Photographic Composition

Let’s put it this way:

Alphabet = design elements
Grammar and syntax = design principles
Message or story = composition

Photographic composition is the story that you are telling through your picture — how your selected scene is organized and how you position your camera to capture it. It is a means of applying one or more principles of design in a frame.

Composition is not necessarily independent of exposure, which we will be covering later on, but I don’t think it is a bad idea to concentrate on it as a separate entity for now.

Tom Ang would have us look at composition, not as a strict set of rules, but a guide for identifying a scene’s general structure. Below are some types of composition for you to explore:

Symmetry

Imagine a frame as two halves. There is symmetry if there is balance between these two halves. While not necessarily the only one, symmetry can be most strongly depicted if the two halves are uniform or nearly so.

The Atomium, Brussels, Belgium (2011)
The Atomium, Brussels, Belgium (2011)

Architecture is a rich source of examples of symmetry, and it comes as no surprise. Behind the aesthetics are the feats of engineering and construction, which must exemplify stability and strength — two attributes invoked by symmetry.

Radial

Radial composition is achieved when you have elements spread out from the center of a frame. While not particularly creative as a picture, a top down view of most flower is a good way to imagine a radial composition.

Bruges, Belgium (2012)
Bruges, Belgium (2012)

The above example is subtler than a flower shot, but from the angle of this picture I took at the corner of the inner courtyard, you can see how the left and right wings, the bush and the sky jump out from my main subject, the tower in the middle.

This is not commonly looked for by photographers. I myself have very few examples to show. But this can potentially mean that working on radial composition can help your pictures stand out from the millions taken by everyone else.

Diagonal

Few can rival diagonal lines in building stories in a frame. Whether explicit or implied, a diagonal is an effective tool in dictating viewers how to move their eyes across a picture.

Los Baños, Laguna, Philippines (2011) ISO 100, f/25. 30sec
Los Baños, Laguna, Philippines (2011)

The above picture is a combination of explicit (the guitar’s neck) and implicit (the rocks along creek and hints of flowing water) diagonals that can tell the viewer to move from left to right.

Diagonals can also invoke tension and instability. Much like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, this tower in the heart of Delft easily grabs the attention of first-time visitors, who often ask since when has it been leaning or whether or not people expect it to completely fall over.

Delft, The Netherlands (2011)
Delft, The Netherlands (2011)

Overlapping

Within the context of a photograph, overlaps can happen two ways: one is by having two elements of different distances from the photographer’s perspective and having one being in front of the other. This provides contrast between the elements. The second is by having multiple elements of different lateral positions looking like they are in contact, implying a degree of togetherness. These can, of course, happen at the same time, like in the picture below.

Osaka, Japan (2015)
Osaka, Japan (2015)

My boy has been my favorite subject for more than a year now. In this portrait, he partially covers his mother behind him. She, in turn has partially wrapped herself around the baby, at least from my point of view. While not in direct close contact with each other, the body language and the smiles nevertheless invokes a lot of intimacy between the two, as well with the photographer.

Tall Crop and Letterbox

A tall crop is achieved when you have a picture with vertical orientation and further narrow it down. This is usually done to remove unwanted elements on the far left and/or right side of the picture. This, in turn, provides greater emphasis to the subject of the picture.

Banaue, Ifugao (2008)
Banaue, Ifugao (2008)

In the photo above, a tall crop composition can work in order to remove the excess negative space on the right and more importantly, that roof and other person whom I don’t want to be included in the picture.

We can regard the letterbox as the horizontal version of tall crop, as you can see below:

San Juan, Siquijor (2011)
San Juan, Siquijor (2011)

In this picture, there is too much water below and horizon above which do not add anything meaningful to the composition. Cutting off those parts gave more focus to the horizon and the silhouette of vegetation at the foreground.

Frame Within a Frame

One of my personal favorites, a frame within a frame can do two things. One, it can provide more emphasis towards the subject, and two, it adds perspective to what story the photographer is trying to capture.

Caleruega, Nasugbu, Batangas (2015)
Caleruega, Nasugbu, Batangas (2015)

The example above is a macro shot of a plant that had a leaf with a tear. A cluster of its flowers were peeking out of the tear. The leaf acted as the frame within a frame and gives a better idea of the picture’s actual scale. It would be a lot more difficult to figure out just how small those buds are in real life without the leaf.

