Learning composition rules in photography as a path to narration.

Why you shouldn’t follow composition rules but might also know some.

Tristan Zand
Nov 8 · 29 min read
People photographing things on a ferry in Denmark.
People photographing things on a ferry in Denmark.
Having a smartphone potentially makes anyone a photographer. But are there rules to take a good photograph? — Leica SL2

If you are a beginner or casual amateur, you will find tips and tricks to enhance your photographic abilities almost everywhere. Many will state that a good photograph is about applying essential rules. Follow them, or you will never take great photos.

Beginners, avid to rapidly progress using insiders’ tricks, will drool over titles like ‘must use rules’, ’ secret tips’, ‘top 5 tricks’, ‘essential techniques’, .. and be lured into meticulously following them.

However, most mid to advanced amateurs and pros will know it is more about how you can rely on them to practice but need to search beyond to create great pictures.

While they can inspire you, I will try to show you how they can create stories and introduce you to your narration skills.

While rules are essential in capturing the photons correctly (e.g., you need to optimize your film/sensor, lens, settings to get the best signal to noise ratio, definition, …), composition usually relates more to an artistic and subjective process. Yes, stricter use of rules might work great in some niche applications and will probably more easily boost your social network profiles’ popularity. Still, beyond commercial or archival photography, composition goes far beyond and will only articulate the right words to your photographs if you transcend them.

Taken from the Cambridge online dictionary, ‘composition’ is a noun with two definitions of interest.

Composition:

- the act of composing

- the parts of which a thing is made

It might only be semantics, but the following concept is essential to understand. It is both the action of assembling various constitutive elements into one AND the proportions and elements in the making of an object or scene.

As for the definitions of the word ‘rule’, three are of importance as they encompass the spectrum of what rules inherently are.

Rule:

- a general standard that guides one’s actions

- what usually happens or is done; a general principle

- a regulation or order

Rules are the prescriptions linked to a science, technique, or another productive/creative activity, and there should be an incentive to follow them by study or practice. Depending on the field, however, how we observe them will be crucial. Some domains will require they be more tightly followed for the result to make sense (e.g., mathematics, physics, chemistry, …). Other more creative fields will offer way more latitude to using them.

Photographer taking photos of a model in exterior settings, with falsh, in the Helsinki archipelago.
Photographer taking photos of a model in exterior settings, with falsh, in the Helsinki archipelago.
Applying well technical rules in capturing the pictures will create the space you need to express yourself through composition. The opposite isn’t necessarily true. — Canon EOS M3

It all goes down to what you think photography means to you. Are you aiming for a specific result, is it the process you care for, do you like to tell stories? While the possibilities are limitless, it is what you define that will be good for you.

Why would you apply rules if your prospect is purely artistic? How clear and definite is your goal when taking that picture? Do you even care about the resulting composition?

The ‘why’ appeals to reason, cause or motive, and could be the ultimate interrogation for you before applying pre-existing ‘landmark’ composition rules.

Imagine yourself as a child asking the question of ‘why’ or the answer you’ll get might otherwise be embarrassing.

Let us gratuitously cite Ansel Adams: “there are no rules for good photographs, only good photos”.

Composition rules: to know in order to better transgress.

One of the best approaches to rules in a composition will be to both stimulate your curiosity and open your mind to the ‘landmark’ often-referred-to ones. This article will, therefore, focus on four popular ones that will serve as a catalyst to enhance your practice:

  • fill the frame
  • rule of thirds
  • playing with symmetry
  • directing lines

If this list is too little for you, don’t worry, you will find many more in books or online, and nothing even prevents you from reading the ‘best-of’ articles. Going forwards in this text, we will increasingly diverge from the sole rule-studying to wander further into the concept of narration.

Mirror ball in the night.
Mirror ball in the night.
Going beyond basic rules of capture to generate artefacts (here going beyond the sensor’s optimal sensitivity) will serve your artistic desires for a shot. — Leica SL2 using a pinhole lens

Let us first digress a bit. Parameters and rules used to capture and reproduce photons (capturing the existing scene and optimizing the physical capacities of your photographic equipment) tend to be more technical than artistic; thus, this will already serve you a good enough share of must-follow ones.

