The perfect photographic composition – part 2

In the first part of this article about creating the perfect photographic composition I described how you should keep your compositions simple in order to maximise impact. In this article I’ll describe further techniques that help support and enhance that fundamental aim. These techniques will help to achieve such goals as:

  • direct the viewer’s attention towards the main subject;
  • help to establish mood/atmosphere;
  • give the illusion of three-dimensional depth;
  • add a feeling of drama, dynamism and energy to your images;
  • give a feeling of movement.
Icelandic iceberg in stormy light
The use of diagonal lines in the clouds and the sea to direct the viewer’s attention to the iceberg.

Directing the viewer’s attention to the main subject

In many good photographs the main subject dominates the frame and grabs the viewer’s attention without any help from the rest of the image – the ‘negative space’ as it is sometimes called.

In others, however, and particularly in slightly more complex compositions, that negative space can provide some pointers, literally leading the eye to that subject. Those pointers can take any number of forms, such as diagonal lines in cloud or water patterns (as in the image above), or perhaps the line of a rural wall or hedge, a meandering stream, or even the line of a sweeping and zig-zagging road. All these can reinforce the importance of the main subject, helping it to stand out even further than it already does from the background.

Of course, you can have too much of a good thing. You really don’t want too many such pointers, each one increasing the risk of criss-crossing conflicts that just add to the image’s complexity and confusion. So keep them under control!

Trees silhouetted at sunset, in Turkey
A limited colour palette and simple silhouettes to generate mood.

Establishing mood

Establishing mood is one of the most important steps towards creating a great photo that anyone viewing it can empathise with. The first requirement is usually a simple composition (as outlined in the first article), but this then needs to be accompanied by an appropriate type of light and colour palette.

Strong, angular, low sunlight is of course good for generating some kind of a stormy atmosphere, particularly if accompanied by scudding clouds, but rather useless if a calming, peaceful mood is required. For that you need a scene that at least appears in the photo to be motionless, usually bathed in a soft light that generates a very simple and limited colour range. A simple silhouette in a calm sunset or dusk is a typical example, as in the photo above.

Some of the most effective moody images are created with a very limited, simple colour palette, making them almost monochromatic, not necessarily in the black-and-white sense, but rather in consisting of just one or two colours. An image that consists of multiple, wide-ranging colours is almost inevitably a lot more complex in appearance, and may be enough to defeat any kind of simple composition, ruining any possible mood that you might otherwise want to establish.

Tracks in snow in a country lane on Exmoor
Using a strong diagonal to give the illusion of three-dimensional depth.

The illusion of three dimensions

One of the biggest drawbacks of photography is that the resulting images are simply two-dimensional representations. If only we could create genuinely three dimensional images!

We can of course partially overcome this limitation by creating the illusion of three-dimensional depth in our photographs. This can usually be achieved using diagonal lines that literally lead the viewer’s eye from the ‘front’ of the image into the scene, giving a sense of depth and structure.

In the image above the three-dimensional illusion has been created simply by using tyre tracks in snow. By crouching down low and using a wide-angle lens I’ve been able to create some very strong diagonal lines that head straight into the depths of the scene, giving a strong sense of three dimensions.

Georgian houses in the Royal Crescent, Bath.
Use of a strong angle to create a sense of drama or dynamism.

Drama, dynamism and energy

A simple straight-on record shot of a stationary scene will generally result in a very dull, static image with limited appeal. Such a scene needs some livening up; the introduction of a bit of dynamism, or energy.

There are a number of ways to do this, but among the most effective are the use of a low-angle view (for a high-up subject at least), coupled with a wide-angle lens, and perhaps a dash of tilting camera. Suddenly a potentially dull image can become quite lively.

The reason for this? All these little techniques help to generate, or exaggerate, diagonal lines in the scene, lines that naturally tend to generate a sense of energy. This is provided they are coordinated diagonals, of course: a mass of criss-crossing lines just results in chaos and a very jumbled photo!

A waterfall near Hartland Quay
Providing a feeling of movement by blurring moving water.

The feeling of movement

Coupled with the addition of a sense of dynamism and energy is the feeling of movement. Photography of even dynamic scenes filled with movement and excitement can result in dull, static images if shot in the wrong way. It is important to be able to really capture and put across the sense of movement in those shots for them to live up to their dynamic potential.

One of the most common solutions is to introduce some deliberate motion blur, in which either the moving subject or the background is partially or even totally blurred. This is achieved not through differential focussing of course, but by the use of a slow shutter speed, something that does not completely freeze the movement.

This is most commonly seen in landscape photography with the blurring of moving water, such as with photography of waterfalls (as above), rivers or shoreline waves. However, it is also frequently used in sport and wildlife photography; indeed just about any kind of photography that involves action.

Beach picnic at sunset
Use of diagonal lines, exaggerated by a wide-angle lens, to lead the eye to the main subject, to give the illusion of three dimensions and to add dynamism to an otherwise static scene.

Wide-angle versus telephoto lenses

In this article I’ve mentioned the use of diagonal lines quite a number of times: in generating an illusion of three-dimensional depth, creating lines that lead the viewer’s eye to the main subject; and to introduce a sense of energy and dynamism in an otherwise static scene.

So clearly, diagonals are pretty useful in greating great photos, and one of the best ways to create diagonals – or at least exaggerate those already present in a scene – is to use a wide-angle lens. And sometimes the wider the better, if you really want to create a lot of drama.

Of course the downside of a wide-angle lens is that it opens up the possibility of allowing move distracting clutter into the image frame, as well as making the subject much smaller. The solution is to step closer to the main subject, something that a lot of photographers fail to do. And sometimes you need to step a lot closer than you might imagine. There are many times, of course, when you simply cannot get as close as would be desirable, in which case you may need to consider shooting in a rather different way, or even change the subject altogether.

For certain kinds of images where you want to introduce drama, telephoto lenses work quite well. Their ability to fore-shorten distances, crowding elements closer together than they actually are can have a powerful effect, enhancing a sense of strength and power, say in vertical walls or cliffs.

The telephoto lens can also be very effective in photography of water, capturing droplets of water in mid-air, and enhancing the apparent size and power of waves. However, for this to work the lens in question has to be quite powerful to allow you to home in on details, and it needs to be used with a very fast shutter speed.

Waves and spray on rocks
Use of a telephoto lens to capture a sense of drama, power, energy and movement.

A final word

I hope this article, along with the previously published first part, helps to give some pointers towards how to create impactful images. Needless to say, in this short space it is impossible to cover everything; the ideas given here are generalisations, but they should give you some thoughts on the way forward to improve your photography.

Get out there shooting and enjoy your photography!

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