September 17, 2015

9 Composition Techniques That Will Make Your Images Eye-Catching on a Biological Level

The composition of a shot can not only make it pleasing to the eye, but it can also speak volumes to your audience. 

But what are some ways to approach cinematography to raise the aesthetic energy, as well as let it be used as a narrative device? In other words, what are the "rules" of good composition, and why are they considered good? (Hint: It has something to do with human biology.) Celebrated editorial photographer Steve McCurry, best known for his "Afghan Girl" portrait that first appeared in National Geographic, shares 9 tips that might help.

Rule of Thirds

This is probably the most well-known "rule" of composition. This principle states that by placing points of interest along one or more of the imaginary horizontal and vertical lines, or on one or more of the four intersections, your image will be more pleasing to look at.

Leading Lines

These imaginary lines, also called vertices, help lead your viewer's eye into your image, which creates depth -- a must for our dimensional medium. It creates a sense of kinesis and movement, which adds to your image's aesthetic energy.

Diagonals

Like leading lines, diagonals are vertices that lead your viewer's eye, but instead of them being lead into your image, they're lead across, which creates "movement". This is probably more important for still photography, but if you're shooting a static shot -- even if elements within the frame are moving -- it's a great way to create kinesis.

Framing

You can use something natural, like windows and doors to create a frame within a frame, but you can get creative, too. One of my favorite examples of unique framing comes from The Tracey Fragments, which was the first feature to use Mondrian multi-frame compositions for the entire film.

Figure to Ground

We tend to notice things that contrast -- in fact, it's one of the main ideas in Gestalt psychology. By creating contrast between your subject and the background, you can create depth, as well as help your viewer orient the subjects within the space.

Fill the Frame

Get close! According to many aesthetic theories, the size of an object within the frame directly determines how much aesthetic energy (i.e. importance) it has: the bigger it is, the more "important" it is. (Remember also that this will be the first thing that your audience is most likely to look at.)

Center Dominant Eye

As McCurry points out, by positioning the dominant eye of your character in the center of the frame, it gives the illusion that it is following you.

Patterns & Repetition

Humans are naturally attracted to patterns -- I guess we don't like, or can't easily make sense of, chaos. So, using repetition will immediately attract your viewer to your image, but including an element that breaks the pattern will keep your images interesting and your audience engaged.

Everyone's favorite guilty pleasure flick, 'Garden State', uses patterns in a pretty hip way, right?

Symmetry

In the same way we love patterns, symmetry for our eyes is like Nutella for our tastebuds. (If you don't like Nutella, what's wrong with you?) Scientists still don't really know why humans like symmetry so much, but tests have proven that those with symmetrical faces are considered to be more attractive (some say because it indicates health), while those with asymmetrical faces are considered less so. There have even been studies that reveal that babies will stare longer at symmetrical pictures than they will at asymmetrical ones.

Conclusion

Let me say this -- and I can't stress this enough -- there are no rules when it comes to cinematic art, whether it's writing, editing, or cinematography. Using these techniques correctly will almost ensure that your image will be aesthetically pleasing, because of our human biology, but you do run the risk of creating images that are predictable, common, and quite frankly, boring. I'm sure when you first saw a bird's eye view of a coffee cup you were like, "Whoa, what a unique perspective," but now that every teenage girl on Instagram is flooding our shared creative space with these images you're probably like, "Please stahp." I'm with you. But creativity and ingenuity is all about "copy, transform, combine," right? Why don't you try that with these 9 tips?

What are some films that break these compositional "rules" effectively? Let us know in down below.      

Your Comment

6 Comments

There are a lot, but that comes to mind now is "Ida" (2013) with excellent and unusual compositions. For example by placing subjects and vanishing points at the corners of the frame. Or "cutting" the actors body, leaving only their heads... etc. It breaks many rules but still shows that everything can work well or even better.

September 17, 2015 at 7:00PM

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Mateo Baldasare
Filmmaker
240

Mr. Robot's look is all about eschewing such standard practices, commonly framing faces at the very bottom of the screen, with empty sky or ceiling filling most of the frame. This is also done to reinforce how off-kilter the protagonist is, how uncomfortable in his own skin and social situations.

September 18, 2015 at 3:14AM

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"Using these techniques correctly will almost ensure that your image will be aesthetically pleasing, because of our human biology, but you do run the risk of creating images that are predictable, common, and quite frankly, boring. I'm sure when you first saw a bird's eye view of a coffee cup you were like, "Whoa, what a unique perspective," but now that every teenage girl on Instagram is flooding our shared creative space with these images you're probably like, "Please stahp.""

The compositional technique isn't the problem in your example. The subject is. A well composed image will always "feel" better than a poorly composed image. What you decide to photograph/shoot/draw/whatever is entirely up to you. Yes, a top down of a coffee cup is ubiquitous, but a top down of foot print on the summit of Mt Everest would be pretty rad. Both images would tell a story, one story is just way cooler than the other. The whole rules are meant to be broken thing is fun to say, and fun to play with, but in practice I don't think it really holds water. They aren't rules because someone made them up a long time ago and forced them on the people. They are rules because over time we've found that they just work. Full stop.

A nice companion piece to this one (which I believe you guys linked to a while back?): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwk3YFknyNA&list=PLh9dfmI5G_OxsUKEcnH3CS...

Adding to the composition is contrast, be it color, value, or detail. A lot of the examples in the video above also employ some pretty heavy color contrast that also really draws your eye. Good times.

September 18, 2015 at 1:59PM

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for rule number 8, what do they mean by "dominant eye"? is it just referring to the eye we want to focus on or is there a certain way to figure out?

September 20, 2015 at 9:48AM, Edited September 20, 9:48AM

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Nelson Cho
Jack of All Trades, Master of None
74

Seeing as we mostly shoot faces at an angle (as opposed to straight on), I imagine it's referring to the eye "closest" to the lens.

September 28, 2015 at 10:31PM

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V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

beautifully crafted A cinematographer must appreciate the difference of color to black and white; works well revealing the infinite variation of shade and tone between pure black and pure white, total darkness, blinding light; knows that light produces our perception of color and that natural light, even a its lowest, illuminates, at its greatest can obscure every detail.

How someone uses a camera? They have to be behind the lens - hold, direct and operate the camera - for you or me to know.

Who they are? As I said, a cinematographer must be able to appreciate difference.

November 14, 2015 at 10:09AM

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Temitope
Director of Photography/Editor
161