Much advice on picture composition tends to be
both prescriptive (“place the subject at the
intersection of thirds”) and proscriptive (“don’t put
the subject in the center”), as if the adherence to a
few rules can guarantee satisfactory com position. It
may be better to think of any rules simply as a
distillation of ideas about the structure of images
that artists have, over many generations of
experimentation, trial, and success, found useful in
making pleasing pictures.
Any photographic composition can be said to
work if the arrangement of the subject elements
communicates effectively to the image’s intended
viewers. Often, the most effective way to ensure a
striking composition is to look for the key ingredients
of a scene and then organize your camera position
and exposure controls to draw those elements out
from the clutter of visual information that, if left
cluttered, will ruin the photograph. Composition
is therefore not only about how you frame the
picture, but how you use aperture to control depth
of field, how you focus to lead the viewer’s attention,
and how you expose to use light and shade to
shape the image.
If you are new to photography, it may help to
concentrate your attention on the scene’s general
structure, rather than thinking too hard about very
specific details—these are sometimes of only
superficial importance to the overall composition.
Try squinting or half-closing your eyes when
evaluating a scene; this helps eliminate details to
reveal the scene’s core structure.
Symmetrical compositions are said to signify solidity,
stability, and strength; they are also effective for organizing
images containing elaborate detail. Yet another strategy
offered by a symmetrical presentation of subject elements
is simplicity. In this portrait of a Turkana man, there was no
other way to record the scene that would have worked as
well. The figure was placed centrally because nothing in the
image justified any other placement—likewise with the
nearly central horizon. The subject’s walking stick provides
the essential counterpoint that prevents the image
appearing too contrived.
Radial compositions
are those in which key
elements spread out from
the middle of the frame.
This imparts a lively feeling,
even if subjects are static.
In this family portrait, taken
in Mexico, the radial
composition is consistent
with the tension caused by
the presence of a stranger
(the photographer). The
image suggests a modest
wide-angle lens was used,
but it was taken with a
standard focal length.
Diagonal lines lead the eye from one part of an image to
another and impart far more energy than horizontals. In
this example, it is not only the curve of the palm’s trunk,
butalso the movement of the boy and his dog along it
that encourage the viewer to scan the entire picture,
sweeping naturally from the strongly backlit bottom
left-hand corner to the top right of the frame.
When subject elements
in a photograph overlap,
not only does it indicate
increasing depth
perspective, it also invites
the viewer to observe
subject contrasts. In the
first instance, distance is
indicated simply because
one object can overlap
another only if it is in front
of it. In the second, the
overlap forces two or
more items, known to be
separated by distance, to
be perceived together,
withthe effect of making
apparent any contrasts in
shape, tone, or color.
These dynamics are
exploited in this low table
view, aided by areas of
bright and contrasting
colors that fight for
Tall crop
The opposite of a letterbox
composition (right) is a tall
and narrow crop, which
emphasizes an upward
sweeping panorama—a
view that can be taken in
only by lifting the head and
lookingup. As with all
crops based on a high
aspect ratio, it usefully
removes a lot of unwanted
detail around the edges.
A wide and narrow
letterbox framing suits
some subjects, such as
these prayer flags in
Bhutan, perfectly. Such
a crop concentrates the
attention on the sweep
of colors and detail, cutting
out unwanted—and visually
irrelevant—material at
the top and bottom
of the image.
The golden spiral, or “Rule of Thirds”
This image, overlaid with a golden spiral—a spiral based on
the golden ratio—as well as with a grid dividing the picture
area into thirds, shows that, as photographers, we almost
instinctively compose to fit these harmonious proportions—
the proportions that “look good.

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