'The Magic Of Selective
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
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.
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
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.
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
Elements Of Photo-Composition
Photo-Composition Is Composed
MASS - LINE - FORM - VALUE - COLOR
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
FORMAL 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
INFORMAL BALANCE 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
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
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
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.
EYE COMPOSITIONA 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
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
THE GOLDEN MEAN 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.
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
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
IMPLIED LINES HOLD THE PICTURE TOGETHER
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
telephone wires, etc.
These 'implied lines' can actually
create a response in various ways:
THE VERTICAL LINE 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
THE HORIZONTAL LINE 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.
LINE 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.
THE CURVE 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
THE 'S' CURVE 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.
LEADING LINE 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
'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.
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
IMPLIED FORMS ALSO HOLD A PICTURE TOGETHER
'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
THE CIRCLE 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
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.
THE TRIANGLE OR
PYRAMID 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.
THE RADII 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
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.
THE CROSS 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
The Cross also has religious meaning and the subtle use
of the Cross can give hidden meaning to a photograph.
THE 'L' OR
RECTANGLE 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.
VALUE OF COLORS
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.
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
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.
COMPLEMENTARY COLORS 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
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