Advanced Composition – Part I

Article and Photography by Ron Bigelow

I remember my first 35 mm camera. I was attending high school. For Christmas, my parents bought me a simple rangefinder camera. While it did have a built in light meter, the exposure and focus had to be evaluated and manually set. The ambient light had to be assessed and the proper film and filters used to match the camera with the color temperature of the light. In short, the photographer had to know what he was doing to get a recognizable image. I occasionally stumble upon one of these images from my high school days. What is interesting is that some of those images aren’t too bad -- despite the use of an inexpensive camera that lacked any kind of sophisticated technology.

Today things are much different: the cameras auto expose, auto focus, and (in the case of digital cameras) automatically set the white balance. Yet, as I have viewed people's images over the last few years, I have noticed that, while the number of photographs has increased dramatically (a result of digital), the same thing can not always be said about the quality of the images. Yes, the images are properly exposed; the camera took care of that. Yes, the images are properly focused; the camera took care of that. Yes, the white balance is pretty good; the camera even took care of that. Nonetheless, many of the photographs lack impact -- that something that grabs people's attention when they view a photograph.

Well, if the images are properly exposed, focused, and white balanced, what could be missing? Depending on the image, it could be a number of things. However, in a large percentage of the images I have viewed, the something that is missing is composition (the one thing that the camera couldn’t set at the time of exposure). So, we are not that far removed from my high school days. The photographer still has to know what she is doing in order to get a great image – despite all the advanced technology.

Since composition is one of the most important factors in our images, the purpose of this article is to review some of the elements of photographic composition. As indicated by the title of this article, this article will deal with some of the more advanced aspects of composition. It is assumed that the reader is familiar with the basics of composition, such as the rule of thirds and “don’t cut off aunt Edna’s head when you take her picture”.

Lines, Curves, and Shapes

Lines, curves, and shapes are my favorite element of composition. Some of the other elements require specific conditions, such as light or weather, over which the photographer has little or no control. On the other hand, the use of lines, shapes, and curves is mostly up to the photographer. In general, the photographer has a large degree of control over this compositional tool.

Lines, curves, and shapes serve to affect photographic composition in two ways. First, they serve to create a mood. Second, they lead the eye through the photograph. By affecting mood, lines, curves, and shapes add emotional content to images. The effect that is imparted is often subjective and depends on the content of the photograph as well as the viewer’s state and background (e.g. a viewer that has been to a location tends to see a photograph of that location differently than a viewer that has not been to the location). However, some generalities can be made. When dealing with lines and curves, the subject can be broken into the following categories:

In the following analyses, keep in mind that an image is seldom composed of only one type of compositional element. Rather, most images have several elements that interact with each other. Therefore, each compositional element will be discussed with respect to its contribution to the entire image.

Horizontal Lines

Figure 1: Horizontal Lines (Frozen in Time)

Horizontal lines tend to indicate a sense of homeostasis (lack of change). The use of horizontal lines in an image often projects a feeling that an image, or part of one, is somehow frozen at a point in time. Figure 1 illustrates this point. The leaf is stuck on an old boardwalk. The board is etched with horizontal, weathered grooves. One gets the impression that this board has changed little in recent history. The board, with its horizontal lines, provides the perfect setting for the leaf. The board is old, has muted color, and appears frozen in time. In contrast, the leaf appears to have just recently fallen. The bright colors and diagonal lines of the leaf differ sharply with the old board. In addition, the frost lining the edges of the leaf rings the leaf with a white crown. The beauty of the leaf and frost stand out from the board, yet they are ephemeral -- to be gone in a short time, leaving the old board as it was before.

Figure 2: Horizontal Lines (Somberness)

Figure 2 shows the top of a cliff above the desert plain. The background is a pattern of horizontal lines: the horizontal ridges in the near distance, the horizon, and the layers of clouds. The horizontal lines provide a sense of somberness that augments the dark, brooding nature of the desert below and the clouds above. This provides a strong backdrop for the cliff. The vastness, stability, and moodiness of the desert are suddenly punctured by the upward thrust of the cliff. The horizontal lines of the desert floor are replaced by the vertical lines of the cliff. To add further contrast, the cliff is bathed in the early morning light, setting it apart from the somber mood below.

In summary, horizontal lines should be used when the photographer wants to impart a sentiment of timelessness or lack of change to an image. In addition, the use of horizontal lines can serve to provide a contrast with more dynamic parts of an image. Examples of horizontal lines can be found in the lines of buildings, horizons, and fallen objects (e.g. trees).

