designs online of people thinking that using the golden ratio and it is looking terrible. It’s just not an end all, be all, but if your design allows for something like that and you think it could work, give it a try and it might look pleasing. Anyways, it’s a structure one of many that you can use.
Another one is the pyramid composition. This is one that not many people I guess talk about, but it’s very effective, especially for things like people. It allows you essentially to create a striking figure. It’s used a lot for characters like in comic books. You’d have Superman standing above the camera and it getting small towards the top, making it looks like a tower or any looking appearance. It works really well for single subjects such as characters. It also works well, you can use it in wider scenes as well. It’s a little bit more difficult, but it can come across there as well.
Another we’ll talk about is symmetry. This is mirroring something along the horizontal or vertical axis. Very simple, easy to come across. You’ll see this a lot in architecture, particularly for buildings such as mosques, churches and government buildings because having a symmetry results in what looks like a powerful important, as well as a calming-looking building. That’s what symmetry does. That’s why it’s used so much for churches, mosques and parliament buildings.
Finally, the last one is full frame. This one is so basic, you almost don’t need an explanation for it. You have a single subject, just zoom in right on that subject. You can leave a little spare around it or you can just have it zoomed in like that. That’s called full frame. No other composition or element because it’s just one single thing. You don’t need to confuse things by putting rule of thirds or any of that stuff in there. It’s just full frame.
That is structure, having a deliberate organisation of elements. Any structure, doesn’t matter which, just provide it. There is something that the viewer can orient themselves to. Rule of thirds, golden ratio, pyramid, symmetry, full frame, those are five you can try out. If you’re just starting out, I’d recommend rule of thirds because that’s really one that is just tried, true, proven, works really well. You give that a go.
The balance of the image
Last of all, we’ll talk about that balance. The balance of the image is all about ensuring that the visual weight of the image is evenly displaced, making sure that you don’t have something that’s so heavy on the left-hand side or up top or whatever. As an example, this is a very unbalanced scene. We’ve got this very dark contrasted chair on the right-hand side there and nothing on the left-hand side. If this image had weight to it and it was, I don’t know, sitting on a scale, it will be leaning to the right-hand side.
Just like a real where real weight is involved, if you can imagine that there’s a line down the centre here, it’s essentially like that that becomes the fulcrum. You need to have something to balance that out. The smaller it is, then the further you pull it out to. In any case, we’ve now just got one giant object here on the right-hand side way too heavy and nothing on the left-hand side. You wouldn’t want to have this orientation in your image, but if you did, you need to balance it by putting something like a little chair on the left-hand side there. Now, that becomes a balanced composition.
You wouldn’t do that though. You just focus entirely on the chair and crop it right down, but if you were to go with this exact proportion, this is what you’d have to do. That’s essentially balance in a nutshell. It’s ensuring that the weight is balanced. A visual weight, when we talk about visual weight, we’re essentially talking about the things we mentioned with the focal elements. We’ve got size, high contrasting elements, the saturation that adds more visual weight to things, faces, that’s a huge point of visual weight. It’s just so striking. Your eyes are drawn to it, as well as figures, body figures as well. All these things add lots of weight to an image, so you then need to balance that out.
Here’s an example of an unbalanced image.
Here’s an example of an unbalanced image. It’s unbalanced. Your attention is drawn right over here to this building, where there’s this bright light, so much bright contrast over here, as well as a figure which adds to it as well, and then not much on the right-hand side. Now you might think, “Oh, we’ve got some things here. We’ve got some boxes and whatever,” but it’s not as bright.
A great way to check if it’s balanced just going based off the values of light in your image is to turn up the contrast. When you do that, you can see that you’ve got this big bright patch on the left-hand side there. If you also turn up the blurriness value, you can see very clearly that it’s very, very, very unbalanced. This is essentially what’s called the squint test. If you squint your eyes, you essentially get this result. You can try that with any image. That’s just if you’re going based off the values of things. You’re also going to include things and remember things like saturation, the faces, characters, things like that that can also add extra weight.
In this instance, if you wanted to balance this out, you would essentially need to put something around about here, maybe I don’t know, a red engine or I don’t know, an extra lamp or something like that to counter that extremely bright weight over there. That would essentially do the trick. That’s what is needed.
Here’s a better example. You’ve got this extremely bright gem, crystal gem right in the foreground there in a very dark surrounding. Now, this would be really bad generally. It’s a really bad way to completely unbalance the scene. To counter that, in the background over here, we’ve got old Jimmy Hyka standing in the cave entrance. That alone, him as a silhouette against the sky background, as well as the fact that he’s a figurine, adds a certain amount of weight to it as well, so much weight that it counters against this brightness in the foreground there. Without him there, this would be drastically unbalanced. With him there, the fact that he’s got so much weight as well visually, it helps to balance that out. I’m hoping that makes sense.
Another example here, we’ve got a really large, huge-looking monster dude, which would usually throw the image out of balance, but we have another character, a human girl, which has a lot of visual weight to it as well, which balances him out. As well as that, you’ve got a bright window up there against the moon, a lot of contrast there, which would make this scene a little bit unbalanced if it weren’t for this lampshade down there.
Now, this is a complex example. If you’re looking at this and thinking like, “I don’t know this. I can’t figure this out. This exact science of balancing this and that and when it’s in contrast and saturation,” don’t worry about it. It’s something that you will pick up as you go. Even though this might look confusing like you don’t understand all of this stuff just yet, the more you work with it, you’ll automatically begin to start implementing this stuff in your scene. You’re at a person and then you go, “All right. I need to add a little box over here to the right-hand side.” You’ll just immediately instinctively start adding this stuff. I just wanted to add that to soothe over any stretch you might have over this.
The best example of a balanced scene
This is the best example I can think of for a balanced scene. Right here, we’ve got this obviously giant demanding, scary-looking robot with a huge, bright light shining out of it. It’s a camera or a tart, whatever that is, which has got a lot of weight to it, heaps of weight. However on the left-hand side here, we’ve got a little boy. The fact that he’s human, he’s a figurine, as humans, we’re instinctively drawn to figurines. He has a lot of weight as well. Even though he’s not bright and contrasty as the robot is, he is a silhouette, so there’s contrast there, and he’s a clear figure. He really acts as a really great balancing point for that giant robot there. As well as that, we’ve got this huge overpass over the top there, which would act to unbalance this if it weren’t for this cleverly placed shadow across the ground there. As you can see, a really deliberate and very clever way of balancing a really complex scene. That is balance.
Just to go over it again, the visual weight of an image includes the size of the object, the contrast of the object, saturation, if it’s a face or a figure that has even more visual weight. All of those things have high visual weight, and that’s something that you want to try to balance out throughout your scene.
The pyramid of composition
That’s it. That’s the pyramid of composition. To go over it again very briefly, it’s a focal element, one clear element of interest in your image, absolutely necessary. If you’re lacking that, it’s a sure fire way to basically destroy all of the effort that you went to in making the image in the first place. Number two, the structure, arranging the scene according to a rule like the rule of thirds, the pyramid, various different ways. Just make sure it has some specific organisation to it. Then balance, keeping the same balance as we just discussed.