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Active Framing: How to Break Away from Following Compositional Rules

Blindly following the rules of composition won’t result in better images. But, when applying active framing, and learning how and why both simple and complex compositions work, will revolutionize your photography.

For many photographers, composition means a limited set of rules to follow. At a very basic level, the frame is divided into a Tic-tac-toe (naughts and crosses) board. The horizon, if there is one, is placed on one of the horizontals. The subject is placed on one of the crossing points of the horizontals and verticals. Then, leading lines can follow those verticals. This is the rule of thirds.

It’s formulaic, but it usually results in a pleasing composition. However, it can be overused and become a cliché. As has often been repeated, like any rule, it can and should be broken.

There are, of course, other approaches to composition that can make the image more compelling. The rule of thirds is just an approximation of the Golden Ratio. This is a series of proportions that, when used in geometry, is pleasing to the human eye. The proportions are derived from what we call the Fibonacci Sequence. Although attributed to the Italian mathematician, Fibonacci, who lived in the 12th-13th Century, the ancient Greeks knew this as the “most harmonious of divisions”, and in India in 2-3 BCE, the mathematician, Pingala, wrote about the sequence, as well as prime numbers and binary.

I’m not going to go into a full explanation of the golden section in this article, as there are plenty more here on Fstoppers that explain it, including this excellent criticism of it by Alex Cooke.

The golden ratio doesn’t just refer to the positioning of the subject in a frame. If we were to approximately divide an image into blocks representing different elements within, then the ratio of each of those sections can be pleasing to the eye.

The operative word there is “approximately.” That is hugely important. In photography, our subjects are rarely an exact representation of any mathematical rule. Furthermore, like the rule of thirds, sticking to this or any formula will lead to the photographic equivalent of painting by numbers.

Even if we don’t follow it blindly, being aware of the Golden Ratio is useful, as it gives an understanding of why a composition might look good to our eyes. Studying photographs, architecture, and paintings that cohere with this and other compositional rules is not a bad thing. For example, Henri Cartier-Bresson studied art under André Lhote, a French Cubist painter who was obsessed with composition and would teach the Golden Section, Ideal measurements, Divine Proportions, and the other compositional laws of Universal Harmony. The photographer regularly reread Lhote's books throughout his life.

I shot this many years ago when experimenting with early HDR software. I never found HDR results I was pleased with. Now, hyperreal HDR effects, thankfully, have gone out of fashion. But the composition I liked.

These ideas of composition rubbed off on Cartier-Bresson. Consequently, when he migrated from painting to photography, that knowledge would have carried over, and it can be seen in his photos that often follow the Golden Section in their composition. However, was he consciously considering it as he framed his shot? I doubt it. I believe the rules would have been embedded into his subconscious and he would have composed the image because it looked good to him. His taste for the Golden Section was acquired through study and became second nature to him.

Of course, this is speculation. However, speaking to artists today, although they are very aware of the Golden Section, but do they draw the corresponding spiral onto their canvas before painting? No. Where they apply the paint comes naturally to them. It’s embedded knowledge and, like riding a bike, cannot be unlearned.

But the Golden Section isn’t the only compositional tool. When there is a reason to do it, shunning the obvious subject placement can make a more powerful image. Many photos work because the subject is in the center or corner of the frame. Symmetry can sometimes appear much better than other compositional choices.

Symmetry and no lead-in lines.

There are other compositional techniques that can be shunned too, such as landscapes where foreground interest would ruin the shot, or where lead-in lines would become an unnecessary distraction.

So how do we find the best composition?

The process by which we move the camera’s position to find the best possible composition is called active framing. This name is usually limited to how we frame the shot on location, but for me, the process starts long before that. The following example is about shooting a seascape, but can equally apply to any genre or subject.

One of my favorite subjects is an island a mile off the coast from where I live. I shoot it just for enjoyment, and to get myself out on the beach early in the morning. All seascape photographers know that revisiting a location can bring completely different results depending upon the time of year, the hour of the day, the cloud cover, the wind speed and direction, the state of the tide, the size of the waves, wildlife activity, and so on. Additionally, how the image appears can be changed by the focal length, the aperture and shutter values, plus the processing.

Moonrise over Coquet Island. The central positioning of the lighthouse and the moon worked. I contemplated cropping the negative space at the top of the frame, but to my eye, this un-cropped composition worked best.

Active framing starts by considering all these factors and visualizing how the shot will look.

I start by studying the weather forecast. I know a north-easterly wind will create a swell on the sea, while the prevailing south-westerlies result in a calmer surface. If there is solid cloud cover, the image will be very different from when there is broken cloud, or a clear sky.

Next, I will check the tide times. This will have a bearing on my decision of where I stand and what sort of photograph I will take. For example, at mid-tide, I know that the lines of rock that jut out into the seas to the south of here will break the water’s surface. At high spring tides, the sea is nearly reaching the sand dunes and the rocks are hidden, so a minimalist shot of the sky, sea and the island might work best.

