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UNDERSTANDING COMPOSITION
Premium Photography Guide
Written by Kent DuFault
CONTENTS

Introduction 3 Static Subjects versus Moving Subjects 62

The What, Where, and Why of Composition 6 Seven Basic Tools of Composition 66
Balance 67
Art and Composition 10 Central Figure (Focal Point) 79
What is Art? 11 Leading Lines 85
Why is Composition Important? 13 Point of View (POV) 100
Make the Activity of Scale 105
Asking Yourself Questions Frames 108
Part of Your Shooting Process 19
Depth of Field 112

Using a Focal Point 29


Final Thoughts 117

The Natural Flow of Photographs 39

The Use of Space in Composition 46


Basic Concepts in the Use of Space 47
The Two Basic Rules of Space 48
INTRODUCTION
I’m sure that you’ve heard the term “snap-shooter.” Nothing is worse than viewer apathy.
This term refers to photographers that snap away
with their cameras while not paying much attention Key Lesson: Strive to create an emotional
to what they’re doing. response in your viewers. That emotion could
be joy or happiness. It could also be anger.
In the world of photography, we don’t generally
Just create something that moves them, and
consider it a compliment.
they will remember you, and your
I’ve been involved in photography for 42 years – photographs.
that’s a long time. Part of what that statement tells
One of the primary tools available to you
you is that a photographer never stops learning.
to induce the required emotional change
So, what establishes an individual as a is composition. I won’t go so far as to say
“photographer” versus a “snap-shooter”? it’s the only tool; however, I will say it is the
MOST important tool. You could photograph
I believe that a dedicated photographer should a starving man in the middle of the Kalahari
attempt to accomplish the following with their Desert, and if your composition is poor, no one
photographs: will care.
1. Deliver a thoughtful and deliberate message You could photograph a magnificent sunrise
over Mount Fuji in Japan during your once-in-
2. Establish a mood within the photograph
a-lifetime vacation, and if your composition is
3. Cause an emotional reaction within a viewer poor, no one will care.
looking at the photograph
I believe that you don’t want to be a snap-
I want to address point #3 specifically. An emotional shooter, and that’s why you’re here reading
response from viewers is a key component to these words. I believe that you have visual
your advancement as a photographer and your stories to tell, and you want people to see and
photography becoming recognized. understand them.

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This eBook is not going to solve every question 6. The importance of light, and subject
you’ve ever had about composition, but it is going placement, in a composition.
to give you a firm foundation on which to build your
knowledge and experience. 7. How the use of a focal point is a
photographer’s superpower!
When you complete this premium guide, you
should have the following demonstrable skills: 8. The concept of “space” as it relates to a
photograph.
1. An entry-level knowledge of what 9. How to dissect the composition of your
composition is and how it relates to your own photographs (or any photograph for
photography. that matter).
2. An increased awareness as to what 10. Training on seven fundamental tools of
“art” is and how composition plays an composition.
extremely valuable role in the definition and
appreciation of art. If you read this entire eBook, do all of the quizzes,
and complete every assignment, then I guarantee
3. Why the history of art provides important that your photography will improve.
tools for today’s photographers.
Are you ready to move beyond being a
4. How composition in artwork fools the brain’s snap-shooter?
depth perception.

5. How to quickly incorporate the idea


of composition into your photography
(eliminate snap-shooting).

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THE WHAT, WHERE, AND WHY OF COMPOSITION
If you’re new to visual arts, and photography in There is nothing magical about composition. Every
particular, you may be asking yourself, “What the time you raise the camera to your eye, you are, in
heck is composition?” fact, subconsciously, composing a picture.

Let’s start with some basic background information. The magic comes in the knowledge of HOW to
compose your photographs in a fashion that is
Definition pleasing to others, communicates a message, and
Composition - noun derives an emotional response.

1. T
 he nature of something’s ingredients or Composition is simply the arrangement of elements
constituents. The way in which a whole or within your photograph to make it appealing to the
mixture is made up. broadest audience possible.

Synonyms: configuration, structure, formation,


Key Lesson: Composition, simply stated,
framework, form, organization, anatomy
means organizing the various elements within
your photographs so that your intended
2. A work of music, literature, or art. message (meaning) is clearly communicated to
as many viewers as possible. In the beginning,
Synonyms: works, work-of-art, creation, piece,
this will take thought and practice. As your skill
arrangement
level increases (much like riding a bicycle) it will
become second nature – an unconscious
reaction to events that unfold around you.

Examine the following photographs:

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Image 001

Technically, Image 001 has a composition. It was created, but the composition is
disorganized. So rather than appealing to a wide audience (other than possibly
this child’s relatives), it comes across as blasé. It has no universal artistic appeal.

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In Image 002, the photographer has utilized
rules of composition. They have “organized”
the photograph to “support” the subject.

Both photographs depict a similar


subject: a child blowing soap bubbles.
Each photograph attempts to create a
similar point of focus: the child’s face and
expression.

Image 001 fails because every element in the


composition leads the viewer’s eyes away
from the child’s face and toward the bubbles.

Image 002 is successful (and with a broad


audience) because every element draws the
viewer’s eyes toward the child’s face. The
tools of composition used in the second
photograph are frames, shapes, focal point,
Image 002 repetition, pattern, color, and depth of field.

Have you ever wondered where


the concept of artistic composition
originated?

By providing you with an understanding


of where these rules, concepts, and ideas
began, it will aid you in your learning
process. It will also provide credibility to their
worldwide acceptance.

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ART AND COMPOSITION
WHAT IS ART?

The creation of art is any activity that


produces a product in a visual form for
aesthetic or communicative purposes:
expressing ideas, emotions, or a general
worldview.

The human need to express themselves


dates all the way back to pre-
historic times.

The “elements of art” and “art-form”


began to take shape as early as ancient
Greece, but most of the “rules of
composition” (as we know them today)
were created by the master painters of
the renaissance era.

Image 003 Photograph by Kaibab National Forest

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The field of “art history” was developed
in the west, with a concentration on
European art history. Gradually, over
the course of the 20th century, a wider
vision of art history was developed. This
expanded version now includes societies
from across the globe.

I do not intend on making this an art


history lesson for you.

My goal is to simply show you that


the rules of composition go back
a LONG WAY.

They are tried and true. They work. And


the sooner you learn them, learn to
recognize them, and learn to apply them
to your own photography; the sooner you
will elevate your photographs beyond the
level of a simple snapshot.

Image 004

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WHY IS COMPOSITION
IMPORTANT?

Composition is important because we


must fool the brain of a spectator that
views our photographs!

From birth, our brain is trained to see


the world in three dimensions. We have
two eyes, placed on opposite sides of
our head, and they send visual stimuli
to our brain, which produces a three-
dimensional image.

When we take a photograph, we are


capturing what our brain would normally
perceive as a three-dimensional scene,
and we are then presenting it to our
viewers on a two-dimensional medium.

Now, when a brain looks at our two-


dimensional image, it evaluates the
physical medium in front of it and says,
“This is as flat as a pancake.”

Image 005 – Illustration by Clarisa Ponce de Leon

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I’m sure that most of us have (at some point in
our lives) stood in front of a grand scene – a
scene so magnificent it took our breath away.
We couldn’t wait to get our cameras out and
capture the moment.

But, when we got home and viewed the results,


we were very disappointed. Those mountains no
longer looked so tall. The castle didn’t look so
massive. The river didn’t look so majestic. The
ocean didn’t look so vast. That is because without
applying the rules of composition, the brain says,
“You can’t fool me. That is as flat as a pancake.”

Key Lesson: Composition is the


ONLY tool that you have, as a
photographer, to trick a brain into seeing
a three-dimensional scene within a two-
dimensional medium!

This photograph is a perfect example of


Image 006 – Photograph by Kent DuFault
establishing scale through the rules of
composition. There is no denying that this is
a breathtaking scene. However, look at the
photograph while holding your thumb over
the silhouettes in the right-hand corner. Now
remove your thumb and look at the entire
photograph again.

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When the silhouettes of the people and signage Self Check Quiz
are removed, it really loses something doesn’t it? It
loses all sense of scale. Those tiny people give our 1. True or False: You should create
brain a comparison. It now goes, “Uh huh… if those photographic compositions that
people are that small… then this must be a really big communicate to the smallest
grandiose scene that I’m looking at!” audience possible.

Now, I’m quite certain that there will be naysayers 2. True or False: Composition ALWAYS requires
out there that would point out that they don’t like careful, conscious, planned thought.
those people in the corner, and that’s fine. I’m not
arguing that point. 3. Art is used to express ideas,
__________________, or a worldview.
Remove those people (who are a focal point, by
the way), and what you have is a somewhat abstract 4. Most of the rules of composition were
image of water and sky. created by _________________________.