That is why many essential ones have been integrated into cameras through programs like auto-exposure, auto-focus, stabilizers, … And while many of us strongly depend on these when we trigger, managing composition is usually our sole decision.

Some automatic programs have recently appeared that will follow faces, objects, surfaces and use depth maps to enhance your composition. Others are even using artificial intelligence to find and apply rules that supposedly would increase your share of better shots.

Going beyond the right settings and playing with your equipment’s artifacts and boundaries can significantly affect your composition by generating creative textures and artifacts, but usually, it doesn’t. Using artificial intelligence and other automatic composition tools can be efficient but will probably strip off what is most crucial in your compositions: you. Therefore, composition rules and parameters form a subtle layer above the technical aspects of capturing light and should remain, to a larger part, implicit: they should serve you in telling your viewers a story or beget a feel or sensation.

Strictly applying common rules of composition will probably make your photos more popular with the mass, and your Instagram followers will increase with presumably many more positive comments. These tend to explicit conventions that will result in your final image being more comfortable or appealing, a bit like adding more sugar will make desserts sweeter and yummier (or more cowbell...). It feels good in itself, but some of us will prefer pictures being more personal, subtle, or different and will want to tell another story than the one everyone else already heard.

Illustrating rules with concrete examples is a great way to explain composition mechanisms. The four rules previously stated will be the perfect lead to discuss what balances and energizes a photograph.

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fig.0 the all-mighty frame

1 — Filling the frame.

The first rule we will look at states that the more you fill the frame with the subject, the more it will naturally attract the eye, and the clearer your statement will be. It will usually make the photograph feel more natural, but things aren’t so simple. It would be best to try that for yourself, but we will, more importantly, use it to introduce crucial concepts about framing your picture.

Firstly, you can choose the frame to retain the original format of your film or camera sensor. It offers concrete boundaries in phase with the image you preview in the camera’s corresponding viewfinder (letting you preview something close to the final capture). The viewfinder is adapted to your camera, helping you compose before the shot, but reframing afterward can be an essential part of the process towards a great picture too.

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ex.1 — Kodak Tmax 100 / Nikon FE

Example 1 is a digital scan from the first shot in a 35mm roll of black-and-white film. It would help if you considered including or excluding two peripheral elements of your composition: keeping the film-holder shadow around and/or the overexposed film primer surface at left. They can act as a frame-in-the-frame (another popular composition rule we won’t detail here). Your final message and/or aesthetics will be quite different as a result of the addition of one or another or if you crop to the actual photographic urban scene. The film-holder markings will give your shot a ‘historical’ aspect, the primer an ‘action’ feel, while the sole urban view will focus on the street story going on. Choosing the right frame is crucial before you fill it.

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ex.2 — Leica M240

Figure 2 is an example of a photograph taken on a full-frame digital sensor, oriented vertically (aka portrait format). The 0.6x width to height ratio restrains the viewers’ sight quite firmly, constraining his gaze to the elongated subject that is the swan. This ratio is quite similar to the field-of-view an erect human would all-at-once be able to concentrate his sight on. This picture is an excellent example of how filling the frame, as a rule, makes your statement clear of what is most important in the photograph. The swan pops out, and the underwater background, though naturally homogeneous, is relegated to almost being a monochrome background. We will come back to this picture later, deconstruct the composition details that lie beyond, and see how filling the frame is not that simple if you want to use it at best.

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ex.3 — Leica S2

Figure 3 is a medium-sized digital sensor studio capture with a slightly squarer 0.77x ratio. While this ratio isn’t so different from the previous figure, the increased somewhat horizontal span augments the viewing comfort by presenting a less-tightly bound subject (the twigs). It is a reminder of how you should best avoid relying on quantitative numbers and more on the feeling you get. This picture also depends on the ‘frame-in-frame’ rule (the linear grooves and painted lines on the wooden surface underneath), which naturally moves the viewer’s eye towards the framed subject.

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fig.4 — Kodak Tmax 100 / Pentax 67

Even broader, figure 4 is from a black-and-white medium-format 120 film taken with a 0.8x ratio. It is composed of a surface with a closer to 1 aspect ratio. The slightly vertical framing still acts as a natural zoom on the subject (the tree), but going squarer also usually adds comfort to the sight. Having a square format aspect ratio would have made the scene more comfortable, but having that light verticality potentializes the bottom-up point-of-view to give a sense of grandeur to the tree. The high contrast situation also adds to the popping-up feel, but we won’t go into color or contrast theories here.

