Photography Composition Articles


>Golden Mean
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Image Balance




'The Magic Of Selective Vision'


By Arnold John Kaplan, APSA-AFIAP

Photo composition is the foundation upon which we build our photo images by the correct selection, arranging, organizing and combining the visual elements within the picture area to produce a harmonious and pleasing photograph.

The following rules of photo-composition are for guidance only, not for absolute and complete obedience by photographers. No picture was ever made by rules alone, since Photo-Composition involves your personal tastes and preferences. Your natural instincts are worth more in photography than many rigid rules.

However, your must know the rules before you can break them and only break them when you have a good reason for improving the photographic image.

Photo-Composition is based on artistic composition up to a certain point. The artists of old always used composition in all their works and of course broke the rules when they thought it was necessary for the improvement of the painting or drawing.

Artists of course have the advantage over the photographer. They can move objects around in their picture frame to suit their own artistic desires. Thus, if a tree is not in the right place in Nature, the Artist will move it to another place on his canvas to make a better composition. If a fence or house is not situated correctly in the natural scene the Artist moves them around to suit his own artistic needs.

Photographers are limited to the use of objects in the scene before them.  But that does not mean they have to photograph them like a tourist, head on, without looking around for the best angle and lighting conditions in which to take the photograph.

A photographer's job is much harder than that of an artist who can take artistic liberties by moving objects around to suit their needs. The photographer must find a scene that has the best composition by finding the right angle, choosing the right lenses, being there at the right time of day for the best lighting condition and using creative exposures.

The Basic Elements Of Photo-Composition
Photo-Composition Is Composed Of:



  Equals objects, such as trees, houses, mountains, lakes or any other large or small object within the picture area. These are the objects the photographer is 'stuck' with and has to do the best with what is in front of the camera's lens. MASS comes in two sections: Formal Balance and Informal Balance.


Sometimes called Equal Balance or Classical Balance. It illicits feelings of Dignity and Repose but makes Static, Unimaginative photo images as the objects in the picture area are of Equal Size, one balancing the other equally like two children of equal size on a playground seesaw. The seesaw will not move up or down. It stays horizontal with each child balancing the other on the board.

This type of balance has been used in large public buildings where each side of the building matches each other with wings and the entrance is in the middle. It makes the building uninteresting and boring after the first look.

A photograph with this type of balance will also be boring and very un-interesting so be sure to avoid it whenever possible, unless you have a definite reason to use it.


Gives UN-even or UN-equal Balance in the picture area. If you have a LARGE object in the picture it should be COUNTER-BALANCED with a smaller object or Objects to make a good Photo-Composition.

Pictures the seesaw again with a 5 year old boy on one side and his Father on the other side. The BALANCE will be UN-even as the Father is larger and will make the seesaw heavier on his side. The boy will be high in the air and the Father will be at the ground level.

In a photographic scene, if you have a Large tree on the right side of the picture frame then you must try to balance it with a smaller object such as a house, a small tree or even the figure of a person on the other side of the picture frame.

The way you balance the objects in your picture frame will determine the success or failure of the image. Many times you will have to resort to the use of different types of lenses in order to create the balance you want.

A 24mm wide angle lens can create unbalanced composition very easily by taking the objects in front of the lens at close range. This will make the front objects appear very large in the picture frame while the rear or distant objects will appear smaller even though they are actually larger.

Another way to create unequal balance is to find a position that will cause one object to appear larger or smaller because of the angle you took the photograph. The next time you are out creating photographs be sure to keep these rules about Balance in mind and try to incorporate them in your work.


A definite 'NO, NO' in good photo-composition. When you place the Main Subject right 'smack' in the center of the picture area it is called a Bull's Eye. This should be avoided at all times, unless you have a definite reason for doing it.

With the main subject in the center of the picture frame the eye will go in to the picture and stay in the center of the frame looking at the Bull's Eye Main Subject and will not move around in the picture to see and enjoy any other items. The eye will get tired very fast and lose interest in the photograph.