One of the reasons that you want to learn 5. Why must composition be used to “fool
composition is so you can make intelligent choices the brain”?
such as that.
Reading Assignment:
If you want a photograph of water and sky untouched ·· Read this link on art history.
by mankind, then leave the people and the sign out.
However, if you want to establish the magnitude of
the scene in front of you, then put the people and Key Lesson: Your first step toward good
the sign in. Knowing the rules of composition puts composition is to simplify, simplify, simplify.
you in charge of making intelligent choices. Learning to simplify the composition of your
photographs is one of the easiest, and most
(By the way, this photograph was taken on the important, lessons that you can learn in
cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean near La Jolla, photography.
California – a magnificent place!)

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When you have a creative impulse to
take a photograph, handle it this way:
Immediately snap a picture. This is
your ‘impulse picture.’ Now, breathe
for a moment and ask yourself, “What
is happening here that enticed me to
take this photograph? What is the story
here? What is the single most important
element in front of me that I want to
communicate to the world?” Now, take
more photographs while isolating the
subject that these self-imposed questions
will reveal.

Image 007 is an excellent example of the


“impulse picture.” The photographer
saw something that interested them.
They wanted to say something about
this place, or perhaps the children, or the
moment, or the activity. But the impulse
shot is too busy and disorganized.
It doesn’t tell us anything about the
place, or the child, or the activity, or
Image 007
the relationship between the children,
or the relationship between the child
and his surroundings. It lacks focus and
a story. The composition fell short in
communicating a universal message.

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Simplify your photographs and you will
create viewer impact.

Image 008 has a similar “feel” to Image


007. It was shot on the street, and
likely it was taken very quickly, as the
action unfolded.

But this photographer chose to isolate the


man and make him “the story.”

You can tell by examining the photograph


that there was probably an interesting
background.

But by simplifying the image, the


photographer has created a stronger
statement about the man, his situation,
and his activity. That is what art is all
about: communicating an idea, emotion,
or worldview.

Image 008 - Photograph by Thomas Leuthard

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Shooting Assignment:
Self Check Quiz:
1. Shoot a tabletop photograph of an apple
1. What is an “impulse picture”? using window light. Work through the lighting
and your framing until you get an image that
2. What questions should you ask yourself
you’re happy with.
after taking the impulse picture?

3. What key feature of a successful 2. Photograph the same apple along with a
photograph was Image 007 missing? knife, a cutting board, two other pieces of fruit,
and a glass. Again, work with the lighting and
4. What was the man in Image 008 doing? the framing of the photograph until you get
an image that you’re happy with. Remember,
5. What was the boy in Image 007 looking at?
the apple is your subject. When you have
completed both photographs print them out and
study them. Which one makes a stronger, more
aesthetic statement about the apple?

You now have the concept of simplification firmly


embedded in your process. What’s next?

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MAKE THE ACTIVITY OF ASKING YOURSELF QUESTIONS PART OF YOUR
SHOOTING PROCESS

Begin the creative process of taking a photograph the girl as she glanced at him. You may have noticed
by asking the following question: “What really is my her as she prepared to hand him the valentine. You
subject?” This might sound ridiculous, but it isn’t. might then have made a decision to simplify your
composition and hone in on this poignant moment
A lot of photographers, especially new ones, don’t as it unfolded in front of you.
really take the time to identify what they are trying to
convey through a photograph.
Key Lesson: Good composition BEGINS
They see something that interests them, but they with asking, “What is my subject?” Then
don’t single out why it interests them. simplify and organize the scene to highlight
that subject.
Let’s discuss an example.
Practice the following two elements of
You’re in a room full of children that are exchanging composition:
Valentine’s Day cards and eating Valentine’s Day
candy. There is a lot of activity, and you’re snapping 1. Ask questions
away with your camera. Later, when you examine 2. Simplify
your photographs at home, you notice a particular
boy. His face was covered with chocolate. He made Do this until these two activities become
a particularly funny face when a pretty young girl second nature.
handed him a valentine. You’re dismayed because
When that happens, you are ready to build
that poignant moment was lost in a sea of heads
up your toolbox of composition tools. You
and activity. It’s possible, if you had stopped for a
can then begin adding the other rules of
moment and asked yourself “Who, or what, is my
composition to your repertoire.
subject here?” you may have noticed the boy with
the chocolate-covered face. You may have noticed

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After identifying your subject, there are four Direction of the Light Source
basic questions that will help you build your
composition. The direction of the light source(s) should be your
primary consideration. The direction of the light
1. What is the direction of the light source? source(s) significantly influences your choice of
camera angle to the subject.
2. What is the best placement of the subject
within my camera frame? Is it feasible to shoot with the light source behind the
subject? Do you want light that “models” the subject
3. What other elements within the scene can (highlights texture and shape)? Is the light source,
“point” to my subject? itself, an element of your composition?
4. What other elements within my scene will Keep these suggestions in mind (especially when
“distract” from my subject? you’re a beginner).

1. Don’t use back lighting (light that comes


from behind your subject) unless you WANT
a silhouette.

2. When photographing people, don’t position


them so that the light source is directly into
their face.

3. Most subjects look their best when the light


source comes from in front of the subject
and at about a forty-five degree angle to
the subject.

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These are basic tips to help you begin
to understand the importance of lighting
when making choices about composition.
With practice, you’ll learn to recognize
the direction of light without even
thinking about it. But, as with most things
in life, your brain needs training to make
that connection.

Recommended Reading
·· Understanding Light: Book One
·· Understanding Light: Book II

Image 009

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Image 010 is a great example of the light
source becoming part of the composition.
You’ll notice that the light fixture isn’t
turned on, but it is the subject of this
photograph. The light source is actually
coming from behind and below the light
fixture. The fixture is refracting the light,
which is coming from the source, creating
an array of light and shadow that all point
toward the subject. Thus, the light source
“created” the elements of composition.

After you’ve determined the direction of


your light source and how you’re going to
use it within your composition, these are
your next questions…

Image 010 - Photograph by Desmond Kavanagh

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Subject Placement Key Lesson: Look for objects that can
become “pointers” toward your subject.
We’re going to get into subject placement with a bit
more depth in a moment. For now, plant this thought Go back for a moment to when you were
in your head: In most instances (as a beginning in elementary school. Remember when the
photographer), you do not want a subject to be teacher would stand at the front of the class
centered within the frame of your photographs! with a long wooden pointer (if you’re my
age – if you’re younger it might have been a
Pointers laser pointer). The teacher would comment
on something that they had written on the
Ask yourself, “What elements within my photograph
chalkboard and then he or she would point
can point to (highlight) my subject?”
at it with their pointer to highlight their
Look for objects within your photograph that can verbal comment.
direct a viewer’s eyes toward your subject.
Everyone’s head in the class would turn to look
There are some guidelines for this, but for now I at what the teacher was pointing at.
simply want you to make yourself aware. Begin the
This is a concept that you want to apply in
process of conscious thought – what can visually
your photography. You want to turn everyone’s
point toward my subject?
head toward that one element that you’ve
singled out as your subject – the one you’re
“pointing at”!

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While Image 011 has utilized a high
degree of post-production manipulation,
the concept of looking for “pointers”
is well illustrated. The highlights on the
handrails of the stairwell point directly
to the woman below the umbrella. The
handle of the umbrella points downward
toward her as well. On a more subliminal
level, the top of the hedge on the left
and the power-line on the right create
horizontal lines that also point to the
center location of the woman. This should
help give you an idea of how to “spot”
pointers within a scene. Look for lines
of contrast.

Image 011 - Photograph by Hartwig HKD

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Distractions

Ask yourself this question.“What


elements within my scene distract from
my subject?”

This question is a bit more difficult


to quantify.

However, there is one tip that is almost


always a universal truth.

Key Lesson: You don’t want any


bright or unusually shaped objects
near the edge of your frame or
behind your subject. These are what
I call “eye snags.” As a viewer’s eyes
scan your photograph, eye snags
cause their eyes to stop in a place
that you don’t want them to stop;
the viewer’s eyes will become
interrupted in their quest to find
your subject. As you begin to
develop your skills, you’ll learn to
spot these distractions and
compose your photograph while
Image 012 - Photograph by David Woo
excluding them.

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Image 012 has an obvious eye snag. A viewer’s eyes In the image on the next page (Image 013), the
move toward the subject and then blast right on past subject lies sleeping in a literal minefield of eye
toward the white truck in the background. snags. One is irrefutable; the other three could be
debated depending on your point of view.
Plant this image in your mind. This distraction could
have been easily avoided (had the photographer The irrefutable one is the small white sign
recognized it) by waiting just a few seconds longer surrounded by shadow which really makes it pop out
for the vehicle to pass, or by simply taking a few from the background. It is so strong that a viewer will
steps to one side or the other. likely notice it first before even seeing the man on
the bench.
Key Lesson: Consciously move your field
The other three (debatable) eye snags are the
of vision toward the upper-left corner of your
trashcan, the light pole, and the white building in the
image frame (when looking through your
upper-right corner.
camera’s viewfinder). Begin to scan it like you’re
reading a book: left to right and down one line
at a time. Practicing this will teach you to see Key Lesson: Analyze the elements in your
pointers and eye snags. After a while, you will proposed photograph using a simple rule: does
no longer have to consciously do this. Your it add or detract from the subject?
brain, and the force of habit, will do it for you.
In this case, the subject is the sleeping man.