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fig.5 — iPhone 6

Figure 5 is an ultra-wide format (4.52x aspect ratio) and another photographic process example: rotation capture (taken by rotating the lens — standard on modern smartphones, but also found on analog cameras like the Horizont). The extremely elongated wide-format-ratio offers ample space for the viewer to diverge his sight and reinforce the impression of the magnitude of the horizontally elongated subject (the mountain range). Extremely elongated subjects usually are used to compare the size between two elements and give a sense of scale, but the filling-the-frame rule works well in these cases too. (e.g. with a long object like a train convoy horizontally or a high rise vertically).

Choosing your capture’s original format and filling it at best at the moment of capture will be essential for your final composition’s success, but you should learn to give yourself a margin of error. Always remember you can reframe to a smaller surface but not the opposite. You will have to integrate that larger film, or sensor surface might help define the basic feel of what you want to reproduce while preserving resolution. However, you can also stitch photographs together, cut-out your shots, and reproduce on various objects (e.g., coated with photo emulsion) to experiment with framing. These will act as atypical frames and converge the viewer’s gaze on the subject very differently whether you fill them or not.

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fig.6–7 — Leica S2 vs Pentax 67 with Cinestill50 using the same lens (300mm), one on a medium-format digital camera (30x45mm), the other with a 60x70mm film camera

Figures 6 and 7 are a comparative example of how the choice of your original frame can be essential. The larger capture right, by nature offers greater narrative possibilities. The medium-format digital version emphasizes the mountains’ mineral strength and a powerful waterfall. The wider one tells a human story with cute little chalets comfortably set in soft green fields. The latter’s extra material radically transforms the story, but you can still reframe to get the same limited view and, therefore, the alternative narrative. This example is also a great illustration of how important it is for you to define your subject to fill the available surface, even if it isn’t that clear to the viewer. It also reminds us of how important it is to choose your lens and camera well, as you might not always have the freedom to move back in order to get the desired broader view.

Capturing your images vertically (portrait) will naturally be bound to the scene’s central subject or content, but working horizontally with a similar proportion (landscape) will naturally provide more latitude for the viewer to gaze on the sides, regardless of how the subject fills the frame. The composition will feel more comfortable, but you will slightly lose control over the viewers’ gaze. But in any case, the more you fill the frame with the subject, the more comfortable the viewing-experience will be, and the less of importance the frame ratio will take.

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fig.8–9 same place, same lens and camera (full-frame digital sensor). In the first photograph (portrait) you will capture the bird top left, while on the second you will have access to other details as the building far away top right, or the car front right. Portrait-mode is closer to an erect humans point-of-view, forcing the gaze center, while landscape-mode opens the side to the viewers free-will. — Leica SL2

Figures 8 and 9 are uncropped photos that illustrate the difference between a shot taken vertically (portrait) and horizontally (landscape) and how they could offer different story-telling opportunities. Cropping, as a second intention, can be necessary for your work to make sense. In the portrait version, you could use the bird on the roof or increase the sky’s impact to open up the scene, but you could also close it using the monotonal ground below. You could use other details on the landscape version, such as the car and building on the right and rear, or the wall pattern left to modulate the feel. However, you will lose the bird or the sky choices you previously had to work within the portrait capture. A wider angle lens or a larger format substrate could potentially let you have both, but this will be at the expense of other technical aspects (e.g., perspective, definition, depth-of-field, distortions, equipment price, …).

You shouldn’t limit yourself to the original capture format; you can accept it as is, but should also always consider reframing. As a rule, filling the frame will make your subject (single or group) stand out better against its environment. Still, while it will create a sense of proximity and intimacy, depending on what you are picturing, the feeling might be too strong for the story you want to tell. You might want to emphasize a sense of distance and alienation. Again, it is for you to judge how things feel best.

