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Composition, an introduction

This image below shows use of all three compositional elements I would like to discuss today. Let’s introduce the concept of composition, and visit three guidelines for composition, then revisit this image.

Image by Ria Mishaal FRPS

In its simplest interpretation, composition describes both the elements of a whole, and the way in which the whole is made. You can think of your composition in the context of the story you are telling – each element or object is a character, and the position of each character in the frame describes its relationship to the others. Your composition will convey your story – your vision – and will influence how the viewer of your image will react.

First, you need to decide what your story is. Everything you choose to include in the frame will become a part of the narrative of the image, and where you place your chosen subjects will influence how that story is told; where the viewer focuses first, where they are led and ultimately how they feel.

The first step is to decide on the focal point of your image, the protagonist of your story. It might be a particular object or person, or maybe a shadow or highlight. Knowing what your focal point is will always help you tell a better story.

The next step is knowing who you are telling the story to, and this might influence the visual language you use. Then you place the protagonist in a narrative, and frame it with the emotion and atmosphere you want to convey. The lighting you choose and the styling and compositional structure you follow keenly influence this. In this post, we’re going to explore three simple guidelines that will let you use composition to help make your images more striking and your stories more memorable. These guidelines are tried-and-tested ways of making an image carry emotional weight: they draw and lead the eye, they help you tell your story and they convey emotion – calm, balance or energy.

1. Rule of thirds 

The rule of thirds in composition is about where we place the focal point of the image within a frame. It has been shown that, if you take the whole frame and break it into thirds horizontally and vertically, as shown below, our eyes go naturally to the intersections of the lines rather than the middle of the frame. The rule of thirds suggests that if you intentionally place the focal point of your image or other key elements on the intersections, the image will feel more natural and interesting to the viewer than if you place your subject in the exact centre.

In the following image of a wedding day in Sicily, the couple are placed on the vertical third, while the horizon is on the horizontal third, making for a pleasingly balanced image.

Image by Ria Mishaal FRPS

2. Leading lines

This is one of my very favourites. It describes how you can use horizontal, diagonal and vertical ‘lines’ created by objects in your frame to lead the viewer around the image, providing perspective, scale and flow. You can use these lines to lead the viewer to your subject and to tell your story by placing more emphasis on one element or providing connection between objects. Often they start towards the bottom of the frame, leading the viewer up and in towards the main subject of the image. Leading lines are everywhere and great fun to use in composition. Here are some you might encounter day to day: fences, anything in a row, tables, candles, trees,; light and shadows.

It’s easiest to get to grips with this with a few examples:

In this wedding shot, the couple are positioned such that the receding lines of winter trees lead right to them. This is emphasised by the trees in reflection.

Image by Ria Mishaal FRPS

In this breathtaking image by Linda Wevill shows the use of leading lines in composition beautifully. The fence draws you in from the bottom right of the image and leads you right across, snaking through the tones and colours.

‘High Water at the Sea Pool’ by Linda Wevill FRPS

3. Framing your subject

Another technique for drawing attention to the subject of your image with composition is to use ‘framing’. This has the added benefit of providing context for the narrative; a doorway, a window, a natural arch in a tree, or lights in the background.

This layering in the image not only draws attention to the main focal point but also provides layers and visual interest, which are more intriguing and will hold your viewers’ attention for longer.

Frames don’t have to be complete, like a picture frame; they can be incomplete vertically or horizontally or even out of focus, and still bring an element of structure to the image.

In this image, the model (wearing a dress designed by Vicky Rowe) is framed in the light of the window reflected in the mirror behind her.


Image by Ria Mishaal FRPS

In this striking image by David F Cooke FRPS, the subject is quite literally framed by the ferry window, creating a ‘window’ on to this story

The Couple by David F Cooke FRPS

Combining ideas

Image by Ria Mishaal FRPS

This image shows use of all three compositional elements. The boy with his ice-cream is placed on the vertical third (rule of thirds); the line of the houses runs in to a bright curb which leads your eye from the bottom left hand corner right to the subject – the boy (leading lines); the boy is framed by capturing him when he was exactly in the middle of the yellow section of the wall (framing).

Have a go with these compositional guidelines and let me know if you feel it helps improve the impact of your images!

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The Creativity Collective’s blog is intended as a community resource exploring creativity, the art of photography and tools for happy and productive living.

It’s written by Ria Mishaal, a professional photographer fascinated by light, love and navigating life as an entrepreneur in the 21st century. Learn more about her and the rest of the TCC team here.

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