Seven Steps From Basic to Advanced Composition: How to Effectively Frame Your Photographs

Seven Steps From Basic to Advanced Composition: How to Effectively Frame Your Photographs

The overall layout and the placement of subjects within the frame can make or break your photographs. You may know the rule of thirds and the golden section, but composition goes way beyond that, and most of it is about simple geometry.

There are some people for whom composition comes naturally. My wife, for example, can pick up a camera and snap a perfectly composed photograph every time. I have a friend who can do the same. They are both talented artists; I’m not. For others not so blessed, myself included, getting the image's layout right is something that needs studying, and it is a never-ending journey for me. But something I realized a long time ago is that most compositions that work are based on geometry.

I could write a chapter on each of the following; here, I am just lightly scratching the surface. However, I hope this brief summary will give you guidance about what to investigate further if you are interested in delving into the world of composition.

1. Starting with basics, the rule of thirds is a simple compositional technique that is probably the first most of us learn in our introduction to photography. In case you don’t know, it involves splitting the screen into a tic-tac-toe board. At its simplest, we are placing the horizon on one of the horizontal lines. We can also place objects where the lines intersect. We get pleasing images, but the look can become a cliché. There are so many rule of third images, that it sometimes seems we have seen them all before.

The image below is cropped in two ways. On the left, it is copped to the rule of thirds, on the right, to the golden ratio (see below).

2. Symmetry is an effective tool that is often derided in, especially, landscape photography. Have you ever been told that you should not put the horizon in the middle of the frame? Well, forget that and, instead, look for scenes where the bottom of the image mirrors the top.

It doesn’t have to be top and bottom symmetry either. Left and right works too, as can diagonal or rotational symmetry.

Square frames work especially well for symmetrical images because of them having four reflective, plus four rotational symmetries inherent in their shape. Symmetry can give a feeling of balance and calm to a photograph.

3. Most of us then progress to learning the golden ratio. It's a more aesthetically appealing way of dividing an image than the rule of thirds. But it's a lot more than just placing the horizon nearer the center of the frame than on the third.

You probably have seen pictures of spirals like this overlaying paintings and photographs.

Unlike the intersections on the rule of thirds, this isn’t just about positioning horizons, or even points on a photo, but placing objects, sometimes of different sizes, within areas of the frame. It also guides us where lines flow through the picture. It’s a technique used by many of the great artists and photographers. Indeed, Henri Cartier-Bresson spent his photographic career exploring this.

The proportions in the golden section are based upon a series of numbers that we call the Fibonacci Sequence. That is where each number is added to the number before it in the sequence to get the following number, thus:         

1 + 0 =1,

1 + 1 = 2,

2 + 1 = 3,

3 + 2 = 5,

5 + 3 = 8,

8 + 5 = 13,

13 + 8 = 21,

and so on.

These numbers can be represented graphically, and the resulting proportions are found everywhere in the natural world, most famously in the formation of the snail’s shell.

The sequence is named after the 12th Century mathematician, Leonardo Bonacci, also called Fibonacci, but it was known about long before. The Roman architect Vitruvius (80-70 BCE) used the proportions in his designs. However, long before that the 4th Century BCE Indian mathematician, Virahanka, had discovered the same sequence. Moreover, the triangles that form Great Pyramid of Giza conform to the proportions too, and that was built from around 2550 to 2490 B.C.E.

In the following image, you can see how JMW Turner used the golden section spiral to approximate the position of subjects within the frame, the sweeping shapes of the clouds and the sea, plus where the horizon falls at the edge of the frame. Of course, in landscape photography this is much harder than painting as the layout of the natural world rarely positions itself to cohere with our ideals as we look through the viewfinder.

The golden section is universally pleasing to the human eye. It evokes feelings of aesthetic completeness. To us, an image that is constructed to fit with the proportions of the golden section just looks right.

4. If you have scrolled through the various crop overlays in Lightroom – tap O on the keyboard – besides the golden spiral, you will have discovered the golden triangle. It is where a line is drawn from corner to corner and then perpendicular lines run from that to the other two corners. This is a little-used compositional device, so little that I didn’t have a photograph in my catalog that illustrated it.

However, the artist Frans Snyders used these strong diagonals in many of his brutal hunting and animal paintings. The Boar Hunt is a good example. Note the strong, dark diagonal line running from bottom left to top right, and the line running perpendicular to that down to the bottom right-hand corner.

That diagonal composition suits the violent scene. Although the composition works there seems to be a tension there, a dissonance that puts the viewer on edge. It is the polar opposite of the calm evoked by symmetry.

5. Another technique is the rebatement of the rectangle. Draw a 90-degree line across a rectangle, positioned so it forms a square at one end. You can repeat that at the other end of the rectangle, thus creating two parallel lines.

As with the left-hand example below, the subject(s) of interest can either sit on one or both of those lines, or you can fit subjects within the boxes, like the right-hand example.

6. Rectangles contain other geometric shapes. Drawing lines from corner to corner, from corner to midway point, and from midway point to midway point, you end up with a geometric pattern called the armature of the rectangle.

A rough drawing of the armature of the rectangle can be used as a guide when composing. I sometimes use this as a temporary layer in my editing programs if I am struggling with a composition.

