I taught a workshop this week on composition and framing and thought it would be worth summarizing the content into a blog post, so here it is.
Composition isn't everything. Listening to some photographers talk and teach you'd think that perfect composition was essential, that without following compositional principles you don't have a strong image. Which is nonsense. Story, gesture, emotion, content, context - there are many other elements that can make an image powerful. Even purely in terms of visual impact, color can be a major factor too. But it is true that good composition can elevate an image, and brave, inventive composition can create something very special.
Mostly I'm going to use examples from the Magnum Agency photographers, some of the greatest ever photographers especially in the fields of documentary and photojournalism. (And because Amazon happens to sell a postcard box of Magnum images that made an excellent tool for the workshop!).
Lines lead the eye through an image and provide a flow. A 'leading line' from the edge of an image will lead the eye into the frame. Diagonals give a sense of dynamism, action, activity, whereas a strong horizontal lines gives a sense of stability and grounding.
Lines can be implied too. A gaze from one figure to another or the implied motion of an object can have a similar affect. Look for lines in any image and you'll get a feel for how they direct the eye of a viewer.
The 'rule of thirds' is probably the most commonly mentioned and utilized compositional technique. It's a frustrating term because it's not a rule, and it's not strictly about thirds either. None of these techniques are actually rules that have to be followed. They're just tools that can help to create balance, or tension or visual style or impact in an image. They can all just as easily be ignored or broken to good affect in the right circumstances.
The idea of the thirds is that our eyes are naturally drawn to elements approximately a third of the way into a frame, and the one-third/two-thirds proportion gives a pleasing balance, such as in the classic Ansel Adams image above. Most believe that the principle is due to the 'golden ratio', a mathematical condition of proportional elements that occurs frequently in nature, with one third being a rough approximation of that ratio.
The Dworzak image above uses thirds (for the horizon) and leading lines (the base of the tents). But it's the combination of striking color and the central placement of the subject that gives the real power to the image. Sometimes placing a subject in the center of an image can feel too basic, too simple, but it can also work very powerfully too. Take a look at these portraits for example:
Arnold has almost perfectly centered the face with the eyes along the horizontal center line of the image. The use of negative space (see 'space' below) and the lack of distractions emphasizes the affect.
In his famous portrait, McCurry has the girl's leading eye (the eye closest to the camera) on the vertical center line of the image. It's a powerful technique that can be seen in many portraits, both painted and photographed.
As photographers, we get to choose what's included in the frame of the photograph and what we choose to exclude. Often it's the exclusions that are most important. By removing distractions we can concentrate the viewer into the essence of the image. Richard Avedon is well known for his portraits against stark white backgrounds. No distractions, just the subject.
Negative space is the 'empty' or plain area with no detail. It's giving your subject room to breathe, although Newman here is using it cleverly to bring a powerful distinctive shape to the portrait. This to me is the brave composition I mentioned earlier, being willing to leave his subject in a small corner of the frame. And you can see from the original annotated image that Arnold chose to crop significantly to achieve the final framing with those exclusions and simplification creating the power of the image.
The location of empty space relative to a subject can be important too. In Salgado's example, the subject is facing the edge of the frame with the space behind. This usually gives tension to an image. As a viewer, we're more comfortable if a subject is looking (or moving) into the frame so we can see what they are looking at or moving towards.
With more complexity in an image, we can start to play with layers to give depth and structure. In Franck's example above, we have our main subject and his shadow in the foreground, two more figures in the middle-ground, then a sweeping background with two more distant figures.
Another 'rule' that isn't, the rule of odds. It's generally (and this is a big generalization) more visually pleasing to have an odd number of people or faces or objects in an image than it is to have an even number. This usually relates to three's, because 5 or more objects usually mean much more complex compositions. Three's give a certain balance and the triangular patterns they form bring a dynamic element to an image.
In this fabulous example by Marc Riboud, we have three sets of three, all beautifully framed for us by the window. Here we have layers too, showing that the subject matter doesn't always have to be in the closest layer for the image to work.
Converging lines give a sense of depth and perspective, and so does a repeating shape or figure. Here we not only have the three figures reducing in size into the image, but their reflections too to further emphasize the depth. The figures themselves effectively provide leading lines (particularly their heads and feet), alongside the lines of the bar and window frames.
Figure to Ground
'Figure to Ground' is all about giving clarity to a viewer, surrounding a figure or object by empty space and contrast so we can clearly see their outline. In Burri's image, the city street provides a striking backdrop but it's the pure contrast of the figures against the bright roof that draws our eye there first. That doesn't mean that the subject has to be a silhouette. You can also see Figure to Ground executed clearly too in the layered Martine Franck image that we looked at earlier.
Fill the Frame
In contrast to the technique of using negative space is the approach of filling the entire frame with the subject or subjects. It does usually involve choosing what to exclude again though, removing distractions and bringing the viewer in close.
Finally to close, here's Annie Liebowitz choosing to break the rules (foot cut off at the ankle, knee touching the edge of the frame, distracting elements on the left edge of the frame):
(For wedding photographers, I recommend taking a look at the images of Jonas Peterson for some good examples of strong compositions).