Next, I will look at the sun or moon direction. They can both rise behind the island, but I need to stand in the correct position if I want either of them being in transit with the island. Between midsummer and midwinter, that difference in locations is over four miles.

Following that, I visualize how where I want the island in the frame, and that will vary depending upon the factors previously mentioned. Then, I ask myself whether I want a long exposure or a fast one. Should I stand up on the dunes to increase the amount of sea visible in the photograph? Alternatively, do I get down low to shoot through the waves? At sunrise, the gulls invariably take to the wing. Do I want those in the shot?

On this occasion, the north-easterly wind had created a large swell on the sea. The forecast told me that the wind would swing south-westerly at sunrise, blowing the spray off the wave tops, so I used a telephoto lens.

These considerations will also affect my equipment decisions. For example, if it’s windy, or if I am wading into the water, I’ll take my old, heavy, and incredibly stable tripod, otherwise my small, light carbon fiber one suffices.

After fitting the appropriate tripod mount to the camera, attaching a filter if necessary, I’m ready to go as soon as I get up before dawn the next morning.

I’ll arrive at the location early, and I will scout it to find the best place to stand. Then, I’ll set the camera up and move about until I have exactly the right composition that I have imagined. However, despite all that planning, I might change my mind from how I envisioned the photo, and then use active framing to achieve a different composition. Besides changing the focal length if using a zoom, or moving closer or further away with a prime lens, I’ll also try raising and lowering the tripod, and repositioning the island in the frame, working out which shot looks the best to my eye.

That is the important point. My choice of composition is subjective. It appeals to my subconscious mind, which has developed and changed over time as I have acquired new knowledge from studying images and reading about compositional techniques. Furthermore, I fully expect my choices to be different again in a few years’ time, as new knowledge is embedded in my subconscious.

So, the important takeaway from this article is to continuously learn about new and different compositional techniques. Don't consciously think about framing the subject by following rules, but shoot what looks good to you.

Do you use similar techniques for planning your photography? Are there particular compositional techniques that you employ? Do you think about composition, or do you just point the camera, so it looks right to your eye? It will really be interesting to hear your thoughts.

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22 Comments

Stuart C's picture

Fantastic article Ivor, enjoyed reading this. I’m still at the stage where I’m firmly learning composition and I’m enjoying it. Love how you revisited the same location over and over and came away with so many different shots.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you, Stuart.

kellymckeon's picture

Kinda, sorta the same as your ending statements Ivor.

I don’t think about composition at all. I just get on with capturing images. What do I use as a guide, my intuition.

Everyone should harness their intuition which is always in use in daily routines. But practiced in photography, intuition will free your mind of all nonessential gibberish and allow you to create with an broader mind while learning to feel your way to better compositions.

I mention this often. Ever wonder how a painter knows when to stop and put the brush down, they did not learn this from books and videos of rules, or apps. They just know.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Yes. I sometimes wonder whether artists know this long before they even pick up a brush for the first time, or if it is something they learn from experience. Maybe a bit of both?

Justin Sharp's picture

When I study composition, I go immediately to art history and painting. Compared to the long history of painting, photography is an infant. Yet, photographers sometimes ignore this. Painters have worked through a lot of issues and I feel the sometimes photographers waste energy trying to “reinvent the wheel.”
Composition is about how the space is filled and understanding how the different ways we fill the space impacts the viewer. This includes issues such as balance, harmony, tension, release, etc.
Also, a lot of the contemporary approach to composition tends to focus on how we place items on the vertical, horizontal, and diagonal planes of the image space, but that hasn’t always been the trend. If we go back in the history of painting, that hasn’t always been a guiding principle. Once this idea is understood then many creative possibilities present themselves, that is if the culture of photography would pay more attention to this rich history.
All of that being said, when we consider the possibilities of composition and the possibilities that lie before us creatively, then this idea of rules of thirds and other contrivances of the photo world become laughable.

Justin Sharp's picture

And by contrivances, I mean looking at them as rules in which to follow without truly understanding the decisions with full creative control over and a knowledge of a historical context of the compositional decisions.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Good points, Justin. I too raid books on art and also design.

Eric Robinson's picture

A very Interesting approach, though your ‘active framing’ label doesn’t quite describe all that goes into your images. The phrase I’ve coined and have been thinking about for a while I call, Creative Photographic Will. It’s where the photographer attempts to impose their will on the image at every stage in the process from thinking about the image to seeing the final print. You actually describe it quite well from looking at the forecast, choosing your tripod, deciding where to stand along with all the other decisions you make to bend the situation to your own creative will. In my mind that’s photography. Just appearing on your beach and taking a shot accepting what’s on offer is taking a snap, to me that’s is the difference between a photographer and non photographer. It’s through learning to exercise ones creative will that one can improve as a photographer. Forget buying that f 0.9 lens or camera that shoots 30fps that’s not the way to improve as a photographer the key to improving your images resides firmly in the creative decisions you take that Ivor describes pretty well and can be applied to any photographic genre. Obviously experience is important in making the ‘correct’ decisions, that’s where ones own personal aesthetic sensibility kicks in and intervenes in the background which is why a rounded visual education can be useful, giving you source material to draw on.
Good job Ivor getting people to think about the process before taking an image is possibly the best advice one can give.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you for that, Eric. "Creative Photographic Will" is an excellent term, and should catch on. Active framing isn't my term originally, and am not sure where I first heard it, and my definition has expanded on the one I originally knew. I absolutely agree about your camera and lens comment. The only time those features help, like ultra-high ISOs, are when an experienced photographer needs to push the boundaries of their genre beyond normal, and most don't need to.

