How to Create Dynamic Compositions

One simple tip for how to make your designs, photos, and illustrations better.

I work with a lot of designers, cinematographers, photographers, and illustrators everyday on high-end commercial projects. From interns all the way up to senior artists who are experts at their craft, I’ve found that the reoccurring skill in all of the most talented artists is their understanding of how to use contrast in their compositions.

First off, when I refer to “contrast,” what I mean is: giving contrast to every visual component that makes up a single frame– value, weight, size, and color. By utilizing contrast, you’re able to control and define hierarchy, movement, and meaning.

To keep things simple and clearly illustrate what I mean, I’ve put together a few greyscale examples that show how adding contrast to your frames can drastically improve your compositions and effectiveness of your storytelling.

Identify Your Subject. You can establish the subject of your image through scale and value. In example A, the hiker is very small in comparrison to the environment around him– thus making “nature” the subject. In example B, we’ve moved the camera much closer to the hiker, and increased the contrast in values– making the hiker the subject.
Establish Hierarchy. In example A, we have a lineup of knights, equal to each other. By adding contrast between the elements in both size and value in example B, a hierarchy is established and we can now clearly see a King leading his knights into battle.
This works for typography as well. In example A, everything is the same weight, size, and value– nothing stands out. By drastically increasing the contrast, by 2x, 4x, or even 10x, like we see in example B, then you can control and identify what is the most important bit of information the viewer should see first.
Give Meaning. Contrast in sizes and values can have tremendous impact on the meaning of each object in a scene. By simply changing the scale and contrast in example B, the wolf becomes a predator stalking his prey, and the elk becomes a vulnerable target in the distance. If you flip the content, as seen in sample C, the story now becomes about the elk who has become alerted by the presence of the wolf lurking in the distance.
Create Motion. You can create motion in your frames by adjusting the weight and size of your subjects in the frame. In this type example, the eye will follow the words “ONE, TWO, 3” in a clockwise motion.

If you ever find yourself stuck with a boring composition, push the contrast in the value, weight, size, and color of your subjects. Start drastically, then pull it back. One formula I like to use often is:

  1. 1 really BIG object— usually the subject, and most important element in the frame.
  2. 1–2 medium sized objects — secondary elements to give meaning to the main object.
  3. Tons of very tiny objects — tertiary elements to give movement and additional context for the frame.
Here’s my formula in context. This Image created for Microsoft Xbox One “Greatest Games” TV commercial. 1. The big object is the subject, Lara Croft (Tomb Raider) drawing her bow. 2. The medium objects are the mountains and nature elements juxtaposed inside her silhouette– capturing the theme of the game “survival: woman vs. nature.” 3. The tiny objects are the birds flying around, to give visual motion to the frame.

I hope these tips and examples help you create more interesting and dynamic compositions for your photos, designs, and illustrations. If you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend the book “Framed Ink,” for additional composition tips for visual storytellers. If you’re seeking tips for making your typography skills better, check out the Typography Manual for free on the Blind website.

Update July 18, 2016: I had such a great response to this article that I decided to create a video to walk through a few of these samples, step by step. You can watch the video here:

If you found this piece valuable, can you do me a favor by recommending it below? Have thoughts? Leave a comment. I’d love to discuss further. Thanks!

About the Author

Matthew Encina is a creative director at Blind, focusing on brand strategy, design and video content. He also authors content on pitching, design, and animation for The Futur Network.

Follow him everywhere @matthewencina

For those of you who have to create concept visuals to communicate or sell your ideas, check out my Style Frames Course. I created this for those who want to design beautiful style frames that tell effective stories.