Your purpose in taking photographs is to have people look at them, enjoy them, talk about them and buy them. If they cannot get interested in a photograph they will not bother to look at it and will definitely not buy it.

It is best to always have the Main Subject OFF CENTER. Even if it is just a little Off Center it will improve the picture's composition and not give you a Bull's Eye picture.


Sometimes called "The Rule Of Thirds". The artists of old discovered it and good photographers always use it to improve their photo-composition.

When you take a picture area and divide it into 'thirds' Horizontally and Vertically, where the lines cross in the picture area is a 'Golden Mean', or the best spot in which to place your Main Subject or Object of Interest as it is the Focal Point of your picture.

3rd.jpg (9741 bytes)
Rule of Thirds

There are Four Spots where these lines cross the Upper Left the Lower Left, the Upper Right and the Lower Left . You will note that all these 'Golden Means' spots are away from the center Bull's Eye position in the picture frame. The two best 'Golden Mean' spots are the Upper Right and the Lower Right because the eye enters the picture frame at the lower left hand corner of the picture frame, travels to the center of the picture area and then reaches the right hand 'Golden Mean' position where it stops to look at the 'Center Of Interest'.

The reason the eye enters a picture at the lower left side is because we are taught to read from Left to Right. This is a psychological fact that has been proven over the years.

Next time you are in an art gallery or art museum that shows the Old Masters paintings, notice how many have the Center Of Interest, a figure, a haystack, a house, an animal, etc. in one of these Golden Mean positions.

Be very careful that you do not place to centers of interest in two Golden Mean positions, especially on opposite sides of the picture frame. This will cause the eye a lot of trouble as it will keep going back and forth from one Center of Interest to the other and will get confused and tired and want to leave the picture area.

Get use to visualizing the view finder in your camera as having the cross lines of the 'Rule Of Thirds' (Golden Means) and try to place your main subject at a Golden Mean position. You will find your photographs have more style, interest and impact because of it.


Implied line are not actual lines that you can see in the picture area, they are 'implied' and are made up by the way objects are placed in the picture area. Sometimes actual items or objects do make lines such as, railroad tracks,
telephone wires, etc.

These 'implied lines' can actually create a response in various ways:


It denotes Dignity, Height, Strength, and Grandeur. We find vertical lines in trees, tall buildings, fences, people standing up, mountains, etc. A tall building shows height, strength, dignity and grandeur. Trees show height and strength.


Denotes Repose, Calm, Tranquillity and peacefulness, such as a person lying in the grass sleeping, flowers in a field, the flatness of a desert scene or lake. You can make your photograph illicit these feelings if you look for them in the picture area and use them in your photographs.


This like gives the sensation of Force, Energy and Motion as seen in trees bent by the wind, a runner at the starting line or the slope of a mountain as it climbs into the sky. By knowing this you can create Force, Energy and Motion with your camera easily by tilting the camera to make objects appear to be in a diagonal line. A dignified church steeple when photographed at a slant will change to a forceful arrow pointing towards the sky and show motion.


Here is a line of great beauty and charm and nothing gives a better example than a beautiful female form with all it's lines and curves. Of course there are other examples: The curve in a river or a pathway through a flower garden.


This line goes further than just a plain 'curved line. It is called the 'Line Of Beauty". It is Elastic, Variable and combines Charm and Strength. It has Perfect Grace and Perfect Balance. You have seen this 'S' Curve hundreds of times in drawings and paintings and other works of art.

Examples: the double curve of a river makes an 'S' curve. A path, row of trees or bushes that curve one way and then the other way create the 'S' curve. Look for this type of design and use it in your photos to add interest and beauty.


The line that leads your eye in to the picture area easily like a road or fence, a shoreline or river, a row of trees or a pathway. A successful 'Leading Line' will lead your eye in to the picture and take it right to the Main Subject or Center of Interest

An 'UN-Successful 'Leading Line' will take the eye in to the picture but will ZOOM the eye right OUT of the picture if there is no Stopper to hold the eye in the picture frame; such as a tree, house or other large object on the right hand side of the picture frame which will STOP the eye from going out of the picture. The Center of Interest or Main Subject will act as a Stopper and hold the eye in the picture frame.