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fig.10–11–12 one shot, three compositions, three stories, or how the original panorama reveals the scale of things around the tiny humans, the second portrait one as a tale of beach activities, and the third square framing opens your mind to the infinite horizon — iPhone 6 panoramic photo & crops

Figures 10–11–12 are three versions of what one can do with a wide image-ratio capture. This original photograph is a panoramic shot of the Chicago bay. It attempts to capture the sense of magnitude from the buildings and the lake compared to the tiny looking human figures on the beach. Reframing vertically around the latter but preserving the buildings in the far background aerates the composition and emphasizes the Human imprint over elements. Reframing to an even more compact framing and square aspect-ratio will make the image more dynamic towards the bay opening, leading to the horizon and a sense of infinity. These are three different stories, and the choice will highly depend on what you have to say.

Adding a frame in your frame adds a story in your story (also a separate rule of composition). Let us use it as a reminder to think beyond that primordial box, which is the outer frame. Creating this secondary structural element will force your central subject to interact with the viewer. The latter is not as passive as without, while preserving more peripheral space will better integrate your subject into its environment.

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fig.13–14 Canon EOS 6D / Pentax 67 — Cinestill 800

Figures 13 and 14 illustrate how the more you fill your frame with your main subject, the stronger the sense of proximity will be, increasing a feeling of intimacy. The first photo tries to express sensuality and warmth by imposing the subject to the frame: the top hairs go beyond the top, and the high-angle view combined with precise focus on the eyes tends to make the interaction feel direct. The reflections on the window generate a frame in frame, thus adding a layer to the story: you don’t exist for the subject. She is offset with a gaze going beyond the edge left, on something the viewer will have to imagine himself; he is the external observer of that independent interaction. The right image tries to maintain distance to the viewer by imposing the drapes in the shadows as dark margins around the subject. An offset focus opened to the subjects’ gaze, and the use of low-angle will here generate distance, dreaminess, and poetry.

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fig.15–16 Canon EOS 5 / Kodak Tmax 400 — Leica M240

Figures 15 and 16 illustrate how the more you fill the frame, the more you reinforce the viewer’s focus on the main subject. Other surrounding elements will naturally disappear. Slightly offsetting the subject in synergy with obvious convexities and concavities will help you create a sense of movement to otherwise still photographs. Convexities tend to move the gaze in a centrifugal way (e.g., the wind in the hairs or the moving swan), and you should use this to better fill the frame while preserving movement.

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fig.17–18 Canon EOS M3 — framing the subject and the objects it interacts with will reinforce the overall power and dynamics of movement; larger apertures with shallower depth of field will act as such, and adding asymetrical placement with bottom-up view will increase the sense of movement

Figures 17 and 18 tightly frame the subject, and what they interact with will make for a more powerful feeling if the space is tight. In the drummer case, you can almost feel the sound with no room for it to escape. The fish is framed on top, left, and right, with an opening below, which creates buoyancy. Additionally, using a shallow depth of field can add to the sense of tightness.

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fig.19–20 Leica M8 — Pentax 67 Tmax 400

Figures 19–20 illustrates how filling the frame is not only about making the photograph more comfortable to the viewer. Pleasantness can be your statement, and filling the frame should be tuned to what you want to express. You can experiment with the ratio between the object’s real size and its peripheral space by increasing or decreasing it. This is a modulation you should practice to shape your stories and catalyze the overall feel you want to give. Some discomfort in the framing will reinforce an uncomfortable theme, and a well-balanced one will add to an otherwise harmonious subject. Filling more or less with the subject will be proportional to the importance you want to give it in respect to its direct surroundings. The left picture shows how you can help understand the abstract subject’s dimension, while the right image shows how you can increase the sense of the tree’s size. It is similarly essential to manage the crowdedness of the background. The complexity of the latter will modulate the scale of the magnitude of your subject. Shooting with an up or down-angle will let you play with the image’s physical depth, and you can exercise it as you would with an explicit frame-in-frame.

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fig.21–22 a huge pile of tires and a windmill farm at a distance — Leica M6 / Cinestill 50

Figures 21 and 22 are examples of how to fill the frame and play with the feeling of proximity. When composing with larger groups of objects, letting them run over the borders will increase their sense of bulk. Having the boundaries of a single subject going beyond the frame will create proximity but increase its magnitude if it is a cluster. Asymmetry creates movement and energy, even in the lack of motion blur. In the second picture, the windmills (the subject) slightly offset left will generate the wind sensation coming from the right. Your story is about following rules for eye comfort but also generating imbalances and tensions to develop a more profound and dynamic sensation.