I feel that all four of the previously-mentioned


elements detract from him.

What do you think?

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Image 013 - Photograph by Sascha Kohlmann

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Now, I can almost hear the photographer defending
their inclusion of the trashcan and the light pole 4. True or False: Eye snags do not interrupt a
by saying, “They frame the subject!” And while I composition – they simply create a visual
can’t argue that point, I can say, “Those elements annoyance.
are too bright. They outshine the subject and draw
the viewer’s eyes away from the man rather than 5. When teaching yourself to spot eye snags,
toward him.” how should you scan the frame (within your
viewfinder) with your field of vision?
Key Lesson: Train yourself to see 6. What is a key lesson in analyzing whether
distractions. Keep in mind that light tones an element should be included in a
generally overpower dark tones. Bright colors photograph or not?
generally overpower dark colors. Odd shapes
will almost always overpower flat, even
planes of space. Shooting Assignment:

Pick an existing photograph from your files. Pick


Self Check Quiz one that depicts a subject that you like, can
easily return to, but you’ve never really been
1. Can a light source be the subject? satisfied with your resulting photographs. Using
everything that we have discussed to this point,
2. True or False: As a beginning photographer,
evaluate your efforts. Now, go back to the same
you want to center your subject in the frame
subject and photograph it again. When you’re
so as not to cut off anything important.
done, compare the images.
3. True or False: When discussing composition,
“a pointer” is a tip that tells you how to
frame your subject.

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USING A FOCAL POINT
Sit back for a moment and imagine yourself sitting on These are focal points – resting spots. In
the front porch of a house. You’re looking out at the photographic composition, I like to think of them
scene in front of you: there are trees, a street, two as “anchors.” They keep the viewer’s eyes from
sidewalks, and houses on the other side of the street. wandering aimlessly, unsure what to take in next.
As you look out, do your eyes continuously wander
nonstop? No. They come to rest: on a squirrel in Eye snags are focal points, but they are inadvertent
a tree, on a child bouncing a ball on the sidewalk, and ill placed. Focal points are there on purpose. You
or on an older woman looking out a window. Sure, place them to anchor your viewer’s eyes within your
we’re looking at the entire scene, but we look at the photograph, usually near your subject.
squirrel and let our eyes rest, then we look at the In general, photographs will have one focal point.
child and let our eyes rest, and now we look at the Sometimes the focal point is the subject, and
woman and let our eyes rest, and so on. sometimes it merely supports the subject.

Think back to our earlier photograph of the dramatic


ocean and sky scene (Image 006, the one with the
people and the sign down in the right corner of
the photograph). Despite the fact that the people
and the sign are a tiny miniscule element within the
photograph, they were an important “focal point”
because they helped establish scale.

Look at this photograph.

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Image 014 - Photograph by Kent DuFault

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Image 014 has the same “feel” as Image
006. It depicts a vast ocean beach
scene, the point of view is looking down,
and a person is within the scene, but
represented as a tiny spec.

The two photographs in question were


taken very near each other. But in the
case of Image 014, the focal point IS
the subject.

Now, why is the focal point THE SUBJECT


in Image 014, but not in Image 006?
The reason is because of placement
and motion (those are two other
elements of composition that we will be
discussing shortly).

Look at the image on the left (Image 015)


Image 015 - Photograph by Kent DuFault
with the person removed from the scene.

It really becomes quite meaningless,


doesn’t it?

That’s the power of a focal point!

Let’s look at a few other case studies of


focal points.

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In Image 016, the focal point is the
insect’s eyes. The “subject” is the insect.
But, the unusual shape of the eyes
(compared to all the other elements
within the photograph) bring the viewer’s
field of vision to rest on the insect’s eyes.
Take note how the legs and antennae of
the insect work as pointers!

The following two photographs (Image


017 and 018) were taken under similar
conditions. One has a focal point, and
the other one doesn’t. Examine both
photographs and determine for yourself
which is the stronger image!

Image 016

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Image 017 - Photograph by the United States Navy

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Image 018 - Photograph by Tom Taker

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Image 017 has a focal point, and Image 018
doesn’t. What happens if you don’t include
a focal point? I’m sure that some of you will
argue, “The flowers in Image 018 are a focal
point!” Or, “The flag in the foreground of
Image 018 is a focal point!” Art is always up
to interpretation, isn’t it? I don’t think either
of those two components (the flowers or the
foreground flag) are strong enough to stop
the eyes. In Image 017, with the sailor, you
cannot prevent your eyes from stopping and
looking at him. Now, you may argue, “Well
of course my eyes will stop there! He’s the
subject.” Again, that is up to interpretation.
In my interpretation, the cemetery is the
subject. That’s what the photograph is
about: the cemetery. Without the cemetery,
the kneeling sailor has no meaning. Without
the sailor, the cemetery still has meaning – it
simply lacks a focal point.

Image 019 is a beautiful scene; yet, it


doesn’t feel complete. It doesn’t satisfy.
Image 019
The eye doesn’t have a resting place. It
feels unfinished. It needs some type of
focal point, such as a red stickman running
down the path. (Kidding! For illustration
purposes only.)

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Sometimes a focal point will be naturally
available within the scene, but sometimes
it won’t. This is where you must put
your creative “thinking cap” on. I was
presented with this beautiful scene in
Alaska (Image 020), but it lacked a focal
point, so I created one by throwing a rock
into the water.

Key Lesson: Does a


photograph always need a
focal point?

No. However, if you’re in the early


stages of learning composition, it is
an excellent tool for improving your
photography almost immediately.
As you gain experience, you will
learn when a focal point is necessary
and when it’s not.

It’s all part of the learning process.

Image 020 - Photograph by Kent DuFault

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37
Self Check Quiz: Shooting Assignment:

Photograph a landscape, or a cityscape, while


1. What tool of composition stops eye
making use of a focal point. Then, photograph
movement across a photograph?
the same subject and remove the focal point.
2. True or False: A focal point MUST be near Evaluate your results. Which image is stronger?
the subject.

3. True or False: A photograph must always


contain a focal point to be successful.

4. Without a focal point, a photograph can feel


_____________________.

5. A focal point can be found or


_______________.

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38
THE NATURAL FLOW OF PHOTOGRAPHS
Should my photograph be horizontal or vertical? Hunters stop themselves from overreacting. They
breathe methodically and go into slow motion.
This is one of the most common composition It’s all part of the process for them to make an
mistakes that beginner photographers make accurate shot.
over and over again. (I even see experienced
photographers making poor choices in this area of Photography is much the same way. Calm down.
photography.) Stop and think about what you’re doing.

It’s easy to see why! If you are shooting a tall building, does it make sense
to hold the camera horizontally?
Camera design lends itself to holding a camera in a
horizontal orientation. Yes, it is easy to turn a camera If you’re photographing a bridge spanning a river,
into a vertical orientation; however, it’s not a natural does it make sense to hold the camera vertically?
inclination.
All subjects have a natural flow. Learn to
recognize it.
Key Lesson: Learn to “see” the natural
flow of your subject. This may sound easier Why is this important? You can crop, right?
than it actually is, especially when you’re just
starting out. The main reason is to conserve the resolution of your
camera’s sensor.
Photographers often get excited when they discover
You paid big bucks for a megapixel camera, why
something they want to photograph.
would you want to lose half that resolution (or more)
Try to remember to calm yourself down, almost because you need to crop your horizontal image into
like a hunter. a vertical one?

Let’s see if we can identify the “flow” in these


example photographs.

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40
The hand holding a peapod in Image 021
has a strong horizontal flow. The hand
is angled from left to right. The open
peapod is almost completely horizontal,
and the colorful blue bowl creates a frame
on the left, which forces the eyes to move
horizontally, left to right.

Hold your hands in front of you. Raise


both index fingers. Leave a space of
about one inch between them.

Image 021 - Photograph by Kent DuFault

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41
As illustrated by the model in Image 022,
view Image 021 (of the peapod in the
hand) through the space created by your
fingers (creating a vertical frame). Slide
your upright fingers left and right across
the horizontal image (021). Can you find
any vertical framing that looks as good as
the horizontal version?

No, and the reason is simple: the flow of


this image is horizontal.

Image 022 - Photograph by Kent DuFault

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42
The example depicted in Image 023 is a
little less obvious. What do you think the
natural flow is? I think it’s vertical. Once
again, hold your hands out in front of you,
but place your index fingers horizontally
(like in Image 024a), and leave that one-
inch space.

Image 023 - Photograph by Kent DuFault

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43
Slide your fingers up and down while
viewing Image 023. Does any horizontal
composition look as pleasing? I don’t
think so. The reason is the vertical
positioning of the child’s arms. They lead
the viewer’s eyes to the girl’s expression,
and they create a vertical flow.

The flow of the image is vertical.

