Composition and Framing

Photography is a performance art. You are dancing with your viewfinder within a scene to find a composition.  Unlike painters, writers and poets, a photographer seeks to find the compositional elements within the viewfinder, like that of an editor.

I like to explore composition in a number of ways, where do the key elements fall within the frame, how do the leading lines within the frame help or hinder how the viewer’s eyes move through the frame and where are the horizontal lines falling in the composition?

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Photography exists within a frame, and the framing of an image is a compositional process. Elliott Erwitt, a Magnum photographer, has a famous image (above) called the Chihuahua New York. Looking at his Contact Sheet Print: gives you some idea of his process of creating this composition.

In all art forms, compositions need to draw the viewer’s eye into an image. Drawing a view’s eyes into a frame and keeping them there determines the strength of composition. This is achieved through subject matter, narrative and compositional strategies.

Creating Distance or Detachment when Composing or Processing

When composing in a camera and working on an image in the processing phase, the photographer needs to distance themselves from the experience of taking the photograph. Sometimes the best strategy when processing is to let the photograph sit in your editing catalogue for a few days before editing it. Another method that can be applied both in the processing and capture process is to think about composition elements, visual hierarchy and focal point. In this way you can begin to look at the photograph or potential photograph as an editor might look at it or the viewer of the photograph, becoming more objective.

Focal Point

The focal point is the convergence of the art and science of photography. In an image often the area where the sharpest focus is located is where the photographer has the compositional elements converge. A photographer may choose to use position, shape, size, colour, blur or depth of field to emphasize the focal point, or a number of these methods, including the compositional methods listed below. So looking at how the elements in the image contribute to the focal point is helpful in determining if the composition is going to work, or if you need to move around in the scene. If you are in post-processing then you may consider how to crop the picture.

Visual Hierarchy

Visual Hierarchy is a way of examining what is the dominant and less dominant compositional elements in a photograph. Too many elements may detract from the focal point unless they are grouped into patterns. Why is this important to consider, too many compositional elements or a complex hierarchy can create a very busy image that becomes so busy that it feels like wallpaper. So this is helpful in considering if the hierarchy of elements is working to focus the viewer or distract the viewer.

The Compositional Dance

Photography can be a kind of performance art as you are dancing with your viewfinder within a scene to find a composition.  Unlike painters, writers and poets a photographer seeks to find the compositional elements within the viewfinder. Remember your camera is not a window you are framing a composition. While doing the compositional dance consider where the key elements fall within the frame; how the leading lines within the frame help or hinder; how will the viewer’s eyes move through the frame; and where do the horizontal lines fall in the composition.

Compositional Strategies: A Tool Kit

  • Rule of Thirds (main subject in 1/3 of the frame either vertically or horizontally).
  • Foreground, Middleground and Background. (Foreground/Group of Seven: Repertoire Carmichael and Varley)
  • S-Curve
  • Rule of Odds (odd numbers of subjects).
  • Leading Lines (lines that draw attention to the subject
  • Balancing/Imbalancing Elements (including another element to balance the main subject).
  • Open-Ended Scene (you can’t tell for sure what is going on).
  • Room for movement or implied movement.
  • Frame within a Frame/ implied framing.
  • Controlling strong verticals or horizontals
  • Checking horizon lines are level
  • Strategic cropping of lines and objects
  • Balancing bright and dark areas
  • Focus
  • Contrast
  • Pattern
  • Proportion
  • Creation of Depth
  • Off centred placement of the subject
  • Controlling distracting elements at the edge of the frame.
  • Abstraction

Compositional Checklist

  1. The object of Interest: The view should immediately be drawn to the object of interest to make sure nothing distracts from the object, but the elements in the frame draw the view to the object.
  2. Corners: Make sure the corners do not contain objects that distract from the composition.
  3. Horizon Line: Is your horizon line straight?
  4. Sense of Scale: Is there something in the image that gives the composition a sense of scale
  5. Golden Ratio: Are the elements in the image arranged using compositional rules, is the horizon line where it should be?
  6. Leading Lines: Are the leading lines in the composition helping to frame the main subject, or are they working against the subject?
  7. Clean foreground: If the subject is in the middle ground, are there any objects that may distract from the subject in the foreground?
  8. Sharpness: Is the sharpness in the image from edge to edge. If you use depth of field to isolate a subject, is a focus correctly set on the main subject?
  9. No set Rules: The rules are there to help you think about how you might make a pleasing composition, but they may not all serve your purpose, so pick and choose what helps and leave out what hinders your composition.

Rule of Thirds/Golden Ratio

An explanation of how the golden ratio is found everywhere is described in the video below.

The rule of thirds that photographers talk about is a simplification of an artist’s composition idea called the golden ratio, sometimes referred to as the golden mean or divine section. It is often used by photographers, artists and architects when designing or composing their work. However, the golden ratio is not strictly speaking dividing the frame into thirds or six even areas.

Rule of thirds versus Golden Ratio

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This photograph is using Golden Ratio to crop
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This photograph uses the rule of thirds to crop

Foreground, Middle-ground and Background: the illusion of three dimensions

Paying attention to the foreground, middle ground, and background will help give you images greater depth and add a sense of scale.

Here is a simple process you can follow in order to do this, it should help you look at what you are shooting in a more dimensional way: 

  1. Spend some time identifying interesting objects in at least two of the three areas of the location you will photograph.
  2. Think about arranging these objects by moving about the scene, looking through your camera to see how they change as you frame them from different positions.
  3. Make a note of the leading lines and how they impact the composition.
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Eye Level and Other Views

The following three photographs are taken from the same spot, but only the elevation of the camera has been changed. If I were to have also moved to the left and right, the location of foreground and background about the subject, the bench, would have also changed.

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Eye Level
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Ground Level
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Above the Head

Leading Lines

In its simplest form, leading lines are a technique of drawing the viewer toward the main subject of an image, such as path from the land down to a dock. There are many elements that can be used to do this, such as roads, fences, bridges, rivers, shorelines, waves, sand dune, and many more. When composing a shot, you need to examine the scene for all the leading lines within the frame. This will often force you to move around the scene seeing these lines change as you change position until you find them where you want them to be and which lines are best to use. 

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Courtesy of Rach Stewart

Using these lines can help create depth in your composition, help move the viewer from foreground through the middle ground to background, heighten the subject, draw attention to smaller important elements in the composition and, if combined with other elements in the composition, help lead the eye in a circular motion within the composition, so the viewer never leaves the frame.

When we look at an image, our eyes are drawn into a visual journey. If the photographer has successfully used leading lines. The route your eyes take when you are enjoying a photograph is often dictated by these lines, which can also balance the image. Lines are as fundamental to photography as light, shadow, highlights, and rhythm. Even the image frame are lines, so being conscious of lines as a visual element is important.

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1/240, f5.6, 23mm, 200 ISO, handheld pano using 8 vertical captures – Edward Peck

Implied Movement

Leaving room for movement is important in a photograph, as it gives the impression or illusion of movement. When this room is not present, the photograph often feels like something is missing or cut out of the image. The two images below illustrate this phenomenon.

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Abstraction, sometimes called non-objective, allows the photographer to move away from representational photography. In other words, you are less worried about accurately portraying an object and more interested in isolating elements of an object or scene. This often creates a somewhat unreal scene or object. Often this means the photograph is more focused on texture, shape, shadows, colour, or form. In this way, the photographer is working more with sensations, impressions, feelings or an inner expression of their reaction to what is in front of them.

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