What makes a great photo? Given the subjective nature of art, that can be hard to say. However, there are some notable similarities in the composition of the most renowned visual artworks. We’ve compiled 10 of the most popular composition techniques used in art and photography to create visually appealing scenes. Applying these techniques in your own work will help you produce more compelling imagery.
Rule of Thirds
Photo by Kevin Noble
The rule of thirds is a simple yet effective technique for composing more visually appealing imagery. In short, the rule suggests you should frame your image using an imaginary, nine-square grid formed by two equally-spaced lines on each axis. The subject of your image should be placed along one of these lines, with the point of interest placed at the intersection of two lines.
Using the rule of thirds to frame your subject is generally considered to result in a more interesting image than by simply placing your subject in the center of the image. The rule of thirds is so widely accepted, most cameras and smartphones now allow you to use a 3×3 grid in the display to help you compose your image accordingly.
Balance plays an important role in the composition of your imagery. There are three main types of balance: symmetrical, asymmetrical, and radial. We are all naturally drawn to symmetry, and each type can be used to make a photo more striking.
In photography, symmetrical balance means both sides of the frame are equally weighted. Typically, this means each side of the image is a mirror of the other. However, as long as there are some clear parallels, the effect can still make an image more appealing.
Asymmetrical balance refers to the opposite, when both sides are not equally weighted. However, a photo with asymmetrical balance isn’t automatically less interesting. On the contrary, it can be employed just as effectively to create an interesting image.
Meanwhile, radial balance refers to when the elements of the image spread out from a central point. It’s most often seen in photos of flowers, staircases, or other spiral objects.
Leading lines are one of the most commonly used composition techniques. They can help you capture an image that immediately catches the eye. Simply put, leading lines are lines that are incorporated into the image to draw the viewer’s eye towards the subject or focal point of the image.
A leading line can be formed by a road, wall, fence, tree, or even a ray of light. The line can run on the horizontal or vertical axis, diagonally, or even converge with another line for added emphasis.
Frame Within a Frame
Frame within a frame is a simple composition technique that adds depth and symmetry to an image. As you may have guessed, it involves capturing a second frame within the frame of your image. The second frame could be a doorway, window, or even a literal photo frame.
Like a leading line, the purpose of a frame within a frame is to draw the viewer’s eye and add emphasis to the subject or focal point of the image.
In art and photography, negative space refers to any plain, empty, or white space in your scene. The area of the image occupied by the subject or focal point is called positive space. When utilized correctly, negative space can help emphasize your subject and intensify the tone and mood of your image.
One of the most common applications of negative space is portrait photography. Portrait photographers tend to photograph their subjects against a plain-colored backdrop. While including objects, props, or a lively background can make for an interesting image, they also tend to pull the focus away from your subject.
Negative space is about creating a sense of contrast in the image that draws attention to the subject.
The golden ratio, also known as the divine proportion or golden mean, is a mathematical concept derived from the Fibonacci sequence of numbers. When the golden ratio is expressed visually as a grid of lines, it can be used as an effective framing tool.
The golden ratio can be used to create two different grids: the phi grid and the golden rectangle. The phi grid divides your image into thirds using two lines on each axis. Like the rule of thirds, placing the focal point of the image at the intersection of any two lines is believed to produce a more compelling image.
Meanwhile, the golden rectangle divides the image into four squares of different sizes. To use this grid to compose your image, you should imagine a line that starts in the corner of the largest square and curves through each of the smaller squares in the shape of a spiral. It’s argued that placing the subject or focal point of your image along the ‘golden spiral’ makes for a more interesting visual.
Repoussoir comes from the french word, repousser, meaning “to push back”. As a composition technique, it’s used to draw attention to the subject or focal point of the image. Repoussoir involves placing objects in the foreground of your frame that bracket your subject, ultimately leading the viewer’s eye to the intended focal point.
Shape and form are two concepts that are often confused in art and photography. While shape refers to enclosed, two-dimensional objects, a form is any three-dimensional object. That is, an object with perceptible height, width, and depth.
As a two-dimensional medium, it can be hard to capture form in photography. However, by capturing the depth of an object in your image, you give the entire scene more depth. This ultimately makes it more immersive than an otherwise two-dimensional image.
Depth of Field
Speaking of depth, it’s important to consider the depth of field when composing your photograph. The depth of field is determined by three factors: aperture, focal length, and the distance between the camera and the subject.
As a composition technique, you can use a shallow depth of field to highlight the subject or focal point of the image. A shallow depth of field means the area of your image that is in focus is quite small. If you’re photographing a vast landscape, a shallow depth of field doesn’t make sense, as you’ll want as much of the frame in focus as possible.
However, if you’re taking a close up of a person or object, a shallow depth of field can instantly make everything else in frame less prominent. Like negative space, the contrast between your subject (in sharp focus) and its soft surroundings ensures the viewers eye is drawn to the right place.
Pattern & Repetition
You can also use patterns & repetition in photography to great effect. Like symmetry, we are naturally drawn to the repetition of colors and shapes. Capturing such a pattern in a photograph can therefore produce a visually appealing image.
Photographed from the right angle or position, an otherwise plain or innocuous pattern you might see in everyday life can produce a fascinating piece of art.
The composition techniques above can be employed in photography and art to produce visually striking imagery. While you don’t necessarily need to apply any of the techniques to compose a great photo, a skilled photographer always keeps them in the back of their mind so they can be utilized when possible.