How to Create the Perfect Photo Composition

In this article, I want to focus on creating the perfect composition. But before we can create something perfect, we have to know what perfect looks like.

landscape composition

“Haystack Reflections” captured by Brian Clark (Click image to see more from Clark.)

Why is composition important? It is the difference between a snapshot and a photograph. In a snapshot, you bring up the camera, look through the viewfinder, and take the picture. Very little thought goes into setting up the shot.

But when creating a photograph, you bring up your camera, look through the viewfinder, and then make several decisions before pushing the shutter button. What goes into these decisions is the basis for this article.

A photograph begins with using some basic compositional elements. The most basic elements are lines, shape, form and texture. Lines create a path for the eyes to follow. Whether they are S-shaped, curved, or straight, they all lead the viewer’s eyes from an edge of a photo to the subject.

Lines

Diagonal lines impart a sense of motion while jagged lines create a feel of violent change. Straight horizontal lines, such as the horizon, orient the viewer and create some order to a photo. But horizontal lines can also confuse the viewer if used improperly.

lines in photography

“Untitled” captured by Ara Samson (Click image to see more from Samson.)

Straight vertical lines tend to show direction and a sense of action. Curved lines suggest motion and growth, while spirals portray flowing forces. Circles and spheres symbolize nature’s perfection. Triangles and polygons give a graphic sense of strength, stability, and permanency.

Shape

Now let’s move to shapes. The simplest shape is a silhouette. Even without texture, color, or form, a viewer can usually identify the object by its outline—think the pyramids in Egypt. Shapes alone can make great graphic images. A shape only showing one side stresses shape, but the form or depth is missing.

shapes in photography

“Pyramid Point” captured by DailyTravelPhotos.com (Click image to see more from Daily Travel Photos.)

In other words, with a one-sided shape, we can see how high and wide it is, but we can’t discern how deep or how far back it goes. When we add a second side, by shooting from an angle where we can see both the front and side of an object, we get the depth and create form.

Form makes an object three-dimensional and therefore more lifelike. The recesses of an eye-socket, the cylindrical trunk of a tree, and the curve of a horse’s flank all give these objects form and therefore depth. Shooting from an angle gives these objects a much different feel than when shot from the straight-on viewpoint.

Texture

Texture defines the surface of an object. It shows us the smoothness or roughness of an object’s surface. But showing texture is not always what we want to do. Depending on the subject, it might be better to minimize the texture. Let me explain.

Accenting texture works well when showing the rugged weathered face of a fisherman but doesn’t work well when showing the face of a model.

texture in photography

“Lost in Thought” captured by VJEKO (Click image to see more from VJEKO.)

How you light the subject determines if the texture will be accented or minimized. Direct side-lighting accents texture and allows the viewer to visualize how that object feels while diffused side-lighting or front-lighting minimizes texture.

Elements of Composition

Now let’s talk about a few elements of composition and how to use them to your advantage when creating the perfect composition:

  • Positive and negative space. Positive space is the area within a pattern of lines, while negative space is the area outside a pattern of lines. In your mind, picture a sailboat on the water. The area inside the outline of the boat, sail, and mast is the positive space. The area outside this triangular pattern of lines is the negative space. The contrast of positive to negative space—and the relative size of each—creates balance in a photo. Try to have your positive space (or the subject) toward the foreground and off-center. If your positive and negative space are about the same size, it is difficult for your viewer to determine the subject of the photos.
photography composition

“Sunset Bliss” captured by Ina Hillier (Click image to see more from Hillier.)

  • Horizon placement. Remember what I said earlier about how horizontal lines could confuse a viewer? When shooting horizons, don’t place the horizon in the middle of the photo. When the sky and ground get equal attention, it causes confusion in the mind of the viewer. What is the subject in this photograph? Give the area you want to emphasize the most room in the photo. If you are emphasizing the landscape, have the horizon two thirds of the way up from the bottom. If you are emphasizing the sky, have the horizon only up one third of the way from the bottom.
photo horizon

“Shower of Rays” captured by Supriya Mukherjee (Click image to see more from Mukherjee.)

  • Leading Lines. Highways, roads, trails, and rivers all are good sources for leading lines, and as their name indicates, they lead the viewer’s eye from the edge of the photo to your subject.
leading lines

“Untitled” captured by Ara Samson (Click image to see more from Samson.)

We’ve discussed only three of the twelve compositional elements. In a future article, we will discuss the other nine. Be sure to read the follow-up article to see the other ways you can use to create the perfect composition.

About the Author:
Ron Kness is a digital photography specialist from Sunlight Media. You can find his website at Digital Photography by Ron Kness for more digital photography tips and technique articles.

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