A place to think about composition in photography

Archive for November, 2010

Creating calm with Rhythm and Harmony

Colour harmony As a photographer I have a strong interest in colours and patterns in the image, and the way we perceive them.

Many people have told me that this photograph conveys a sense of calm:



Birch trees in the Cotswolds

There are several reasons why this is calm and restful, here are the main ones:

  • Harmonious Colours:  Greens yellows and greys complement one another and not contrast
  • Even Lighting:  Taking the photograph when the sun was clouded over reduced the tonal range in the picture (compare this with the selective lighting post in this blog)selective lighting post
  • Rhythm: The repeating shapes of the trees create a sense of rhythm that is calm and reassuring.  The reason is that we know what to expect next.
  • Mystery: Look at the way the trees recede into the distance, it gets lighter and not darker, I wonder why…     Where is the vanishing point in this picture?… The eye is led out of the right of the photograph, there is no apparent end to the trees….



Understanding how we read photographs – descent or ascent?

I am interested in the way different cultures perceive composition in photographs.

In the English-speaking world we are taught to read from left to right.  This convention applies to information that is presented to us in the form of spreadsheets, charts and graphs as well as text.

This photograph was composed with this convention in mind:


Wall and tree above Buckden

The wall forms a sweeping curve underlining the focal point of the tree.

Tension is reduced arranging the curve in this way because most viewers read images from left to right giving this strong element associations of a smooth descent.

What I am interested to find out is:  Do people from other cultures that read from right to left, perceive this photograph in the same way?

Please do leave me comments I’m fascinated to know about this.

Playing with Horizons

The horizon doesn’t always have to conform to the thirds convention.  Memorable photographs can be created with horizons placed very high or very low.  The effect of this is to emphasise the foreground or the sky.

The interesting stuff happens when we leave out the horizon altogether.  Have a look at this photograph:


At first sight this seems like a perfectly ordinary picture.  The more you look at it, the more it seems slightly surreal.  This is caused by the fact that there is no horizon in this photograph.

Why the viewer is engaged

We are so accustomed to seeing the horizon line that the viewer invents one where none exists.

The first assumption the viewer makes is to place the horizon line at the water line of the large boat.  This creates a problem because this makes the small rowing boat seem to float above the boat.  Then what about the floating red and white buoys?

The gaze searches above for a horizon line to make sense of all this but cannot find one. The viewer has to work a bit harder and build a three-dimensional plane on which we know everything must float and that means the horizon must lie beyond  the frame of the picture, it must be there surely….?

All this happens very quickly as we take in the image but the first impression of calm familiarity gives way to unease about where are the real reference points in this photograph and this creates an atmosphere of gentle mystery that holds the attention of the viewer.

I’ll return to this theme in future posts because we all need a little mystery in our world of seeming certainties.

Colour contrast

Contrasting colours add interest and boost the colour saturation in the eye of the viewer.


Daffodils at Parceval Hall

In this picture the yellow of the daffodils contrasts with the bluebells and each colour intensifies the other.  Placing the yellow and blue in separate horizontal blocks helps generate balance that is more pleasing to the eye.

Selective Lighting

The human form normally dominates any photograph so when people are included in landscapes I find that some element of balance is required.

The picture below illustrates this approach using selective lighting to highlight the dog while the people are in shade.

IMG_4001bThis picture was made possible by the golden evening sun shining through a narrow gap.  having found the light, it was just a matter of patience waiting for the right combination of interest to come along.  It might be called planned luck.

Placing the horizon


There are many sources of information that tell the photographer that the best place for the horizon is on one of the two imaginary horizontal lines that divide the picture into thirds.  It is true that many photographs I have taken do seem to conform to this convention such as the picture of Scarborough seafront below.


Scarborough Seafront

In the Scarborough photograph the horizon is placed on the imaginary line that defines the upper third of the picture (two-thirds from the bottom) and all is well.  This picture was not taken with this explicitly in mind at the time, it just felt natural for this compostion.

Adding more interest

The ‘comfort’ of having the horizon on the two-thirds line is balanced by the dynamic diagonal lead-in formed by the railings and walkway that takes the viewer to the extreme left of the picture before the eye is led back across to the bottom of the cliff where it meets the sea.

A subconscious emotional journey is taken through the picture with the viewer being led right out of the frame by the diagonal before being brought back to rest on the horizon line where order is restored at the intersection of the horizontal and vertical thirds.

It is my belief that we all share an understanding of the ‘rightness’ of this placement because we are surrounded by images and designed objects that use this composition element.

This immersion has given us all a visual literacy so we may respond positively to a picture that employs this technique without being aware of why.

Using the Lead-in

Lead-ins are a composition technique I use a great deal.  For me the purpose of a lead-in is to draw the viewer into the picture by guiding the eye.  In a landscape context our eyes look to the ground so we know where it is safe to walk.  Placing a lead-in in the bottom foreground of the picture plays to this fact and is a strong cue for the viewer to start to examine the image from a familiar perspective and you are led into the picture.

Lavender fields in the cotswolds

Lavender fields in the Cotswolds

This structure feels familiar and allows the viewer to navigate the rest of the picture.  Composition is therefore about understanding and evolving patterns that help guide the viewer through the image and engaging the viewer’s attention.

Let’s look at a picture that seems completely different:

Sculpture at Sledmere

Sculpture and sky at Sledmere

I still think of this as a landscape picture, (I’m interested in what you think so please do leave a comment).  This is a less conventional image, the only familiar reference point is the sky.   There is nowhere to imagine yourself walking in this picture so I felt less constrained to have the lead-in in just one place.  Now the lead-in lines dominate the picture radiating inwards from all the edges and command the attention to the crown in the middle top.  Once the eye has lingered there it moves to the background and the familiarity provided by the blue sky and white clouds.  The interpretation then  moves from abstract pattern to some structure that is in the open air, a construction in the landscape.