winzehnt gates's picture

I agree with most of your post, but I'd like to differ in one small aspect. I think that "just appearing on your beach and taking a shot accepting what’s on offer" can be more than "taking a snap".
Whenever possible, I try to work similar to the process, Ivor Rackham calls "active framing". I do that, so that when I travel to unknown locations with limited time or on big family gatherings, I can work a scene relatively quick. I once read that improvising was just quick planing. For me, revisiting places and "active framing" is a means to learn the intuitive use of "composition rules", so that when I don't have the time for all this planning and preparing I can work a scene fast and still get a pleasing result.
For me it's about honing my skill, so I don't miss a shot at once in a lifetime opportunities when time can be a scarce resource.

Robert Nurse's picture

I'm not sure if it was on FStoppers or not. But, I read an article that suggested that the "rules" should merely be used as fallback positions when we're "stuck". Usually, I shoot similarly to the author: more by the "feeling" the scene invokes. I guess I have to ignore those inner criticisms screaming that I'm not employing the "rules" and trust my subconscious: to remember that "... My choice of composition is subjective. It appeals to my subconscious mind, which has developed and changed over time as I have acquired new knowledge".

Ivor Rackham's picture

Excellent Robert. Thanks for the great comment!

Thomas Crymes's picture

Shoot it all. Let crop sort it out.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Ha ha. That's one way of approaching it, I suppose, but it does come with some disadvantages.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

That would make a great t-shirt!

Thomas Crymes's picture

Rules are just guidelines to use when trying to figure out why something doesn't work. Shoot what looks interesting to you. If you aren't inspired but like the subject shoot it in a way that will let you experiment with composition in software. Plenty of images I've shot that didn't reveal their potential until I experimented with cropping and aspect ratios.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Yes, I do crop to sometimes change the aspect ratio of the frame, both digitally and with film. But, I usually think about that when I am taking the shot too. I'll even sometimes change the aspect ratio of the viewfinder (mirrorless) to see what the result will be like.

Thanks for the super comments.

Doug Blake's picture

I taught pictorial composition for 25 years at the college level. The approach was simple: no rules, only compositional issues to explore. And the frame (perimeter limits) of the composition Is an equal and active part of this mix of issues. Directed eye movement of the viewer, visual weight of elements, positive vs negative space, dynamic range and color (or the absence of it) are just some of elements to play with in exploring these issues.
You can examine other visual art to see how others have played visually, trying to educate yourself, or take a good 2D Design course. Then go out and have a good time exploring with your camera.
Finally, develop a critical eye for your own work but try not to repeat yourself.
Two artists can do the same thing with one failing to persuade while the other is awesome. Or two artists can do exactly opposite things and both succeed. So don’ get hung up on formulas and take the long view.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Very true, Doug. Thanks!

Jan Holler's picture

Thank you for the thought-provoking article, Ivor. All these rules, i.e. the golden ones, could be seen as guidelines rather than strict rules. Nevertheless, they seem omnipresent and sooner or later one will have to deal with them. One sentence caught my eye: "The photographer (Henri Cartie-Bresson, note) regularly reread Lhote's books throughout his life." Why? Why does a person with this education and experience of all people do this? If I do, it's because I don't have that background. But him? You can learn different ways of composing images, but obviously you've never finished learning and fully grasped. That is the essence of art: it is never finished. There are always new paths for creativity and thus new rules. Some stay, some go. How we see the world changes over time.
I think a good painting or photograph also has a story that is told. The eye (or we) want to be engaged. And the composition should ideally guide the eye.

Ivor Rackham's picture

A lot of Cartier-Bresson's compositions cohere with the Golden Section, and it was Lhote whose teaching inspired him. He said of Lhote that he "Taught me to read and write. That is to say, take photographs." If you are interested, the two books were Traités du Paysage and Traités de la Figure.

I guess the reason why was to constantly embed in his mind the ideas of composition that he learned from his master.

As for the reason why, then I guess the answer to that lies with Einstein: “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don't know.”

Jan Holler's picture

Thank you. I couldn't find a translated version (German or English), so only in French. Too bad my French is not so good. But maybe I'll buy them anyway.
Or with Socrates: I know that I do know nothing. Cheers!