Image 024a - Photograph by Kent DuFault

Image 024b

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What do you think the natural flow of
Image 025 is? I felt it was horizontal. This
image could be cropped vertically and
still include all the elements: the man, the
wheat, the combine, and the sky. Would it
be as strong? You decide.

Quick Activity:
Evaluate three of your existing un-
cropped images. Can you determine
the flow of the subject? Did you
choose the proper framing for the
flow of the subject?

Shooting Assignment:
Take your camera out on a photo
expedition. Consciously look for the
flow of your subjects. Photograph
your chosen subjects vertically and
horizontally. Take notes as to what
you felt the flow of the scene was
while you were taking the pictures.
Image 025 - Photograph by Kent DuFault
Evaluate your results. Did you
correctly identify the “flow”?

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THE USE OF SPACE IN COMPOSITION
BASIC CONCEPTS IN THE USE OF SPACE

The use of space in photography, or any art form for “Space,” in photographic composition, is the
that matter, is a subject that is debatable. same thing.

New photographers (who are learning the art of The rectangular frame that will become your
composition) are best served by studying two basic photograph is the “room.” Whatever objects you are
principles on the use of space. going to include in your photograph are the pieces
of furniture. How you place those objects within your
Before we discuss those two principles, let’s define photograph is your use of the “space.”
the term “space.

”Think of the term “space” in this way.

You have an empty room and five pieces of furniture.


You then set about the process of placing that
furniture within the room. You may place all of the
furniture at one end of the room, leaving the other
end of the room feeling more open. You might also
spread the furniture throughout the room, so that the
room feels equally balanced no matter where you are
in the room.

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THE TWO BASIC RULES OF SPACE

Once you have the following two principles on the The Rule of Thirds
use of space firmly implanted in your mind, you can
then open up to other more advanced techniques The Rule of Thirds states that an image should be
without confusing yourself. You can then even imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two
experiment with breaking the rules on the use of equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally
space in photography! The two principles are: spaced vertical lines. The important elements of the
composition should be placed along these lines or
1. The Rule of Thirds near their points of intersection.

2. The 1/3 - 2/3 Rule Proponents of the technique claim that aligning a
subject with the cross-points creates more tension, or
These two rules are important because they have energy and interest in the composition, than simply
been proven over the test of time. centering the subject.

History has proven that this concept is basically true.

Does this mean that you must follow this rule


every time?

No, it doesn’t.

However, by engraining this concept into your mind,


you will learn to recognize when you can successfully
break the rule.

Let’s examine some case studies that utilize the Rule


of Thirds.

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48
By placing the cathedral (Image 026) in
the lower-right corner, I created a natural
flow of left to right. The curved horizon
line of the hill acts as a pointer toward
the building, and the cross at the top of
the steeple is a focal point. Form a box
with your hands and view the photograph
with the building centered in the image. It
really loses some of the mood, doesn’t it?

Image 026 - Photograph by Kent DuFault

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49
In this example (Image 027), I placed
the farmer in the upper-left, near the
intersection (sweet spot) of the horizontal
and vertical lines. This makes perfect
sense as the farmer (subject) is looking off
to camera right.

Key Lesson: When a subject is


looking off to one side or another in
your photographs, it’s (generally) a
good idea to allow more “space” in
the direction that they are looking
toward. You don’t want them
looking directly out of the frame.

Image 027 - Photograph by Kent DuFault

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50
In Image 028, we have two subjects that
carry “almost” equal weight within the
space. Notice that the train conductor on
the left is placed closer to the intersection
(sweet spot) of the Rule of Thirds, while
the conductor on the right is placed
on the vertical line but between the
horizontal lines. This gives the conductor
on the left a slightly heavier “weight”
within the composition.

Key Lesson: When you have


more than one subject in your
photograph, it’s usually best to
make “one” the primary subject.
This is important so that your
viewer’s brain knows where to stop
and achieve some finality.

Now, there are exceptions to this


idea, such as group portraiture.
Obviously, you don’t want to
Image 028 - Photograph by Kent DuFault
highlight one group member
over all of the others. But, in
general, you’ll want to establish a
primary subject using the rules of
composition.

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51
With time and practice, it will
become so second nature that
you won’t even realize that you’re
establishing primary and secondary
subjects within your photographs!

Let’s look at how the Rule of Thirds


applies to a portrait situation.

Study this portrait of the baby. Look


specifically where the eyes and the mouth
land on the Rule of Thirds grid: each of
them is at a point of intersection. With
portraiture, your main goal is to place
at least one of the eyes (the one that
is most in focus) on or near a point of
intersection.

Image 030 is another example.

Key Lesson: If the framing of


your image allows for only one eye
to be placed on a point of
intersection, make sure it’s the one
that is in focus!

Image 029 - Photograph by Kent DuFault

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Image 030 - Photograph by Kent DuFault

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53
Let’s look at a different portrait situation.

This portrait (Image 031) demonstrates


how well the Rule of Thirds applies to any
situation. The activity of the boy leaning
to camera right creates tension. It places
the head near the sweet spot (of the Rule
of Thirds) in the upper right of the grid.
This small touch adds significantly to what
could have been a bland image of a boy
just standing there.

Key Lesson: When you’re


taking portraits, imagine the Rule of
Thirds grid in your viewfinder; some
digital cameras actually have this
feature built into them. Before you
click the shutter, look at the subject’s
head, body, or eyes. Could a slight
movement on the subject’s part, or
your part, put them in the sweet
spot? Simple decisions like this take
your photographs to the next level.

Image 031 - Photograph by Kent DuFault

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54
The 1/3 - 2/3 Rule

The 1/3 – 2/3 Rule is an offshoot of the


Rule of Thirds.

Basically, what it says is that, when


viewing artwork, the human mind finds
it most pleasing if the “space” utilized in
the artwork is divided into components of
1/3 and 2/3s.

Image 032 is strictly an example. The 1/3


- 2/3 Rule can divide the space within the
frame vertically or horizontally.

Landscape photographers often utilize


this rule, and it is probably easiest to
explain the rule by examining this niche
as an example.

Image 032

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55
In landscape photography, you almost
always have a natural horizon line. In
applying the 1/3 - 2/3 Rule, landscape
photographers will often give 1/3 of their
image space to the sky and 2/3s to the
land, or, they will do the opposite, giving
2/3s of the image space to the sky and
1/3 to the land.

This tactic has two effects. Firstly, it


prevents them from placing the horizon
line in the center of the image, and
thereby lessening the tension created.
Secondly, it also establishes one (sky or
land) as the primary subject.

As with everything else in art, this rule is


often broken.

There are times where placing the horizon


line directly in the center of the image
does create an interesting symmetry.

Study the rules and apply them until they


become second nature; then you will
begin to recognize when to break them.
Image 033

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56
Image 034 is a great example to study the
Rule of Thirds and the 1/3 - 2/3 Rule. Try
to imagine if the placement of the tree
were in the center of the image, or if the
curved horizon line was placed higher
or lower within the frame. Do you think
the image would be as strong? Okay, put
this into your head, please (I can already
see the emails coming in): That tree isn’t
exactly in the sweet spot for the Rule of
Thirds! And those aren’t EXACTLY 1/3
and 2/3 divisions! Art isn’t about exacting
rules. It’s not like we’re designing a rocket
ship, and if the specs aren’t correct the
thing is going to fall apart upon takeoff.
Rules of composition are guidelines,
to help you use your head, to try and
organize your photographs, so that
someone outside of your head has some
inkling what you were trying to say. That’s
it. That’s all it is – interpretation. I hope
Image 034 - Photograph by Bert Kaufmann you get that.

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57
Image 035 is a beautiful photograph.
This seascape has utilized the 1/3 -
2/3 Rule. Both the shoreline and the
ocean are quite dramatic. However, if
the photographer had placed the line
of demarcation between them, closer
to the center of the image, it would be
confusing to the viewer, especially when
both are so visually stimulating. The
viewer would subconsciously wonder,
what is the subject? What should I be
looking at? The photographer chose
to highlight the ocean and thus gave it
2/3s of the space. We now have a clearly
defined subject; it’s the ocean, and the
shoreline is a supporting element.

Image 035 - Photograph by Paulo Brandao

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58
Image 036 also made good use of the 1/3
- 2/3 Rule.

When photographers are shooting a


scene with a reflection, they have a
tendency to center the horizon line. While
this may work in certain instances, it has a
tendency to turn the subject into more of
an abstract view.

In Image 036, the photographer chose to


give the strength to the sky.

If you take notice of the dark angular


object in the lower-right corner, it’s an
indication that something was “in the
way” at the lower part of the frame.
Occasionally, you will find that your 1/3 -
2/3 decisions are “forced” by distractions
that you don’t want to include.

Image 036 - Photograph by Paul Bica

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59
You may occasionally use part of a rule of
composition, and then break other parts.

Image 037 has done just that.

You can see that the 1/3 - 2/3 Rule was


applied, but the 1/3 was placed dead
center in the image! The 2/3 portion has
now become a frame! Isn’t photography
fun? So much to learn!