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fig.23–24–25–26 Polaroid, 110 format film, inkjet prints, collages, dualphotography all create alternative photo ratios to the basic ‘rectangular’ ones — 110 film Canon EF220, Polaroid print — SX70, stitch of two 24x36 images, a cutout, a dualphotograph — Duall app on iPhone6

Figures 23 to 26 should prompt you to think out of the box. Digital photography has reinforced the traditional rectangular framing’s omnipresence as both sensors and screens follow it. Many other frame aspects exist in the analog world. For example, instant photography will reveal or print your photograph with a natural physical frame around it (where the chemicals stand). You can also stitch pictures together (creating weirdly shaped outlines/frames) or cut-out an irregular form from your physical prints. You can still apply the ‘filling the frame’ rule to any of these. There are also niche techniques as stereo photography (to create a sense of depth) or dualphotography (where you capture opposing 180° views of a scene), which let you tell very different stories, but where framing still is as necessary.

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fig.27–28 Swiss cow — SL2 / Budapest market before the fall of the wall — Nikon FE

Finally, filling-the-frame examples figures 27 and 28 describe two opposite situations. The friendly cow is walking forth beyond the frame, and shallow-focus on her eyes forces direct interaction between subject and viewer. On the other hand, opening the frame (as in this market photograph) will let the viewer distance himself and, at his own pace, better feel the context. To better explicit the ‘diffuse’ subject, a frame-in-frame encompasses it (the market and passers-by). The viewer is free to interact with whatever sub-subject he desires (e.g., the kid bottom right), but the iron structures guide the viewer’s gaze inside.

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fig.29 simply divide your scene in 9 equivalent surfaces, tada

Rule of thirds.

It is probably the most popular rule of composition. It is easy to understand. You split your image in nine, in thirds vertically and horizontally, leading to two vertical and two horizontal lines of force that cross. These intersections are the most impactful zones in your picture, and placing your subjects on them is supposed to make for a better photograph.

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fig.30–31 hay roll / Leica SL2 — restaurant during confinement / iPhone X

Its use is so widespread that most cameras or apps include these guides in their viewfinders or live preview (often as an option). The rule of thirds is supposed to create balance in your picture and offer natural forces leading the viewer’s gaze to whatever you want to show.

In figure 30, the rule-of-thirds lines is highlighted by the tree leaves from the forest and the field beyond. The frame-in-frame also reinforces the sense of depth and an already strong effect from the shallow field-of-view.

In figure 31, things aren’t as obvious, but the scene’s different sections imply the rule-of-thirds lines. Its application in creating focal points for the viewer’s gaze works, but symmetry is also at work (we will look at a rule of symmetry later in this text), revealing how hard sometimes it is to know if it is the rule or something else at work.

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fig.32–33 summer ends / Leica SL2 — electric bird / Olympus XA

While the thirds rule will make your composition feel smoother, it is mainly about graphic design and image balance. It might look good per se, but your story might need some visual discomfort to reach its goal. You may want to go beyond ‘pleasantness’ to make things unique. This rule might be a magic trick to make good-looking photographs; however, it isn’t a given that it will make your image resound to you or the viewer. Some of us want to go beyond the pretty picture, and you should loosen your use of this rule to keep experimental pathways open in your search for a better picture.

In figure 32, the left and top lines cross on the center of the circle formed by the diver, reinforcing the photo’s balance and draw the gaze to the implied movement. The lines also tend to be naturally ‘in-phase’ with the diving platform, highlighting its importance to the story.

Figure 33 is another example of vertical balance provided by the left third’s line of force, where most of the scene is happening, while the other lines and crossings aren’t that prominent in the composition. Having the mountain range on the lower line and the bird on the upper would have better balanced the picture, but offsetting them to the edges creates a sense of height.

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fig.34–35 windowless — tradition / Leica SL2

Figures 34 and 35 are specific cases where the rule will feel more explicit. It might serve you in making your composition’s overwhelming geometrical patterns feel more natural, forcing the viewer to focus on your photograph’s central subject. In the first photograph, the rule helps overlining the closed window and center the viewer’s gaze. The highlight is on the family in the second one, on the lower right intersection, keeping an open range to the other image elements.