The best Leading Lines will start at the Lower Left area of the picture frame but not in the exact corner. Again, the eye likes to enter a picture frame at this point and the Leading Line will help it get in to the picture easily and swiftly.


'Implied Forms' are a combination of 'Implied Lines' and they help to hold a picture together. The eye enjoys these interesting forms and will stay in the picture area to examine each one of them, if they are present.


Is made up of a continuous 'Curve' and it's circular movement keeps the eye in the picture frame. There are many circles in nature and man made objects and if you find them in an image before you, be sure to make good use of them in your photograph.

Circles can be made up of children playing 'ring around the roses' or a small pond or lake is usually in the form of a circle and of course many race tracks are a form of circle.


This has a 'solid base' and will show Stability. It also has Height and Strength. The Pyramids of Egypt have survived  for thousands of years while other types of solid buildings have crumbled in to dust in less time.

A Triangle can show up in your viewfinder as three points in the scene, such as two trees on the grounds pointing to a cloud in the sky. Sometimes a fence in combination with a stream and a farm house can form the Triangle Composition.


Is a connection of 'Lines' meeting in the Center and it is also a expansion of 'Lines' leaving the Center. The Radii is usually found in Nature Subjects. The best example of the man made Radii is the spokes of a wheel.

The eye has two ways to go when it comes upon the Radii. It can either be drawn in to the picture area or it can be led out of the picture area. You must be careful how you used the Radii and try to have the eye led into the picture.


A showing of 'Opposing Force' that will give the picture a feeling of Cohesion and Relationship. The horizontal bar of the Cross will act as a "stopper' while the vertical pole can act as a leading line. The windows in a large skyscraper will form crosses and will keep your interest in the building.

The Cross also has religious meaning and the subtle use of the Cross can give hidden meaning to a photograph.


This makes an attractive 'frame'. It can be used to accentuate important subjects. Many times it is a 'frame' within a 'frame'. A tree with an overhanging branch at the 'right' side of the picture area will form a 'Rectangle' and help frame the Main Subject in the picture. By doing this you will make the Center of Interest stand out and be noticed clearly.


Color can also help in Photo-Composition by drawing attention to the subjects and objects. The eye will ALWAYS go to the 'Brightest and Lightest' coloris in a photograph. You must watch the play of Colors at all times and make sure they are doing what you desire in your image.


The Value of colors are Intensity, Brightness and Luminance Factor. Thus colors are said to have Strong or Weak Values. They can be Warm or Cold, Advancing or Receding. The 'longer wavelengths' from Red to Yellow are usually described as Strong, Warm, Advancing colors while the 'shorter wavelengths', the Greens and Blues may be described as Weak, Cold and Receding colors.

Pastel colors are Quiet and Moody while Bright colors are Strong and Active. However, certain colors 'react' very strongly with each other to give "Strong Contrasts' and to many people these will become 'Discords' rather than 'Harmonies'.


Is the scientific counterpart for the more popular word 'Color'. Red, Yellow, Green and Blue are the Primary HUES, while Orange, Blue-Green, and Violet are Secondary HUES.


Colors that go with each other will Complement each other and are desirable in any painting or photograph. If you place the Primary and Secondary colors on a 'Color Wheel' you will find that Red will be opposite Green; Orange will be opposite Blue and Yellow will be opposite Violet. These 'Opposites are Complementary Colors and can be used together to create the best Color Harmony.

For example, a Red barn in a Green field of grass has harmony. The Blue and Orange sky of a sunset has color harmony. Always look for Complementary Colors in the visual image you plan to photograph and use them to create better photographs.

Copyright 1997 by Arnold John Kaplan, APSA-AFIAP
All Rights Reserved

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