Vertical lines

Figure 3: Vertical Lines (Stability)

Vertical lines can project a number of moods: stability, peace, and power. When projecting a mood of stability, vertical lines often function similarly to horizontal lines. This can convey an implication of substance or permanence. This is illustrated in Figure 3. This image is dominated by vertical lines. The vertical lines compliment the massive rocks to add weight to the feeling of stability that the rocks project. The impact of the lines is enhanced by the use of side lighting that adds weight to the lines and makes them more dramatic. The use of this late afternoon, side lighting also enhances the mood by the warm color of the light that accentuates the natural red color of the rock. This mood further adds to the feeling of stability projected by the rocks.

Figure 4: Vertical Lines (Stability)
Figure 4 illustrates another use of vertical lines to create a sense of stability. The use of vertical lines on the front of this old gold rush town lends a sense of solidness to this desert relic. While the gold rush towns were often short lived (this one thrived only a few short years) this building has continued its solitary existence over decades. While yielding slowing to the ravages of time, the height of the lines (three stories tall) demonstrate a strength and stability and a suspicion that it will take many more years before nature can break down this edifice. In both of these images, the message is clear: these objects are impervious to the quickly changing circumstances that affect so much of most people's lives.
Figure 5: Vertical Lines (Peace)

Proper use of vertical lines can also impart an impression of peace and tranquility. The use of the vertical trees in Figure 5 demonstrates this concept. The use of the trees fits in well with the low, soft light that permeates this forest -- creating a sense of quiet and solitude. This sense is furthered by the subdued colors and low contrast of the image. A hint of fog down the road adds further to the feeling of quiet that pervades this place and time. Had the trees been at sharp angles, an entirely different feel would have resulted.

Figure 6: Vertical Lines (Peace)

Figure 6 shows two trees peacefully residing in a forest environment. The trees sit among many other trees; nevertheless, the trees emanate a feeling of peaceful solitude as if the trees somehow remain separate from the rest of the forest. This is partly due to the use of lines and partly due to the use of contrast. The long, thin, vertical lines of the tree trunks give the trees a feeling of grace that lends itself well to the sense of quiet existence that the trees emanate. This feeling is further strengthened by the contrasts in the picture. The long vertical lines of the tall trees contrast with the short primarily diagonal lines of the surrounding trees -- as if to say," I may be among these trees, but I am not of them". The trees further set themselves apart by the contrasts in tone and color. The trees stand out due to the light, yellow color of the leaves that distinguishes the trees from the dark green pines needles of the neighbor trees.

Figure 7: Vertical Lines (Power)

Lastly, vertical lines can exude power: a sense of strength. This is demonstrated in Figure 7. The vertical face of the cliff is only hinted at, a small section of the cliff can be seen through the wave as it violently crashes against the rock. Yet, the small part of the cliff that is visible is enough to exude a sense of strength -- to indicate the power of these rocks to withstand the constant beating of the waves. The cliff remains unmoved as the waves and tides ceaselessly pound it night and day. One is aware that, over time, the rock will erode, but one is astounded by the amount of violent energy that will be required to achieve this feet.

Figure 8: Vertical Lines (Strength)

In Figure 8, the vertical lines running up the face of the dome integrate well with the feelings of height, mass, and strength that predominate the huge rock mass.

Stability, peace, and power: these are often contradictory concepts. How can one determine how the use of a vertical line in an image is going to work, what feeling will it communicate, and what response will it elicit? That is entirely dependent upon the content of the image. A vertical tree in a dark, quiet forest setting will bring forth an entirely different response than a massive, vertical rock projecting defiantly into a tumultuous, foaming ocean. The use of lines, vertical or otherwise, must be congruent with the rest of the image (unless one is deliberately trying to create a feeling of confusion or unease). In short, the photographer must study the entirety of the scene and determine how to use lines to enhance the main concept of the image.

Both nature and man-made environments provide an abundance of vertical lines. Examples can be found in buildings, trees, power poles, and fence posts.

Diagonal lines

Figure 9: Diagonal Lines (Dynamic)

Diagonal lines can convey a sense of action or make an image more dynamic. For this reason, diagonal lines are a very powerful implement in the photographer’s toolbox. Figure 9 shows the use of diagonal lines in a flower portrait. The iris was deliberately shot so that the shaft of the flower was diagonal to the edge of the frame. This diagonal line is supported by the somewhat curved, diagonal lines of color that run in the background. This gives a much more dynamic feel to the flower. Had this flower been shot in a horizontal mode and the background, diagonal, color lines removed, the image would have acquired a much more static and uninteresting feel.