Geometric Patterns and Rhythmic Elements

While I will not go so far as to say that it is always the case, I have observed that these usually go hand in hand. I have looked at my own collection of pictures and so far, I have  yet to see one that captures a pattern without perceiving any sort of rhythm.

The urban landscapes are filled with easily identifiable patterns, from the cityscape horizon, down to small alleyways, like the area I found in Singapore below, with all these red paper lanterns.

Chinatown, Singapore (2011)
Chinatown, Singapore (2015)

Albeit in a more free-form sense, patterns and rhythms can also be found frequently in nature. The relatively clear ground allowed more emphasis on the trees. With their posture and the shadows they cast, the staggered distribution of the tree trunks provide a rhythm that can be regarded as being in conjunction with the direction of the light from the source at the right side, right behind the sole leaning tree.

Brussels, Belgium (2011)
Brussels, Belgium (2011)

Rule of thirds

Some people regard understanding the rule of thirds as one of the first steps from being to a casual snapshooter to a serious photographer. It was certainly what was professed to me by my betters when I started out.

What you do is equally divide a picture into a 3×3 grid. You don’t even need to imagine that grid anymore since most cameras and editing software can impose such an overlay for you. The theory is that placing the subject on any of the four intersecting points created by the gridlines or perhaps along the lines themselves will result to a more balanced or resolved feel.

Mga Musikero Manila, Philippines (2009)
Gitarista
Manila, Philippines (2009)

If you take a closer look, the area of the fretboards where hands are playing over in the picture fall on the upper left and lower right intersections points of the gridlines, making the picture a good example of following the rule of thirds. The hands, being compositionally opposite each other provide a solid sense of balance in the frame.

The belief that following the rule of thirds is the proper way of taking pictures is pervasive. It has become my default way of composing a shot, so much so that I sometimes have to consciously tell myself that it’s not the only way look at everything.

The Golden Ratio and the Golden Spiral

Many people synonymize the rule of thirds with the golden ratio. Many pictures that follow the rule of thirds will also likely follow the golden ratio. After all, both start by dividing a picture into a 3×3 grid. However, whereas the rule of thirds have equally divided 1:1:1 grids down and across, the golden ratio follows what is called a Phi grid, which follows a 1:0.618:1 ratio.

Singapore (2013) with Golden Ratio overlay
Singapore (2013)
with Golden Ratio overlay

As an example, the picture of the ant sculpture above is situated right along the left vertical gridline, with the head just making it on upper left intersection point. This arrangement provides a clear identification of the subject while still retaining some form of balance across the frame

The golden spiral, otherwise knows as the Fibonacci Spiral, follows the same foundation principle of the golden ratio. Instead of gridlines, we can visualize a single line spiral across a frame whose curves follow proportions as that of the golden ratio gridlines. If the subject elements fall within the spiral’s line, then the picture follows the golden spiral, or for that matter, the golden ratio as well. Going back to the ant sculpture picture, you can see that the head of the ant falls under a Fibonacci spiral overlay.

Ashampoo_Snap_2016.01.04_17h21m28s_009_
with Golden spiral overlay

Although the above is the extent of which this manual will cover, depending on the photographer you ask , or the author of the book you’re reading from, you can find other types of composition. I encourage you to do further reading to find out.

I personally think that this is the most important part of the course, and we will probably be tackling this until the end of the trimester. So, proceed to the discussion forums and let’s get on with it! Can’t have you lounging around like a koala during the day.

References:

Ang, T. (2010). Digital Photography: An Introduction (3rd ed.)(pp. 12-17). New York, NY. DK Publishing.

Bradley, S. (2015). Design principles: compositional balance, symmetry And asymmetry. Retrieved January 4, 2015 from http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2015/06/design-principles-compositional-balance-symmetry-asymmetry/.

Darling, A. (2014). Master The Art of Photographic Composition (Kindle version). Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com.

Freeman, M. (2007). The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos (Kindle version). Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com.

Gram, A. (2014). The Uncommon Photographer (Kindle version). Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com.

Rowse, D. (undated). Rule of thirds. Retrieved January 4, 2016 from http://digital-photography-school.com/rule-of-thirds/.

Vercoe, S. (2014). How to use the golden ratio to improve your photography. Retrieved January 4, 2016 from http://www.apogeephoto.com/may2014/how-to-use-the-golden-ratio-to-improve-your-photography.shtml.