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Five Shortcuts To Compelling Compositions

How to frame your photographs for maximum interest
Spring sunrise along the Arda river, Eastern Rhodopes, Bulgaria

You pick up your camera and point it at your subject and click the shutter. You’ve made either a good photo that we want to look at longer or a bad photo that doesn’t hold our interest. It can be hard to explain why an image works and we want to keep looking at it, but often it’s because of the composition.

Composition refers to where and how the elements of a scene are arranged within the frame. Compelling compositions guide a viewer’s eye through the scene effortlessly toward the center of interest and hold it there, while lesser compositions can be difficult to look at. In an effort to help photographers understand what works in compelling compositions, here’s a look at five key compositional guidelines that usually lead to strong photographs.

The Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is the granddaddy of compositional guidelines, and it factors into practically any shot you can make—especially if it has a defined, single center of interest. Whether that’s a portrait, a landscape or a candid, placing the center of interest at the intersection of lines that divide the frame into thirds is a great way to create compositional balance that’s inherently attractive. To find those lines, divide the frame into nine even sections. (Think tic-tac-toe grid.) The horizontal and vertical lines that divide a frame into nine parts are great places to put horizon lines or other elements that divide the frame visually. But it’s the intersections of those lines that work especially well as targets on which to place the most important elements in a scene—such as a portrait subject’s eye.

Leading Lines

If your lens axis is 90-degrees from a horizontal line like a fence or wall, that fence or wall will either appear perfectly flat or bisect the scene horizontally. But as you change your camera position to move closer to parallel with that fence or wall, the line stops being horizontal and starts being diagonal. Better still, such a visual line will enter the frame from the edges—particularly the corners—and lead the eye toward the center of interest. Our brains find such leading lines particularly gratifying, so these compositions are inherently pleasing and easy to look at. The lines don’t have to be perfectly straight, either. Any scene element that enters from a corner of the frame and directs the eye toward the subject qualifies as a leading line, and it’s a great shortcut to compelling compositions.

S-Curves For Compelling Compositions

S-Curves For Compelling Compositions

A cousin of the leading line is the S-curve. This might be a stream wending its way through a landscape or a shadow that bends as it falls across a portrait background. It could even be a pair of straight lines that run at slightly different angles through a composition. If they form a visual S shape they count—and our eyes find them particularly pleasing to see. It’s almost as if the S-curve slowly escorts a viewer on a gently meandering journey through the frame toward what’s most important. If you want help in finding S-curves, try using a wide-angle lens to help bend and stretch visual elements near the edges. This distortion can sometimes be all it takes to create the appearance of a gentle S-curve.

Visual Framing For Compelling Compositions

Visual Framing For Compelling Compositions

Framing is a very simple compositional tool, but it’s very powerful as well. It’s when you create a natural, visual frame inside a composition by shooting past a visual element in the foreground. A frame doesn’t need to encircle the entire frame like a window—though it certainly could. Sometimes a visual frame might just be an overhanging tree branch near the top of the composition or a doorway, wall or another vertical element near the sides of the frame. By placing these objects at the edges, you enhance the illusion of depth and help show the viewer where the important stuff is. And while most visual frames are in the foreground, they can sometimes be found far in the background as well.

Strong Foreground Element

Some compositions benefit from a prominent foreground element. In some ways, this foreground element acts as a center of interest in itself, and in others, it might serve as more of a lead, directing the eye from the bottom of the frame up into the bigger composition. This foreground element is particularly often used by landscape photographers with wide-angle lenses. By placing an object in the foreground near the camera—a boulder, for instance, or a creek, flowers or a felled log—the object takes a more prominent place in the composition. Sometimes a small foreground element can equal or even surpass the visual weight of something as large as a mountain far in the background. This makes for especially compelling compositions that are inherently pleasing to the eye.

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