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