Key Lesson: The human eye is


attracted to contrast. In general, a
lighter area within a photograph will
attract the viewer’s eyes first over a
darker area. You can utilize dark
areas to force the viewer’s eyes in
the direction you want them to go.
Conversely, you don’t want bright
lightly colored areas anywhere that
could lead the eyes away from your
Image 037 subject. Image 037 makes excellent
use of this human trait to seek
contrast with a priority to a
lighter area.

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60
Self Check Quiz: Shooting Assignment:

1. What helps a photographer determine if a photograph 1. Photograph a landscape utilizing


should be created in a horizontal or vertical format? both the Rule of Thirds and the
1/3 - 2/3 Rule. Then, photograph it
2. What is the “downside” to cropping, especially a again and break both rules. Compare
significant crop? your results.
3. Define the term “space” as it relates to photography.
2. Photograph a head and shoulders
4. Why are the Rule of Thirds and the 1/3 - 2/3 Rule so portrait utilizing both the Rule of
important? Thirds and the 1/3 - 2/3 Rule. Then,
photograph the subject again
5. True or False: Always follow the Rule of Thirds in landscape
and break both rules. Compare
photography.
your results.
6. You’re taking a wedding portrait. Is it a good idea to have
the bride looking off-frame?

7. Taking the Rule of Thirds into consideration, if you have


two subjects in your photograph, how can you make one
subject primary over the other?

8. When creating a portrait headshot, what should be placed


in the crosshairs (the sweet spot) of the Rule of Thirds?

9. What type of photograph often utilizes the 1/3 - 2/3 Rule?

10. The human eye is attracted to ____________________


and will often gravitate toward _____________ areas over
___________ areas.

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61
STATIC SUBJECTS VERSUS MOVING SUBJECTS
There is always an element of excitement, and Don’t let yourself jump to the easy answer, “Well it’s
frustration, when learning something new. Learning a volcano erupting in Hawaii – how could it not be
composition isn’t all that different from learning to fantastic?”
sing, or to play an instrument, or even playing golf.
Imagine if the image was formatted vertically instead
When a person starts out playing golf, they spend a of horizontally, or vice versa. Imagine if the subject
lot of time concentrating on the fundamentals. How of the photograph was centered, or not. Change it in
should they stand? How should they hold their arms? your mind until you turn it into a lousy photograph.
Are their shoulders correct? Is their head down? A
new golfer thinks about these things as they approach Why does this exercise work? It will get you thinking
the tee box. They continue to think about it as they’re about what decisions the photographer made to
lining up for their shot. And, they’re really thinking create a successful image.
about it after they shank their drive into the left rough. New photographers think that it’s about having
So, what does the golf metaphor have to do with a great camera, or an exotic lens, or being in the
photography and composition? right place at the right time, and then just snapping
a picture.
It’s about taking methodical steps to become
proficient. We’ve talked about the “up front” process Nothing could be further from the truth. Even an
– asking yourself questions and training yourself to erupting volcano in Hawaii can look uninspiring if the
see the frame. image is not composed well.

However, there is more that you can do. I would like you to start learning composition
by beginning with static subjects and analyzing
When you take a photograph that doesn’t work the your efforts.
way you envisioned, analyze it. Don’t just toss it aside
and move on. Figure out why it didn’t work. You can
also take this step further. Search for photographs
that you think are fantastic, and analyze why they’re
fantastic.

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63
The proposed exercise is the same as a
golfer taking practice swings.

You are “perfecting your swing.”

Put in some shooting time with static,


motionless objects, such as the laundry
hanging outside the window in Image
038. Analyze your results. Print your
images out on plain paper and draw
out your compositions, just as I did in
Image 038. Slowly begin to move your
photographic subjects toward things
that are in motion. Objects that are in
motion require a lot more experience to
compose properly.

Image 038 - Photograph by Kent DuFault

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64
The reason that moving subjects are more
difficult to compose is that you need the
additional experience of pre-visualization,
anticipation, timing, and peripheral vision.

Recommended Reading:
·· When you’re ready, the subjects
of pre-visualization, anticipation,
timing, and peripheral vision are
covered thoroughly in the Advanced
Composition guide.

Assignment:

Find 10 images that you absolutely


love on Flickr. Then analyze them
(using the rules of composition
discussed so far). Write down why
you think they are appealing. Can
you make them unappealing by
changing their composition?

Image 039 - Photo Illustration by Kent DuFault-Original Photograph by PD Breen

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65
SEVEN BASIC TOOLS OF COMPOSITION
BALANCE

One of the first components of a good


photographic composition is balance.

Most photographs contain multiple


elements, and it’s your job to distribute
the “visual weight” of each element
within the photograph.

Visualize a scale.

You want your main subject to be


“visually” heavier than all of the other
elements combined. Put your main
subject on one side of the imaginary scale
and then pile all the rest of the other
elements onto the other side of the scale.

The scale should still tip in the direction


of your main subject.

Image 040 - Photograph by Winifredxoxo

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67
How do you accomplish this?

You accomplish this through proper


placement of the subject within the
frame, a critical focus on the subject, and
by using the other elements within the
photograph to point at the subject, thus
avoiding distractions or misdirection.

Let’s study a few examples and determine


if the scale is properly “tipping” on the
side of the main subject.

Image 041 has definitely tipped the scale


in the direction of the subject. Despite
the fact that the little girl is a minor part
of the total image space (the frame of the
photograph), all of the other elements
carry less weight in the composition,
because they all point toward her.

Image 041 - Photograph by Thomas Leuthard

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68
What are the elements that point toward her?

1. The bright red cap and her unique expression (storytelling


action) are right on the sweet spot for the Rule of Thirds.
Plus, the red cap is the brightest (the human eye seeks bright
over dark) element within the composition; the hat acts as a
strong focal point, drawing the viewer’s eyes to the girl, and
ultimately her face.

2. The arms of the adults, and the banner held by the boy, form
a frame around the girl’s face and body.

3. While the boy in the upper left is somewhat of an eye snag


(because he has a fairly bright tonal value compared to the
girl’s face), he plays an important “secondary subject role” by
adding depth and meaning to the overall photograph. This is
particularly true because her line of sight leads in his direction.
Image 042 Cup your hands in front of your face and crop the boy out (see
Image 042 as an example).

Image 041 definitely loses something when the boy in the upper
left is cropped out. His presence adds to the mood and story
of the image, both of which are key components to a good
composition. So, although the boy has significant weight in the
composition, the scale still tips in the direction of the little girl
due to the focal point and the frame.

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69
Image 043 doesn’t work as well (from
a composition perspective). The idea
behind it is excellent. But the mural in the
background and the walking man carry
equal weight. It’s difficult to discern what
the main subject is.

Why is there equal weight?

There is equal weight because the mural


is large, contains a compelling expression
(the equivalent to action), and the whites
of the eyes are a dominant brightness
value within the frame.

If that’s the case, then why isn’t the man a


secondary subject?

The man is in motion, which almost


always commands a great deal of
attention within a composition. He’s also
looking at an object in his hand, which in
effect creates a “pointer” (also known as
“line of sight”). He’s brighter than most
of the background behind him, creating
contrast interest, and he’s placed at the
edge of the frame; he’s almost walking off
the picture.
Image 043 - Photograph by Thomas Leuthard

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70
This photograph may have had an
improved composition if the man was
standing instead of walking or if the
lighting was brighter on the mural leaving
the man at a darker value or if there was
more space to the right of the man so
that he was closer to the sweet spot for
the Rule of Thirds.

Key Lesson: When you


photograph objects in motion, it’s
generally best to have them moving
into the frame, not out of the frame.

Sometimes, photographs can be quite


convoluted in their structure and the
use of space, but it still makes a strong
statement. Image 044 is an excellent
example of that.

Despite the fact that there is a lot going


on within the frame, the viewer’s eyes
go directly to the action located on the
lower-right side of the image. (It’s pretty
hard to miss!)
Image 044 - Photograph by Francisco Osorio
Why is that?

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71
The first reason is placement. The action is directly Self Check Quiz:
on the sweet spot for the Rule of Thirds. The second
reason is that the activity is large within the image
1. Moving objects tend to
(motion always attracts attention). The third reason is
attract_____________ attention.
that the arms become pointers to the hands.
2. What do golf and photography have
Think about this.
in common?
The rest of the elements within the image are just as
3. Why are moving objects difficult
important to the story the photographer was trying
to compose?
to tell, which is a young lover’s display of intimate
affection in a rather public place. 4. What element in your photographs should
carry the most weight?
Key Lesson: When you’re creating
photographs, imagine the scale we saw earlier 5. Name three things that help a “subject”
(Image 040). Try to visualize the weight of each carry more weight in a composition.
element within your photograph. Does your 6. When a subject is moving in a photograph,
subject hold the most visual weight? Is there it’s generally best if it’s moving ____________
anything that you can change to add more the frame.
visual weight to the subject and lessen the
visual weight of surrounding objects?
Shooting Assignment:

Go out and do a self-assigned street


photography session. Include multiple subjects
and utilize the techniques that you’ve learned
thus far. Work hard to provide “more visual
weight” to your primary subject and less visual
weight to secondary subjects.

