September 17, 2015

9 Simple Photography Composition Techniques That Captivate The Eye

The Right photography composition techniques are not only guaranteed to make your images biologically pleasing to the eye but they also convey meaning to your audience.

Image composition has the power to grab our attention, focus it, direct it, and create meaning. We know the greatest films and photographs employ those perfect types of compositions. The problem?

It doesn't seem all that easy to just go out and shoot stunning image compositions. 

But the good news is some simple photography composition techniques can take your cinematography to the next level AND help forward your narrative with elegant ease. 

Photography Composition Techniques

The first thing to focus on here are the basic "rules" of good composition. But to master them we should first ask 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.

Let's break them all down into greater detail.

The Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is probably the most well-known "rule" of composition. If you can internalize it, every time you frame up a shot you'll immediately see the image break into thirds, and it'll help you make important composition decisions, that help the viewer enjoy the resulting image. 

What is the Rule of Thirds

A straightforward "rule of thirds" definition is that its the principle that 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.

photography composition techniques rule of thirds

See? The rule of thirds is pretty simple. Roman Polanski's private eye masterpiece Chinatown is broken up in this blog post demonstrating the rule of thirds. After a few scrolls, you'll get the idea of just how pleasing and effective image compositions with attention to the rule of the thirds can be. 

photography composition techniques Chinatown

Leading Lines

A leading lines definition would be imaginary lines, also called vertices, that 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.

Sometimes much of the frame goes ignored by the human eye, certainly, we can't focus on every element in an image at once. Leading lines guide our eye toward a specific point in the frame. Some angles and directions of leading lines are more effective at doing this than others. 

photography composition techniques leading lines

Leading lines can be distinct or they can be more subtle. 

photography composition techniques Shining

They can also be slightly more complicated. Notice how in this image composition from Taxi Driver the leading lines take your eye away from the main character:

photography composition techniques taxidriver

This shot from Taxi Drive also tracks right, away from the character and towards the leading lines, helping our eye and mind drift into a void. This has a powerful narrative effect as well as a visual one. 

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 the composition, which creates "movement". This is probably more important for still photography compositions, but if you're shooting a static shot -- even if elements within the frame are moving -- it's a great way to create kinesis.

Diagonal lines are more intense than horizontal ones, they create an instant dynamic within the composition and the experience of the viewer. They have a palpable emotional effect. 

photography composition techniques the birds

Note how Alfred Hitchcock employed a diagonal photography composition technique in this shot from The Birds. It's striking in part because of the contrast of the bright sky and the back outlines of the birds on the wire. But close your eyes and picture this image if the wire ran horizontally across the frame. 

Suddenly there is a peacefulness to the image. An even serenity, almost. By have the line run at a slight diagonal, we know on a primal level that something is amiss. 

This is the simple power of photography composition techniques. 

Framing

How you frame up your compositions is, of course, a huge part of how the audience will experience them. Director John Ford was known for this famous doorway shot, often referenced by others. 

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

Contrast is one of the powerful tools at your disposal when it comes to photography composition techniques. 

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.

We've covered this with a few of our examples already. It can also be done with depth of field. If you put one plane in sharp focus and let the rest fall off, suddenly your image composition will have a dramatic effect. 

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.)

But remember the power of negative space. A close up after a sequence of many wide shots is more effective than non-stop close-ups. 

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. This is another photography composition technique. 

Centering an image is avery  useful tool when it comes to portraiture

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?

This is also a composition technique that you can utilize over the course of a film. Are there sequences you want to set up with a certain pattern, that maybe you'll suddenly break to signify changes in the narrative? 

Relating to the audience on this level can be much more emotionally compelling than informing them through your dialogue. 

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.

Balance in the frame creates a sense of peace, contrast and imbalance will create a sense of chaos. You can use this to your advantage when setting up your compositions. 

Wrapping Up Photography Composition Techniques

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 photography composition techniques and see where it takes you.

Also, remember... rules are meant to be broken.      

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
233

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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Very good things to point out. I very much enjoyed the creative composition they employed in Mr. Robot, and it became what I looked forward to most with the show. I'm hoping to see more of that in series to come.

January 5, 2018 at 6:47PM

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Cinema Summit
Community for Filmmakers
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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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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
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October 17, 2017 at 6:48AM

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bindu11
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