Again, this can be used as a guide for structuring a composition, using both the crossover points and the areas formed by the lines, as in the example below. Note that it is rarely possible in photography to match the subjects with the intersections of this shape, nor will every intersection or area be used, but it can be a useful tool to use in composition, especially when cropping.

The armature pattern can be simplified too, like the image at the top of this article.

7. As we've seen with all the examples above, the placement of objects within a frame so that our minds easily accept them coheres with mathematical and geometric rules. So, looking for simple geometric shapes suggested in our photos – not necessarily actual shapes, but ones that are suggested to our minds – is another effective way of creating a compelling image. If individual objects are aligned with each other, our brains will think of them as being a line, like the dogs in the Snyders' paining earlier. Similarly, three objects set apart will naturally form a triangle. I wrote more about that phenomenon in a previous article.

We can break these rules if we want. However, we should carefully consider the reason for doing that; there should be a discernible purpose for unusual compositions, or else the photo will just seem badly made.

A great way to train your eye is to experiment with the crop tool. I think it is the most powerful tool in any editing software for learning about composition. With practice, you will begin to visualize good compositions through the viewfinder. If composition doesn’t come naturally to you, it is something you can learn.

As I said at the start, this is only touching the surface of compositional techniques, and I encourage you to investigate those in more depth. There is much more on this topic I will write about at another time. If you found this interesting, then you might like my recent articles on perspective and subject separation.

Do you consciously consider the composition when you frame a shot? Or, perhaps you are one of those fortunate people who have always been able to see a composition without thinking about it. It would be great to hear about what methods you use.

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9 Comments
Stephen Woodcock's picture

I have found this article & the image is greater than the sum of its parts article from the end of January very interesting and thought-provoking. It goes some way for me to explain why some photos that I have taken work whilst others do not. I will have an awareness of these theories whilst I am out taking photos of seascapes here in Whitby. Thank you

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you Stephen. Glad you found them useful. I am just heading out to do exactly that, shoot seascape, but further up the coast in Northumberland.

Susan Egan's picture

Good piece, more helpful (to me) relative to cropping. It’s difficult to keep the various placement schemes in mind when out taking photos, but explains why some seem to be more eye-pleasing later.

Tom Reichner's picture

Susan,

When you said, "It is difficult to keep the various placement schemes in mind when out taking photos", that really resonated with me.

I love to think and overthink all of the possible compositions for any given image, and then take many photos of the same subject/scene with different compositional objectives in mind. But I primarily shoot wildlife, and wild animals and birds often come and go quickly, and move about erratically. It is so hard to just get one frame where there's time to make sure the critter''s eye is in focus, let alone experiment with all kinds of different compositions and focal lengths and subject placements.

Yesterday I was at the Chesapeake Bay photographing Canvasback ducks. So many ideas for creative and interesting compositions came to mind while shooting, but I didn't get to use even one of those ideas because the water was so choppy, and with the ducks bobbing up and down so violently, just trying to focus on the duck's eye took all of my time, and every time I got focus, then tried to shift the camera a bit to put the duck in a different part of the frame, the split second it took to do so was enough to cause the duck to come out of focus. Same thing when I tried to zoom in or out to change the angle of view - the split second it took to zoom in (or out) was all it took to get the duck to come out of focus.

I don't know how to try all of my different creative compositional ideas out on subjects that only give, literally, a fraction of a second to focus and shoot, before they dive under the surface or bob up or down. Frustrating to have all of these ideas and no way to use them on the subjects that I want to use them on.

Scott Valentine's picture

There are many ways to approach these challenges, Susan. In your case, maybe you could intentionally shoot with a little shorter zoom to give you more compositional flexibility later on. Or try to predict motion and preset focus when possible (use a smaller aperture), then let the movement fill your scene and shoot when it feels right.

There will always be competing elements, and sometimes the most important thing to get SOMETHING in your image then sort out composition later. Other times you may have the luxury of choosing how to frame every element. Don't forget that a large part of being a photographer is recognizing good photographs. Being able to describe what is and isn't working is the first step to both retouching and shooting differently next time. Do that with your own work, choose a specific skill to develop, then build on that.

As you've discovered, there's too much to fold everything in all at once!

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks Susan and Tom. I thoroughly agree that the crop tool is a huge help for composition, and for training our eyes.

Scott Valentine's picture

"Training our eyes" is the secret sauce. The more we use these guides and tools, the more we can internalize them when out shooting. I have an article coming out in an online magazine next month that specifically talks about creating a Golden Spiral over your image not only for layout and composition, but because the process of building it yourself helps burn the concept into your imagination.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Exactly that, Scott. Thanks for commenting.

James Cowman's picture

This is one of the better articles I have seen on this information. One of the most important things to remember when you are talking about the armature is not to approach this topic in photography as memorizing lines or camera grids. Photographers have to approach this information in a real-world way. I have tons of videos on this topic that can help the photographer. All of the points in the article make sense, without coming across as gimmicky. The armature is not a gimmick but rather the foundation of all design. If you want to learn more about this, feel free to visit my website, www.the-art-of-composition.com. Thank you for pointing some real thought into this article and not attaching it to a bunch of dynamic symmetry grid packs or books for sale.