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72
Shape

One of the strongest tools available to you


for planning composition is the use of shape.

Unusual shapes are a natural focal point.


They can also be used to direct the viewer’s
eyes, because our minds will follow the edge
of an unusual shape.

Unusual shapes also work well as the subject,


especially if you’re trying to create something
more abstract.

One big key to your success as a


photographer is to train your mind to
see shapes.

This comes naturally to some folks and not so


easily to others.

When you learn to identify shapes within a


scene, you will begin to utilize them in an
artistic fashion.

Silhouettes (Image 045) are often utilized in


Image 045 - Photograph by Thomas Leuthard composition because of their dramatic shape.
When you’re learning how to employ the use of
shapes into your images, silhouettes are a great
way to get started. They’re fairly easy to spot,
and they can be quite visually interesting.

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73
This is a rather complex use of shapes,
and one that would (likely) take an
experienced photographer to spot.

This rooftop scene was part of a much


larger cityscape that lay sprawled out
below the photographer’s location.

With a trained eye, you’ll learn to see


shape within a scene, such as this puzzle-
like section of rooftops.

This can be hard to understand in the


beginning.

An inexperienced photographer would


likely look down onto this same scene and
see nothing but a bunch of rooftops.

Try not to get bogged down in the “what


ifs” as you view this image. Think about
the concept of shape. The point is simply
this: there are shapes everywhere, and the
more adept you get at spotting them, and
Image 046 - Photograph by Kent DuFault thus using them in your photographs, the
more rave reviews you will get from peers
and spectators.

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74
This is a very sophisticated use of shape.
Here, we have three very distinct shapes.
The lightest shape is “the subject.” The
airplane wing operates as a frame and a
pointer. Finally, the airplane engine to the
left is a frame.

Take note that the shape of the airplane


engine on the far left mixes abstraction
and reality. It is a silhouette of an airplane
engine. However, there are no details to
indicate this other than the shape and the
setting, which adds to the abstract quality.

Key Lesson: Clues left for a


viewer, through the use of shape,
make an image more interesting
because it forces the viewer’s mind
to work through the situation. A bit
of abstraction can be good. Don’t
feel that you have to display every
detail of the moment to the viewer.
Image 047 - Photograph by Kent DuFault
Let them use their mind to discover.

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Shapes are often used to “frame” a
subject, or “lead the eyes” to a subject.
Sometimes, the shape is the subject. Take
Image 048 for example. It’s the unusually
round face of this cat that makes this
image work. If the facial structure of the
cat were closer to normal, this would
simply be another snapshot of a cat. But
this photographer recognized the unusual
shape and captured it for the rest of
us to enjoy!

Shooting Assignment:

Shoot a photograph that includes


three distinct shapes. Try to use the
shapes in your composition in such
a way that a viewer cannot help but
comment about the shapes being
present. Test your theory by sharing
your finished images with others.
Were the shapes as dominate in the
Image 048 - Photograph by Tambako
composition as you had hoped?

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76
Horizon Line

This is our last topic relating to the


subject of balance.

We’ve talked about giving weight to the


primary subject. We’ve also talked about
using shapes to help achieve balance
in an image.

Now, we’re going to talk about a


very simple mistake that beginning
photographers make over and over again.

I call it “the slippery slope.

”What am I talking about? A crooked


horizon line!

When you view Image 049, doesn’t it feel


like everything is going to slide off the
left side of the picture? Can you imagine
those huts tipping over the edge one at a
time? And the bird is awkwardly tripping
to the left, pulled by gravity.

This is the slippery slope.


Image 049 - Photograph by Badr Naseem
This is a problem that can be corrected in
post-production.

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77
However, if you’re serious about training yourself to Self Check Quiz:
be the best photographer that you can be, you want
to utilize everything that you’ve learned. You’re going
1. A key element in successful composition is
to carefully compose every millimeter of your image
to train your eye to see ________________.
space. You don’t want to crop off any of that carefully
composed canvas and leave it on the cutting room 2. What aspect of a silhouette helps it to
floor, do you? become a powerful tool of composition?
The slippery slope is easy to spot and correct 3. True or False: Clues left for a viewer through
in-camera. the use of shapes create visual interest.
Just train yourself to do it. 4. True or False: Shapes should never be used
as a frame.
Does this mean that you can never have a crooked
horizon line? 5. What does the term “slippery slope”
describe in photographic composition?
No, of course not! There are no absolutes in art
(photography). The difference is that you will
“choose” to have that crooked horizon line – not that
Shooting Assignment:
it just happened – and now you must fix it.
Shoot the same landscape with the horizon
line straight and then with it crooked. In post-
production crop the crooked version back to
being straight. Compare the two and evaluate
how the post-production correction changed
your final image.

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CENTRAL FIGURE (FOCAL POINT)

I touched on the use of focal points earlier in the Here is a short list of focal point ideas: it can be
book. Now, I’d like to take that discussion deeper. a point of contact, an unusual shape, a dramatic
change of color, a dramatic change of contrast, an
The use of a focal point is one of the easiest tools of intersection of objects or lines, or motion.
composition to learn and utilize.
To begin our evaluation of focal points, let’s look at
What is a focal point exactly? three photographs of a similar subject matter, which
A focal point is a resting spot, an anchor, an eye utilize three different types of focal points.
snag; it defines a place where a viewer’s eyes can
come to rest. The difference between a focal point
and an eye snag is that you have deliberately placed
it within your composition.

The focal point can be the subject, or, it can be


placed near the subject to draw the viewer’s eyes
toward the subject.

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Image 050 - Photograph by Kent DuFault

Image 051 - Photograph by Kent DuFault

The focal point in Image 050 is a bright The focal point in Image 051 is a change
change in color, contrast, and shape, in shape, contrast, and direction of line.
which is provided by the setting sun.

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80
In Image 052, the focal point is directly
related to contrasting shape and action.

The focal point in Image 052 is different


from the previous examples (shown in
Image 050 and Image 051). Can you tell
me what the difference is?

All three images (050, 051, and 052)


depict the subject of sailing. In each
example, the focal point has changed
based on the conditions presented to the
photographer.

Your job, as a photographer, is to find


the focal point in whatever scene is
presented to you!

Why is the focal point in Image 052


different from the previous two examples?
In Image 052, the focal point IS the
subject, which is father and son sailing
together. In the previous two examples,
Image 052 - Photograph by Kent DuFault
the focal points were submissive to the
subject, which was the sailboat.

Using focal points are so important to


your development as a photographer.
Let’s dissect a few more examples.

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81
This focal point in Image 053 is obvious.
Its power comes from a sudden and
dramatic change in contrast and color.

Key Lesson: Learn to identify


your focal points quickly!
Oftentimes, a perfect focal point
can disappear rendering the
potential photo opportunity as
gone. Image 053 would have lost its
beauty had someone inside the
house turned out that light, or even
turned on more lights!

Image 053 - Photograph by Kent DuFault

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In Image 054, the focal point occurs
because of action and intersecting lines.
As you begin to develop your skills, you
will learn to anticipate where a focal point
might develop.

Image 054 - Photograph by Kent DuFault

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83
In Image 055, the focal point is so
strong that it becomes the subject.
This is despite the fact that the feet
are a very small element within the
overall composition. However, the feet
incorporate almost every aspect on
our focal point list, so much so that
the rest of the image almost becomes
inconsequential other than to provide
a “story.”

Assignment:

Select five of your photographs that


you like, but also believe that they
could’ve been better. Study them
carefully. Did you include a focal
point? If not, could you have? If you
can spot a focal point, did you place
it on purpose, or is it really an eye
snag? Could the placement have
been better?
Image 055 - Photograph by Kent DuFault

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84
LEADING LINES

There are several types of lines


that a photographer can exploit for
composition. For this discussion, we’re
going to cover three: leading lines, the S
Curve, and the Z curve.

Lines are like a road map. They serve as


a guide into the image and help lead the
viewer through the image.

While pointers are often lines (although


not always), their sole job is to point at
the subject.

Leading lines, the S Curve, and the Z


Curve are used primarily as a path into
the photograph. They typically work best
when the path ends at the subject, but
this isn’t always the case.

Image 056 is a classic leading line (S


Image 056
curve) with a focal point. The car is not
the subject. The car is the focal point.
The subject is the beautiful landscape
into which the car is moving. Both “parts”
of this image are equally important. If
you remove the car, you have a beautiful

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85
subject with a leading line (the S curve of
the road), but no resting spot. Plus, if the
photographer had shot the image tighter,
leaving out the long road leading into the
picture, the image would look flat and
lack in character and story.

