Advanced Composition Techniques

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Last week I wrote a tutorial covering the rule of thirds, one of the most important guidelines in all forms of photography. Since this article is going to cover more advanced composition techniques, you should check out the previous article first.

According to the rule of thirds, the main subjects of your photo should be placed at the intersections of gridlines. In other words, the parts of the image that the eye sees first – such as people or anything else that the eye is naturally drawn to – should be positioned at one of the four intersection points.

There are four points at which the gridlines intersect, but you will rarely have more than two main subjects in a photo. So how do you know which intersection points to use in a particular photo? Turns out that there are some simple guidelines that ensure that the composition always looks harmonious – and that your photos look great.

The Direction Of Movement

In many photography situations your subjects have a natural direction of movement. Even though photography only captures stationary scenes, there is often an implicit movement inside the composition. Subjects such as cars, animals and people almost always move forward, so human eyes naturally expect them to do so even in a stationary scene.

The trick is to allow our eyes to follow the movement by having enough free space in the direction towards which the subject is moving. In the photo above, the cyclist is moving to the right, and our eyes naturally want to follow that movement.

If the cyclist was placed on the right side of the frame, the picture would look very strange. By placing him on the left side, there is enough space for our eyes to follow the movement, and the composition looks harmonious.

In the photo above, there are two cyclists, which I have placed roughly at the intersections of the gridlines. But if you take a closer look, you’ll notice that I have again left a bit more space on the right side than on the left side so that our eyes can follow the movement. While this difference is barely perceptible, it makes the overall composition a lot more harmonious. And here is yet another example of the same principle.

Human Faces

The same principles – namely the rule of thirds and the directional principle – also apply when shooting human faces. But what is the main subject of a portrait photo? Or let me rephrase this – what is the first thing you notice when looking at someone’s face?

If you said it’s the eyes, you were correct. Indeed, in portraits the eyes should always lie along the top gridline, and the point right between the eyes should ideally be placed at the intersection of gridlines, as I tried to do in the photo above.

The directional principle also applies in portrait photography whenever the person is at least partially facing sideways. In that case you should always leave empty space in the direction towards which the person is looking as that is the direction that human eyes will naturally try to follow. Just try doing the opposite, and you’ll see strange it looks.

Diagonal Composition

Another important compositional guideline is the so-called diagonal method. This guideline states that the parts of the image with a lot of visual weight – such as the subjects or other extraordinary areas – should be placed diagonally, which makes the image more balanced.

In general, photos look better when areas with a lot of visual weight are found at the top and bottom, as well as on the left and right side. This may seem like a challenge, but all you need is two (or more) areas with a lot of visual wight that are placed diagonally.

In the photo above the cliff on the top left and the rocks at the bottom right have a lot more visual weight than the rest of the composition. For this reason they are placed diagonally, which makes the composition balanced both horizontally and vertically.

The following photo of a lighthouse is yet another example of the same principle.

Break All The Rules

Finally, I want to emphasize that all composition rules that I have covered (even the rule of thirds) shouldn’t really be called rules. They are useful guidelines at most, and they should be treated as such.

Just look at the following photo. It doesn’t really follow any composition guidelines, and yet I wouldn’t have taken it any other way.

And this is just one of the hundreds of photos that I shot without directly following any compositional guidelines.

Or how about this photo? In the previous tutorial I told you to avoid placing the main subject in the center of the photo, and yet that’s exactly what I’ve done here.

The bottom line is that compositional guidelines can certainly help you in many different situations, but at the end of the day they are just guidelines, and as a photographer you should always feel free to break them. After all, in photography (or any other form of art) creativity is far more important than simply following the established guidelines.

“Advanced Composition Techniques” by Emil Pakarklis – a passionate iPhoneographer and the founder of iPhone Photography School, a website dedicated to helping people take and edit better photos with the iPhone


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