Developing an Artistic Eye: Composition

Photography as an art is one of our most realistic representations of the world that we have, It can capture extraordinary detail in a way that no other medium can. This can be a double edged sword in that we can often get complacent with the realism and forget about the artistic. In the “Developing an Artistic Eye” series of articles we will be discussing artistic properties as they pertain to photography and will develop ideas on how to best use these properties to produce stunning works of art.

We’ll begin the series by discussing the concept of composition.

I believe that the first part about understanding any concept is to define the word or words used to describe that concept. As defined by dictionary.com a composition is:

  • the act of combining parts or elements to form a whole.
  • the resulting state or product.

This definition shows why we will be starting with composition; because the composition is the image we are creating. We are not taking pictures, we are creating compositions. From the definition we can gather that if we are to create a good composition, or even just a composition by definition, the parts or elements of our photograph must come together to form a whole. If our composition is dis-jointed then is it a composition at all?

So with this understanding we can move into discussion on the techniques for creating compositions. Then in future articles we will go into the elements of design followed by the principles of design; we will then wrap up by coming full circle and seeing how those elements and principles effect our techniques and begin to form the whole in order to produce a good composition.

Alright, no more delays lets jump into the techniques!

Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is all about dividing up your space aesthetically. The principle here is that if you divide what you are looking at into thirds vertically and horizontally you will come out with what I call the power grid (I may have heard that somewhere, but I like the name, something about the word power). The benefit of the power grid is that it helps you to place your subject within your overall composition. With your grid in place you will have 4 major points, one could call these power points, in which you want you subject to be on at least one of these points within your composition. This technique helps to eliminate the ‘stale still’, where the subject is perfectly centered and there is no life to the composition.

Lets consider this image:

composition-beginning

We’ll divide the image into our power grid where we end up with 9 square areas of focus.

power-grid-composition

with 4 power points.

composition-power-points-grid

You’ll see that the main subject of the image is mostly focused in the top middle square and a major portion of the subject is on or around the top-right power point. This creates a much more dynamic image where the viewers eye is allowed to initially roam the image and is brought up through the image to the focus point.

Perspective

Sometimes in life to make things more interesting or to understand something better we need to see things in a different light, or change our perspective just a bit. The same is true for photography, and thus we move into our second compositional technique; while you are shooting a subject don’t be afraid to move around, change your perspective. Images become boring when they are shot static, from eye level. Try, crawling around on the ground, finding something tall to stand on, or step a few feet closer to you subject so you fill the frame a little more.

To attempt to illustrate the point I’ve set up a small still life in my home.  The first image here is just a basic eye level straight on shot of the still life. My shutter is closed down a bit to give me more depth and keep everything on the table in focus. This image is alright by itself but lets see if we can’t improve them a bit by changing our perspective.

composition-depth-of-field-1

Here’s the same image but shot from the right.

composition-depth-of-field-4

The change makes the image a little bit more dramatic, and gives it a bit more depth. And here’s one more image from from the top looking down.

composition-depth-of-field-9

With this image we get to see an element that was concealed by the other perspectives, the glass in the background adds even more depth to the receding lines of the books.

Let us not forget to talk about depth of field as it pertains to this technique, depth of field is an important part of perspective; as the focus of your subject changes so will the feeling of the photograph. Lets look at how a change in the depth of field of an image can again transform our image into a more interesting piece of art.

composition-depth-of-field-8

The image has the pot in the background blurred out adding depth and interest and also bringing you back to focus on the subject of the book stack. (sorry for the blown highlights but we can talk about lighting or my lack of light control in another post.)

Though these are not dramatic examples of how perspective changes an image I think they illustrate the point that by moving the camera to different angles will give you a completely different image. You might look silly laying down on the ground crawling around or climbing up a tree; but the change in the photo will be well worth it. A change in perspective gives the viewer something that they don’t normally see, it begins to interact with the viewer. Instead of okay I’m looking at a building, the viewer is saying, wow I’ve never seen this building from this view before, that is interesting! The image begins to interact with the viewer, and this is what we want. We want to show people new perspectives, things they may not have known. Create dynamic works of art, perhaps simply by changing perspective!

Watch your Background (and surrounding area)

The final compositional technique is more a tip than a technique but it should be something that you develop into a habit that you use for taking any photograph. Namely, watch your background. Any time you are about to press down on that shutter release, quickly scan your image, start directly behind your subject then move your eye around the frame. What you are looking for is anything that could be distracting and unnecessary. You want to remove from the frame anything that will take the attention from your subject. Possibly the most common thing to watch for are poles or other objects extending out of your subjects head, but distracting elements can come in a variety of forms, just keep a sharp eye out for anything that does not help to communicate your message.

Break the Rules!

Or perhaps I should write it as do not be afraid to break the rules.

The beauty of art is that if you break the rules, you aren’t going to put anyone or anything in danger. This is a fun technique because it gives you the freedom to experiment, to just have fun. One of the best things with owning a digital camera is that it completely eliminates what I call the ‘fear of the film’. When we have a limited amount of something we tend to be more conservative with how we use it up. We want to save our film for that perfect moment or we stick to the safe technique. With digital there is no limit to the number of pictures we can take.

When you understand the rules, you can successfully break them. Remember though, these elements and principles have been developed for a reason and used for hundreds of years, so your best bet is to utilize them to your advantage. Break the rules to experiment, find out what works for you and use the rules to your advantage to create fantastic works of art!

This post is a bit long but I think it covers an important topic of art that will benefit you as a photographer, at least that’s my hope. These are the overall techniques for creating your composition. In conjunction with these techniques there are a number of elements and principles that you should keep in mind. We will be discussing these in more detail throughout this series of articles. The following principles and elements are what we will be discussing:

Design Elements:

  • Line
  • Shape
  • Size
  • Texture
  • Color
  • Value

Design Principles:

  • Balance
  • Repetition
  • Contrast
  • Unity
  • Proportion
  • Emphasis
  • Proximity

Share in the comments: Are there any other composition techniques that you use while shooting?

Author: ryanedick

Thanks for visiting! I started Fotographerstop because I have a passion for photography and want to help others progress as photographers! I am an entrepreneurial photographer and designer. My portfolio can be found at Ryan Edick Photography. I hope you enjoy this site!

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1 Comment

  1. Hi!
    Nice article. I would like to begin to work more on this. I tried it with some photos of the kids I’ll send you. I love how you encourage your readers to be free to experiment and make mistakes to learn the art. It is sure nice now with digital, before you had to waste tons of film and money before you got a good shot!

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