In Image 057, the fence is an effective


use of a leading line, but the overall
composition suffers due to the placement
of the horse – going back to our previous
discussion of the imaginary scale (Image
040), the horse and the background
carry equal weight. This image would
be stronger either without the horse,
or without the barn and people in the
background. Why do they carry equal
weight? The leading line takes us to the
horse, and the unusual shape of the horse
creates a stopping point. However, the
barn is large and of contrasting colors and
Image 057
shapes, plus there is the activity (motion)
of the two people working. This creates
a balance between the horse and the
background. The net result is that there
really isn’t a well-defined subject.

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86
In Image 058, without the road acting
as a leading line, this photograph’s
composition would have fallen apart
completely. The subject is the windmill;
but without the strong leading line
directing the viewer’s eyes toward the
subject, the high brightness value of
the sunshine through the clouds would
have overwhelmed the composition and
tipped the imaginary scale away from the
subject. The road (leading line) added the
“extra” visual weight that was needed by
the subject to remain the primary element
in the photograph.

Image 058 - Photograph by Vincent van der Pas

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87
Image 059 is an ill-conceived use of
leading lines. The pillars create strong
leading lines into the photograph, but
the monkey (which is the subject) is at the
front of the leading lines. In this case, the
leading lines have the opposite effect,
and are actually leading the viewer’s eyes
away from the subject.

Key Lesson: Leading lines


should lead a viewer’s eyes in the
direction of your subject, not away
from it. There is more leeway on
this when using an S Curve or a Z
Curve. However, a straight leading
line such as in Image 059 should
always lead toward the subject.
Does this mean that the subject
ALWAYS has to be at the end of the
leading line? No.

Image 059 - Photograph by Vinoth Chandar

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88
Even if the monkey were just a little
further along the leading line (as indicated
by the yellow arrow in Image 060), it
would have been an improvement. The
problem is that the monkey was placed
on the “leading edge” of the “leading
line.” The composition left the monkey
in the dust (so to speak) as the eyes
lurch past it.

Image 060 - Photograph by Vinoth Chandar

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89
The rolling hills and fence in Image
061 provide an excellent leading line.
However, this is an example of the
importance of a focal point. Without a
focal point, despite the fact that this is a
beautiful scene, the viewer’s eyes move
from front to back without gaining any
real sense of meaning.

Key Lesson: Great composition


typically must rely on more than one
tool of composition. Image 061 has
used a “leading line.” However, that
one tool of composition was not
enough to finish the job.

Shooting Assignment:

Shoot a tabletop photograph using


leading lines to direct the viewer’s
eyes toward your subject. (I want to
make it a little harder for you than
simply finding a road or a fence.
Thus, I’m giving you a tabletop
assignment.)

Image 061

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90
The S Curve

The S Curve is a component of a much


larger composition discussion on the use
of geometric shapes in art.

These concepts date all the way back to


the ancient Greeks.

If you look at ancient Greek sculpture,


you’ll notice that in almost every instance,
where a human body is depicted, it has
an S-shaped stance.

The S shape creates a pleasing pattern


within a photograph (or any artwork). Use
it when you can. Generally, you will apply
it using the same rules as a leading line.

Image 062 is a perfect use of the S Curve.


Can you define the subject, the focal
point, and the S Curve?

(Subject = winter landscape, focal point =


trees, S Curve = snow bank)

Image 062 - Photograph by Matthew Venn

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91
In Image 063, is the road an S Curve, a
leading line, or both? I’d say both. Does
an S Curve have to be shaped just like the
letter S? No! Quit being such a literalist.
You’re an artist. An S Curve is simply a
line with curves. Do you think that the S
Curve at the bottom of Image 063 has a
major impact on the composition? I do.
Cover it up with your finger and look at
the image again.

Image 063 - Photograph by Paul Bica

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92
The road is the S Curve. The road is also
a leading line. The subject is a winter
landscape. What’s missing? A focal point
is missing. There’s no stopping point.
Image 064 is one of those examples
that have a grey area. Does the lack of a
focal point hurt the composition of this
image? I think that’s a question that must
be answered by each viewer. Do I think a
well-placed vehicle on that S Curve would
have improved the composition? Yes, I
do. Does the image fall apart without it?
No, not really. Art… it’s a fickle beast.

Image 064 - Photograph by Paul Bica

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93
The use of an S Curve can also be the
subject, as illustrated in Image 065.

Shooting Assignment:

Shoot a city scene utilizing


an S Curve.

Image 065

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94
The Z Curve

The Z Curve is much the same concept as


the S Curve. The primary difference is in the
tension that it creates in a composition.

The S Curve is smooth and fluid, whereas


the Z Curve is more abrupt and creates
a stronger sense of “stepping” into the
photograph.

You will often see the S Curve, and to some


extent the Z Curve, employed in landscape
photography. It’s an easy tool of composition
for a beginner to pick up on.

However, to the trained eye, these two


curves can be applied in almost any
photographic situation.

Your goal is to learn how to see these lines


within a scene, and use them appropriately
no matter what the situation is.

In this industrial setting (Image 066), I


employed a Z Curve to help tell the story
of what the subject was doing. The Z Curve
also helps to move the viewer’s eyes toward
the subject.

Image 066 - Photograph by Kent DuFault

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95
Self Check Quiz: Shooting Assignment:

1. A focal point is a _______________ within a Shoot a night scene utilizing a Z Curve.


composition.

2. Focal points can be a point of contact,


dramatic change of color, an intersection
of objects, or even an unusual
_________________.

3. To become great at composition, learn to


identify focal points __________.

4. The job of a “leading line” is


__________________.

5. True or False: An S Curve always looks like


the letter S.

6. Leading lines can help add extra visual


__________ to a subject.

7. You should not place your subject on the


______________ end of a leading line.

8. True or False: Leading lines, S Curves, and Z


Curves can also be the subject.

9. A Z Curve is different from an S Curve


because it creates _____________, whereas
an S Curve is more _______________.

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96
Avoiding Mergers

Mergers are points of intersection between two


or more elements within your composition.

Mergers can be an effective tool (working in


your favor) of your composition.

However, beginners generally have trouble


identifying them, and the result is a
distracting element that can destroy your
image composition.

For now, I would like you to practice


identifying mergers and avoiding them.

Let’s look at some examples.

Image 067 has numerous problems, not


the least of which is a horrendous merger
situation. But, it’s a good one in that it easily
displays what a horrible merger looks like.
They’re not always this obvious!
Image 067 - Photograph by Luke H. Gordon
Look at the power line pole and the wires.
This is where beginning photographers often
have trouble with mergers.

When creating your compositions, observe


your scene, and avoid any objects that jut out
from behind the subject.

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97
Image 068 is a much better picture
(overall) than our previous example
(Image 067). In fact, if it weren’t for the
merger, there isn’t much you could say
is wrong with it. Hold your finger over
the sail coming out of the woman’s head
– it’s much better, isn’t it? In fact, I used
Photoshop to remove it completely!

Recommended Reading:
·· How to Improve a Wildlife
Photograph with Post-Processing
(excellent training for things like
removing that sail from behind
the bride.)
·· Using Post Production to Improve a
Composition
Image 068

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98
This photographer did a great job (Image
069) of avoiding a merger. This scene
is a literal minefield of them. Careful
placement of the subject put her in just
the right spot.

A huge step in your development as


a photographer is to learn to identify
mergers, and keep them from becoming
a problem in your composition.

Editing Assignment:

Look through your files. Select five


photographs of people in which you
can identify a merger around the
subject’s head or body. Remove the
merger either through software or
by holding your finger in front of it.
Evaluate for yourself how much it
improves the photograph.

Image 069 - Photograph by Lauragrafie

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99
POINT OF VIEW (POV)

POV is one of the simplest tools for


improving your composition. All it
requires is your creativity and your time.

How do you use POV?

You don’t accept the first angle that


comes to mind when creating a picture.

Train yourself to explore your subject.

These examples will show you how a


different POV can vastly change the
creative statement about a subject.

The Saint Louis Arch - The Gateway to


the West in the United States is a favorite
architectural subject for photography.
Study these examples. Can you see how
a simple change in the POV resulted in a
vastly different photograph?

In Image 070, you can see that, from


a distance, the structure can become
Image 070 - Photograph by Towboat Garage almost abstract.

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100
Image 071 presents a POV that is pretty.
It looks like a first effort. While it does
have a postcard-like quality, could the
photographer have found something
more interesting?

Image 071 - Photograph by Lucas Jans

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101
Image 072 is a dramatic wide-angle view,
with an almost vertical (straight up) POV.
This choice of POV creates an abstraction
that is still clearly the Arch.

Image 072 - Photograph by Doug Bowman

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102
And one final option, Image 073
presents a tight POV that also borders
on abstraction; yet the subject, the Arch,
is still clearly identifiable. Study these
four images. They are a great example of
exploring a subject through composition
and camera POV.

Shooting Assignment:

Shoot the same subject from five


points of view. Try to be as drastic
as possible in your choices of POV:
lie on the ground, get on the roof
of a building, photograph the
subject from a mile away, and then
only inches away. When you’re
done, evaluate your efforts. Which
version best captured your vision of
the subject?