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fig.36–37 Jura / Canon EOS 6D — tourist / Leica SL2

Figures 36 and 37 are other examples of how you can use these guides to make your image flow. The horizontal lines on the left photograph tend to frame the clouds. In contrast, the tourist on the right picture sits on the bottom right intersection, forming a balanced composition with the surroundings. The building’s windows seem to follow the left vertical line, increasing the overall composition’s comfort.

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fig.38

While some state this as a separate rule, having a landscape picture with two-thirds of sky content on top and one-third of land below is a relatively standard and efficient way to shoot landscapes. It provides a natural composition, where the gaze can then focus on the smaller elements and textures.

Figure 38 is a good illustration of that. The horizon sitting on the lower line offers ample space for the gaze to err on the sky. This classic composition should always feel good. However, you might want to make it more exciting and try to play with it to create additional tensions (e.g., move the horizon up to increase the grounded objects’ impact in the scene and even develop a sense of claustrophobia).

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fig.39–40

Figure 39 is a distorted but realigned version of figure 40. Both pictures have the horizon placed close to the upper line to reinforce the focus on the waterfront. The latter emphasizes the importance of water in the composition and pull the gaze to the reflecting waves. The window separations are realigned to the vertical thirds’ lines on the left post-processed photograph. Even though the process partially distorts structures, the overall image should feel better balanced, and you should find it more pleasant. The original picture right isn’t as comfortable. Regardless, it tells another story, one attracting the gaze right of the view, and is a reminder of the importance of knowing what you want to say when applying composition rules.

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fig.41 symmetry starts by simply dividing your image in two vertically or /and horizontally

Playing with symmetry.

This rule emphasizes symmetry as being better for your composition. Applying the rule can consist of explicitly splitting your scene into two balanced parts, vertically and/or horizontally. If you balance your composition’s subjects on both sides equally, it will make for a pleasant mirror effect and less eye strain.

While some will disagree, the thirds rule could be understood as a subset of the rule of symmetry, but one where you symmetrically divide the image in three horizontally and vertically, will not rotate or distort the lines, and where the delineated segments are of geometrical equivalence.

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fig.42–43 Leica M240 / Leica SL2

Figure 42 illustrates the mirror image symmetry’s primary use in the vertical construction, while horizontal symmetry is implied by the passers-by and persons sitting. The overall scene might feel comfortable, but then again might not serve your story as intended. The picture is maybe made interesting by the right upper angle sun position, which offers something more than the simple geometrical harmony (e.g., situates the scene in time, expressing more of the relaxing feel of a late afternoon).

Figure 43 splits the composition in two vertically, with the horizon behind the trees spot-centered. The farmer and tractor pulling the herse (which naturally are the main subjects) are slightly offset right, offering a sense of movement as if it had moved from the ‘comfortable central position’. In this photograph, one could also see the leaning trees graphically having a counter-balancing effect.

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fig.44–45 Leica SL2 — Leica S2

The high contrast image of figure 44 tends to center the sun but slightly offset up and right, creating tension to the central intersection and will attract the gaze slightly up and right. This balances the symmetry between the uneven breadth of the high-rise constructions rising above the horizon (broader on the left, thinner on the right). This slight asymmetry creates a tension with the barely visible reflections on the barely discernable underlying buildings and produces a more spectacular feel.

Figure 45 uses perfect symmetry and the crown to emphasize the central zone pulling the viewer’s gaze to the center. This well-balanced purely graphical construction opens space for a more semantical interpretation. The ensuing pictorial harmony forces us to read symbols and details at a higher level, away from the purely graphical construction, to understand the underlying story.

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fig.46–47 Leica M24 — Leica SL2

Figure 46 is an example of how you can generate dynamism by employing angular symmetry. The mound is centered, and the low-angle adds to its converging silhouetting lines, reinforcing its sense of magnitude. The convergence crosses the middle vertical line and reinforces the sense of symmetry. The dominating tree supports the upwards tension and overwhelms all other geometrical effects to create a sense of might.

Figure 47 works with a slightly angled symmetry between out and in-focus zones. The balanced contrast between the two makes the airplane vapory trail disrupt it and grab the attention, with the plane acting as an arrowhead. Applying symmetry in your composition will always serve as a foundation for asymmetrical elements to pop-up and hold the viewers’ gaze.

