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Composition is the arrangement of the elements in an image, with regard for the framing, so that they form a harmonious whole which enhances the communication of the photographer's intention.

What forms a successful composition depends on some universal and some cultural aspects. Universals include the way in which the formation of virtual apexes draws the viewer's eye to a particular point, and the way in which lines draw the the viewer's eye across the image. Cultural factors include the tendency of Western viewers to 'read' a picture by beginning at the top left, and then going down and up, or going across the right and then back to the beginning, depending on which visual cues are available, because this the way Westerners are taught to read written texts. With some aspects, such as the Rule of thirds and Golden Section, cases have been made for universal application, but universality has not been demonstrated.

Some compositional 'rules' of general (though not necessarily universal) application include:

1. The eye goes from dark to light and from shade to bright


2. The eye moves from out of focus elements to in focus elements


3. Where two lines meet, a centre of interest is formed


4. Where two lines would meet, if they were extended, a centre of interest is formed which is sometimes more powerful than if the lines were completed


5. The eye will tend to follow a curve, such as an S curve, for longer and with more interest than a straight line


6. The eye goes first to a centre of interest, and then follows the strongest line that leaves it


7. The eye will tend to follow spirals inwards towards the centre


8. Placement of visually heavy objects at the bottom of the picture and visually light objects at the top tends to create a sense of rest


9. Where the weight in an image appears to be unsupported, we are left with a sense of toppling


10. When a moving object in an image has space within the image to move into, the result is harmonious, and when the gaze of an eye looks to a space in the image, the result is harmonious


11. Where a pattern is present, the eye is attracted by breaks in the pattern. Equally, the eye is attracted by breaks in symmetry


12. The eye naturally comes to rest in a rectangle at one of the four points a third from the two closest sides. This is seen in the rule of thirds and the Golden Section. Equally, an image is more harmonious when any strong vertical or horizontal lines split it at these points rather than in the centre. Where the shape of the frame is square, the eye does not find a natural resting point.


13. Where the shape of the frame echoes the shape of the subject, the result is harmonious


14. An image benefits from having a single dominant interest, which should be the main subject, and is usually the point of sharpest focus


15. An image benefits from a less dominant secondary interest, which in some way echoes the first


16. An image suffers when there is competing interest, or when the image is generally cluttered so that the dominant and secondary interest are not clear


17. An image benefits from 'infinity', which is a subjective quality which makes the viewer continue to look once the information in the image has been absorbed. Infinity is often the result of careful composition, but can also be achieved through the use of the subject matter

18. Lines which take the viewer out of the image, especially on the right, tend to lessen the time a viewer spends with the image, while lines which draw the viewer back into the picture tend to increase the time a viewer spends with it


19. For Western viewers, the eye goes from top to bottom and back up to the centre, and from left to right and back to the centre, unless interrupted by another picture element


20. For Western viewers, diagonal lines appear to go up if starting low at the left and finishing high at the right, and to go down if starting high at the left and finishing low at the right. 'Up' images are often conducive to optimism.


21. The eye is naturally attracted by human faces in images, and will interpret face-like elements as faces. In portraits, and where a face is clearly visible, we expect the eyes to be sharp, and where they are not, the effect is disharmonious


22. For literate viewers, the eye moves quickly to any written text which can be read, and may not return to the picture


23. The eye tends to detect 'mistakes' in an image, and most viewers find it difficult to enjoy an image once they have found a mistake, even if they were happy with the image beforehand. Mistakes include elements which have obviously been inserted in an otherwise naturalistic image, shadows going in the wrong direction, over-sharpening and other obvious artefacts of postprocessing


24. The negative space around objects forms a shape in itself, which can have a powerful impact on the image as a whole


25. Lines which appear horizontal or vertical in real life work best in an image where they are either as they would be, or substantially at an angle, but not when they are just a couple of degrees off 'true'


26. Disruptions of the shape of an object, or two distinct shapes merging into one, are disharmonious or comic.


Generally speaking, images which are constructed so that the visual cues all work together are more successful than those which are not.

See some composition examples.

See also the Nikonians Guide: How to Improve Your Photography - Five Easy Composition Tricks by Tom Boné [1]

Further reading:

  1. The Photograph, Harald Mante
  2. Practical Composition in Photography Axel Bruck
  3. Composition for Photographers Richard Neville Haile
  • This page was last modified on 22 January 2021, at 10:54.
  • This page has been accessed 34,418 times.