Image 073 - Photograph by Matthew Black

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103
Self Check Quiz:

1. A “merger” is
_____________________________.

2. You can avoid a merger by


first _______________ the
mergers in your scene, and then
through careful ____________ of
your subject.

3. How do you utilize POV for a


better composition?

4. You can change the POV by


changing lenses, changing
camera elevation, or changing
the camera ____________.

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104
SCALE

Establishing a sense of scale is very


important to your photography. Have you
ever taken a photograph of a mountain
range, and then you were disappointed
with the results? They just didn’t appear
as grand and vast as they did in person?

This is because you must establish scale


in a composition.

How do you do this?

Key Lesson: You can establish


scale in a composition by including
something of a known size (for
example a “car” on a mountain
road). Also, where you place the
object of a known size within the
frame can help indicate distance as
well as relative size to your subject.

Image 074, with the pigeon in the


foreground, is an exquisite example of
setting up scale in a composition. Life
Image 074 - Photograph by ZeroOne experience has taught us that a pigeon
is a relatively small object. Yet, this bird

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105
appears to be large compared to the
vast cityscape below. Experience has also
taught us that skyscrapers are very large
and tall. The bird’s presence has given us
a sense of depth and distance. The viewer
has been given a fantastic visual clue as
to just how far away those buildings are,
and how high up the bird is sitting.

Image 075 has the opposite effect. If


the photographer had chosen an angle
with a flat, even background (such as
the open sky), the viewer would have no
reference as to how large this clothespin
really is. We would assume that it was
small, because that is what experience
has taught us. By including the building
in the background, and the people in the
foreground, the photographer has given
us a visual clue that all is not as it seems.
This is a very large clothespin!

Image 075 - Photograph by All Free Photos

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106
You can also use objects of a known size
to establish how small something is.

Key Lesson: When you’re


creating a photograph that has
relevance to the size of the subject,
or the distance being depicted, look
for (or place) an object of a known
size to establish scale and distance.

Shooting Assignment:

1. Photograph a large, or distant,


subject using “scale” to
establish that size or distance to
the viewer.

2. Photograph a small subject, and


use “scale” to establish how
small it is.

Image 076 - Photograph by JD Hancock

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107
FRAMES

The use of a “frame” around your


subject is a nice step toward advanced
composition. It is a highly effective tool,
as it uses shape and line to force the
viewer’s eyes toward the subject.

Train yourself to look for frames as you


compose your photographs.

Trees, and tree limbs, are often used as


frames, as are windows and doorways.
Almost anything could become an
effective frame if properly placed in a
composition.

Make sure that your use of the frame


supports the subject and doesn’t
detract from it.

Image 077 is a classic use of a frame.


The trees literally form a square box
around the farm buildings. Landscape
photographers will often use a tree, or
part of a tree, to force the viewer’s eyes
inward toward their chosen subject.

Image 077 - Photograph by Kent DuFault

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108
In Image 078, I used a window as a tool
of composition (a frame) to draw the
eyes toward the men. Try to imagine the
photograph if the men had been simply
leaning against a wall or standing on a
rooftop. They would disappear in their
surroundings. The frame adds visual
weight. So much visual weight, in fact,
that the rest of the photograph almost
becomes inconsequential. Can you tell
me what the hand in front of the mouth
is? It’s a focal point. Why? It’s an action
and a contrasting shape!

Image 078 - Photograph by Kent DuFault

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109
Image 079 is a very clever use of a
frame. The photographer spotted several
different objects that created the frame
around the older man. You can literally
see a triangular pattern into which the
man is descending.

Frames appear everywhere. They can


be natural, or you can bring objects to
create them!

Image 079 - Photograph by Thomas Leuthard

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110
This photographer (Image 080) created
his own “frame”!

Shooting Assignment:

1. Shoot a landscape utilizing a


frame to draw the viewer’s eyes
toward your subject.

2. Shoot a portrait utilizing a frame


made of cloth. Force the viewer’s
eyes toward the portrait subject’s
mouth. But also leave the
subject’s eyes and nose visible.

Image 080 - Photograph by Rodrigo Baptista

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111
DEPTH OF FIELD

The use of depth of field is a fantastic


way to focus the viewer’s eyes in a
composition. This is why “fast” lenses
are so popular. Depth of field can
play an important role in your overall
composition. It’s a more useful tool when
your objective is shallow depth of field
versus extended depth of field.

Recommended Reading:
·· Free Guide to Understanding Lenses
·· Using Selective Focus for
Better Images

Image 081 is an excellent example of


depth of field being used as a tool of
composition. In fact, Image 081 relies
on it, and does little else to guide the
viewer’s eyes toward the subject!

Image 081 - Photograph by Gabriel

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112
Image 082 - Photograph by Kent DuFault

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113
Image 082 is a portrait that uses several
tools of composition: the Rule of Thirds,
the 1/3 - 2/3 Rule, a frame, an S Curve,
and finally depth of field. Each of these
elements of composition help “push”
the viewer’s eyes toward the subject’s
eye. However, in this case, most of the
other elements of composition rely on
the use of shallow depth of field. The
hair, (and the S Curve in particular) would
have become a distraction if they weren’t
out of focus. With the pinpoint focus
on the woman’s eye, there is no room
for discussion as to what I wanted to
highlight in this portrait.

Image 083 - Photograph by Kent DuFault

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114
Do you think the use of shallow depth of
field as a tool of composition was enough
to highlight the subject in Image 084?

I don’t think so.

The focus is on the shoes, but the


background is far too dominating due to
contrast, texture, and shape. The similar
color of the shoes to rocks and the pants
almost make them disappear!

Remember! It often takes MORE than


one tool of composition to create an
effective photograph.

Image 084

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115
Self Check Quiz: Shooting Assignment:

Shoot a portrait on a city street and utilize


1. To help establish scale in your images,
depth of field as your primary tool of
you should place an ________ of ________
composition. It will be up to you to decide if
_______ in your compositions.
that one tool of composition is enough, or if
2. The use of scale can help a two-dimensional you must incorporate some of the other tools of
medium, like photography, establish depth, composition to make the shot successful!
distance, and __________.

3. Using scale can help you establish how big


something is. It can also help you establish
how _________ something is.

4. The tool of composition called a frame uses


shape and ____________ to force a viewer’s
_______ toward the subject.

5. True or False: A frame must ALWAYS be on


the left and right sides of a photograph.

6. A frame can be found within the scene, or


you can _________ the frame.

7. Which depth of field settings usually work


best as a tool of composition: one that
creates a vast field of focus or one that
creates a narrow field of focus?

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116
FINAL THOUGHTS
Photography is a fluid art form. This is part of what Here are some links to the work of master
makes it so interesting. photographers:

In a matter of seconds an entire scene can drastically Portrait


change. This is why you need to practice and 1. Irving Penn
exercise your photographic muscles. 2. Herb Ritts
3. Annie Leibovitz
If you have to think for too long about what you’re
doing, chances are it will no longer exist. This is true Landscape
for just about every type of photography. 1. David Muench
2. Ansel Adams
Learning the rules of composition, and then
practicing them until they become second nature, is Commercial
key to your growth as a photographer. 1. Jay Maisel

In this book, I’ve given you everything that you need


Recommended Reading:
to get started. I’ve given you assignments that will
help stretch your abilities; I strongly encourage you ·· Advanced Composition
to do them. ·· Powerful Imagery

It’s also a great learning experience to study the


work of master photographers. By studying them,
I don’t mean just looking at their images; I mean
dissecting them.

Figure out for yourself why they are so powerful, and


why they have stood the test of time.

UNDERSTANDING COMPOSITION // © PHOTZY.COM


118
Ten more assignments to hone your skills

1. Shoot a shallow depth of field image of 6. Shoot a landscape that relies on shapes
a child with their pet. Use a low POV by as the subject and focal point.
placing the camera on the ground.
7. Shoot a portrait that utilizes a Z Curve.
2. Shoot a portrait using large strips of paper
as a frame. 8. Shoot a tabletop photograph of food that
utilizes an S Curve.
3. Shoot a group of people from directly
above. Have them stand in a circle with their 9. Shoot some type of sporting event. Use
arms interlocked. Have one of them look up pointers, leading lines, and frames in your
at the camera for a focal point. compositions.

4. Shoot a cityscape using a row of cars as a 10. Give a child a new toy. Using all the tools
leading line. of composition that you’ve learned in
this book, tell a story about the child’s
5. Shoot the same subject using backlight, discovery of their new toy.
front light, sidelight, and overhead light to
change the composition.

UNDERSTANDING COMPOSITION // © PHOTZY.COM


119
About the Author

IF YOU’D LIKE TO CONTINUE


LEARNING AND IMPROVING
YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY PLEASE
VISIT PHOTZY.COM

Kent DuFault is a professional photographer and author.


LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/kentdufault/
Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/people/35449761@N04/
Clippings: https://www.clippings.me/kentdufault
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500px: https://500px.com/kentdufault