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fig.48–49 Canon EOS 6D

Figure 48 illustrates radial symmetry around a central axis built on the stronger contrast linear element. The water interface isn’t the separating symmetry here, but instead that unbroken thick reflected bumper line from the ship’s hull. This symmetry creates a tension which guides the gaze along the arc, naturally towards the only explicit visual opening: the reflected sky.

Figure 49 offers an angular symmetry revolving on the interface between the waves and the cliff. The upwards geological traits emphasize a folding symmetry that increases the breaking wave dynamics already explicit by the waves crashing. This photo also relates to the next rule we will introduce: the one of directing lines. Again we see how rules can be applied not only when capturing your shots but also afterward to explain the mechanics of a picture better. Decrypting your shots as a second intention can be useful if you want to reiterate some of your better photos and understand the underlying rules that constitute your style.

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fig.50 Kentmere 100 / Leica M5

Figure 50 is an excellent example of why rules can be interesting to analyze its building blocks, but how in no ways will it assure you which one was used without the photographer telling you. Which rules would you pick here to compose the final image? Would you have selected the rule of thirds or based it on symmetry? I chose neither at the time; I only wanted to recreate what seemed to be a flag.

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fig.51 a dynamic approach to image composition, looking at forces and creating energies

Directing lines.

Applying the rule of directing-lines will bring force and 3D movement to an otherwise flat 2d picture. It will direct the viewer’s gaze from one part of your image towards another and create a sense of time and action, essential to some stories’ achievement.

Lines can be straight or curved. While lines act like arrows and tend to bring the viewer’s gaze from a close tail to a far head, curves will additionally behave centrifuge in their involvement to the building of a visual flow.

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fig.52–53 Cinestill 50 / Leica M6

Let us start with four photographs of a single location captured differently to explicit the main concepts. Lines act as arrows with the tail at the near-end and the head at the far one, implicitly forcing the viewer to decode the 3D space projection.

Figure 52 relies on the jetty line which acts as a force vector, leading the viewers’ gaze beyond the horizon (supported by the high-set horizon that will tend to push the eye up to resolve the tension created by the sizeable underlying water volume). The scarcity of elements reinforces the importance of symmetry, otherwise making for a pleasant sight. The line starts beneath the bottom border and makes the viewer be part of the movement.

Figure 53 adds peripheral details to the scene. The result is a different story. The line starts on the sandy beach and inserts a distance between it and the viewer. The movement is paused and becomes a choice for the viewer to take and become an actor in the story. The jetty line again goes beyond the horizon but leans right and there is now a ship visible to the horizon. The right-offset from the intersection with the horizon creates a sense of movement, which can be interpreted as a proposition to travel far away.

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fig.54–55

Figure 54 resolves to start the jetty line off-frame to the left, excluding the viewer from the dynamic proposition of being part of the travel. As in figure 52, the latter will draw the gaze to the horizon and beyond.

Figure 55 is another variation with restrained dynamics. The line starts on the sandy beach as for figure 53, creating a pause to a possible movement to the viewer’s interpretation (an open question). It doesn’t cross the horizon, excluding the proposition of fleeing to infinity. Where does the line go? The top-down point-of-view adds distance to the story. The few leaves protruding establish a frame-in-frame, additionally separating the viewer from the scene underneath.

While you can use a single line to direct the viewer’s gaze, multiple ones will act as cumulative vectors. Trying to balance their vectors will help you create balance or create force fields. The viewers’ sight will follow the stronger vectors or the direction of their overall addition. This rule is a process you can follow, but again only as a tool with no guarantee of a successful shot. Beware opposite vectors canceling each other will result in a comfortable and aesthetically pleasing image but decrease the space available for your storytelling.

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fig.56–57 Leica M240

Figure 56 plays with the centrifuge effect. The tramway rails act as curves, and as with straight lines, will serve as arrows starting near and ending far away. Each curve generates a force pulling the gaze in its direction, but also in a lesser centrifugal way. Above, the electrical lines create a symmetrical force whose addition will be to overwhelmingly channel the viewer’s gaze to the left (as a current would). The two bystanders walking against will balance this force and make for a more harmonious scene.

Figure 57 is a simple example similar to figure 53 and lets the viewer interpret how he wants to take part in the action. The arrow starts slightly on the right but underneath the lower border, therefore inviting the viewer to participate. The arrowhead ends on a defined object, represented by headlights whose driver stands mysterious in an otherwise dark nightly environment. The story is about discovering who that character is.

