Composition is the language of photography; it’s how we communicate our ideas and feelings and control the way viewers’ see and respond to our images. Alfonso Calero looks at ten compositional elements and how you can use them to create more powerful images.
In most successful images, one part of the design is more important than the rest. All other details are less important than the dominant part, but they also add to the composition. As a photographer you can make something stand out by its size, colour, brightness, texture, shape, position, or any combination of these elements. For instance, in a drawing of black shapes that are the same size, a smaller red shape would be dominant. Or a single triangle can be dominant over a group of triangles if it is away from the group. Your images will be stronger if there is a primary point of interest. One suggestion is to limit the number of important areas in a photo to three. Less is more. If your eye goes to more than three dominant points then it becomes confusing. Differing proportions within a composition can help establish visual weight and depth.
Repetition and rhythm are the repeating elements in an image, and can comprise shapes, colours, or lines. Repetition involves using similar things over and over again, while rhythm refers to using them in an order or pattern. Repetition and rhythm are just as important in photography as they are in music. In music, our ears pick out the rhythm. In art, our eyes pick out the patterns and follow them.
Take a look at your favourite landscapes – chances are there will be some form of leading line that drags your eye into or around the photo.The type of lines you include also affect the mood of the image. A straight line will draw your eye quickly from one point to another, creating a sense of speed and dynamism. A curved line on the other hand tends to slow your eye down, creating a more peaceful feeling.
When both ends of a line meet to surround space, the line forms a shape. Shape in images refers to elements that appear two-dimensional, such as squares, triangles, or circles. They can be made from curvy or straight lines. Shapes can also have bumpy or pointed edges as well. They can be things we do not recognise or they can be things we do recognise. It is easier to find shapes in man-made objects.
Form is similar to shape, but it also describes the depth of an object. While shape refers to two-dimensions, form is three-dimensional. In photography, which is a two-dimensional medium revealing form can be difficult but it often comes down to the way the subject is illuminated and the how light and shadows describe the surface of the object.
Texture refers to how the surface of something looks and feels. For example, the surface of a brick is hard and rough. Texture is simply the tactile quality of an object. Texture is an extremely good way to capture a viewer’s interest, as it invokes more than simply their sense of sight but also their sense of touch. When taking photos where texture is the main element, it is best to light it from the side or from the back as this will bring out more texture. It is best to avoid harsh and direct light.
Tone is a critical tool in composition. Our eyes are naturally drawn to brighter tones and this has a strong influence on the way we see images. A bright highlight near the edge of an image will draw our eyes away from the centre of the picture. Conversely, a dark area at the periphery of the photo will tend to keep our eyes locked in the brighter central part of the photo. All things being equal, the brightest part of the photo will be dominant.