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fig.58–59 Leica SL2

Figure 58 is yet another example of adding force vectors and using concomitant rules to muscle up your composition. Two main vectors construct the composition: the road that starts slightly left from the viewer (thus including him) and the electrical lines, with both apparently intersecting at the horizon. The tree fills the frame and adds extra visual comfort but also generates tension by hiding the previous intersection. Residual discomfort is additionally neutralized by placing the horizon at the bottom-third line.

Figure 59 presents the primary force vector close to the viewer’s position, slightly offset to the right, creating disbalance and extra energy to attract the gaze up towards the sunlight past the forest. The picture’s overall symmetrical construction, with tree trunks on the vertical thirds’ lines, the horizon and path’s at the lower third, makes for a more comfortable sight.

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fig.60–61 Leica SL2 — Ilford PanF+ / Leica M6

Arcs have a propensity to be centrifuge, acting as the circular wavefront following a stone drop in a pond. You can use them to control a viewers’ gaze towards less explicit parts of your picture.

Figure 60 uses the rainbow as a wavefront. The top red section of the main building is on the lower right thirds’ intersection, and brings stability to the composition. The cumulative vector created by the building’s front-facing surface and the wavefront pushes the viewer’s gaze up left.

Figure 61 uses a similar wavefront to create a vector from the forefront children looking at the phone towards the distant elements. The gaze of the human figures in your composition will serve as force vectors. This image illustrates how the viewer can be understood as one of your composition’s active figures, and how all the gazes added as force vectors will bring balance to your composition.

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fig.62 Nikon FE

This essay’s last 62nd figure shows how the centrifuge effect will attract down from the sheep offset left on the right third’s line and its intersection with the hill’s concave profile. The horizon adds to the stability of the overall composition by following the lower thirds’ line.

Avoiding photographic rules is a rule.

That’s probably the best rule of rules. Follow your intuition and sensations — practice avoiding general rules and create your own. Don’t be shy and create tensions, make things uncomfortable or awkward; experiment with all composition tools.

While it may seem easy, it is pretty hard. Most of the said composition rules have built their legends because they were a posteriori found omnipresent in many fantastic or famous photographs. But trying to be different will always be an excellent exercise. It would also be best to share as much as possible your work with others, ask for feedback, do your experiments, and always try to look back at your previous works with a fresh eye. Applying this non-rule as much or more than others will be of great practice and help you create your own set of rules and other intimate habits. This is how you could build your own recognisable style.

Or not. ;)

Photographic composition in charge of representation.

Composition attempts to represent the image, the story you want to share. However, it is only one of the critical elements that will make your photographic construction more explicit to the foreign eye. Rules might be good recipes to get there better, but you should not solely rely on them as you would with a magical wand.

An excellent composition will almost always lead to a good narration. To see a picture is like discovering a story; it is an adventure in the making. It is a poem.

Looking at the definition of the word ‘narration’ can also be interesting. It is the action of telling a story, exposing a suite of events in a literary form. It is the exercise of developing a story by means of writing, describing a situation. In photography, your ink is the photons. The composition is how you build the sentences.

I will update this article regularly in response to your comments, questions, suggestions. So don’t hesitate to follow or contact me here or via my Instagram account @zdrilx where I regularly post new material and experiments.

All photos in this article are ©Tristan Zand, all rights reserved.

The Raw Camera — Von Cam

A raw review of diverse photography techniques, cameras and lenses, with a focus on practice.

Tristan Zand

Written by

I like to hide behind sunglasses/music/photo/tech/arts/politics/whatever/oh and bass... Experimental photography and conceptual media. http://zand.net

The Raw Camera — Von Cam

A raw review of diverse techniques, cameras and lenses. More on how things might be done, or on how the equipment feels than sole objective technical data. Hopefully useful and enjoyable.

Tristan Zand

I like to hide behind sunglasses/music/photo/tech/arts/politics/whatever/oh and bass... Experimental photography and conceptual media. http://zand.net

The Raw Camera — Von Cam

A raw review of diverse techniques, cameras and lenses. More on how things might be done, or on how the equipment feels than sole objective technical data. Hopefully useful and enjoyable.

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