Figure 10: Diagonal Lines (Grab Attention)

Figure 10 is an image that demonstrates the power of diagonal lines due to the simplicity of the image. This shot of the surface of a desert sand dune is almost totally devoid of any detail except for the diagonal lines of the dunes. Yet, these simple lines have the power to grab the attention of the eye. The viewers' eyes tend to travel back and forth along the diagonal path of the lines. Had the lines been horizontal, the image would have taken on a more staid feel.

As can be seen from these images, diagonal lines should be used by the photographer to make an image more dynamic. Examples of diagonal lines are plentiful. Roads, streams, waves, and branches are but a few examples of objects that can be utilized in a diagonal manner.

Jagged and Irregular lines

Figure 11: Jagged Lines (Sinister)

Jagged and irregular lines take us one step further on the continuum of emotion and feeling. While diagonal lines move us into the area of the dynamic, jagged and irregular lines often impart a sense of unease, tension, or fear to the viewer of the image. Heavy use of jagged and irregular lines can cause a negative feeling in the viewer (which may be exactly what the photographer intended). This is clearly demonstrated in Figure 11. The irregular shape of the intertwining root system gives an almost sinister feeling to this image. This feeling is augmented by the dark nature of the image and the lack of any vibrant color. The rock captured by the ominous roots adds to the sense of unease that the image creates. This image is utterly dependent on the use of the irregular lines of the roots to create its feel. Had these roots run in an orderly fashion, the entire feel of the image would have been changed.

Figure 12: Jagged Lines (Eerie)

Figure 12 uses the irregular lines formed by the branches of a Joshua tree to add a sense of eeriness to a shot of the moon rising over a desert mountain. The unbalanced lines of the branches work well with the dramatic clouds and the dark nature of the scene to produce an image that has some emotional impact. If you were to ask people, "would you like to spend the night here alone?", the answer of many would be in the negative due to the feeling the image imparts.

Jagged and irregular lines are tools of choice for the photographer who wants to create a feeling of disquiet or agitation in the viewer. In addition to roots, jagged lines can be found in much of nature: the lines of a crocodile’s teeth, stark mountain peaks, and the twisted metal of an automobile wreck.


Figure 13: Curves (Dynamic)

Of all the various aspects of the current topic, curves are my favorite. Curves can be used to add a touch of grace and beauty to a photo. Curves are the element of elegance in photographic imagery.

First, curves function similarly to diagonal lines in that they tend to make an image more dynamic. This is shown in Figure 13. This image is augmented by the S shaped curve of the wave. The wave clearly divides the image into foreground and background, with different types of subject matter in each (foreground rock vs. background ocean and horizon). The curve of the wave adds a touch of elegance and the ocean spray at the end of the wave adds a touch of the dynamic to the image.

Figure 14: Curves (Impact)

Figure 14 uses curves to add significant impact to a desert flower image. The swirls and curves of the dark wood draw the eye into the image. The dark curves have their own beauty and would justify the image alone; however, the real impact of the scene is in the contrast of the beauty of the dark, curvy, old wood against the beauty of the new, vibrant, colorful, life that is springing forth from the desert in the form of spring flowers.

Curves are abundant in nature and allow the photographer to add impact and grace to her image. Some examples are the curve of the ocean’s waterline during a sunset, the curve of a bird’s feathers, and tall bent grass in a late afternoon’s light.

Leading the Eye

Figure 15: Leading the Eye

Until now, we have primarily covered the emotional content that lines and curves can add to an image. However, there is a second function that lines and curves serve: lines and curves can lead the eye of the viewer to strategic points in the image. This is a very effective technique. Photographers can deliberately lay out images such that the lines and curves in the image repeatedly lead the viewer’s eyes back to the point where the photographer wants the viewer’s attention. Figure 15 illustrates this concept. The image is constructed primarily of lines and curves, and they all lead to the same point: the lower right portion of the image from which all of the lines emanate. The graceful curve in the lower middle portion of the image is particularly effective in this manner. It is impossible to view this image and get away from the lines and curves. Further, the viewer’s eyes never stay still for very long; rather, they tend to flow around and around the image as they repeatedly follow the lines and curves.

Figure 16: Leading the Eye

Figure 16 shows another use of a line to lead the eye. The central focus of this image is the moon setting over the red glowing, desert mountains. However, the image would have been rather boring if the mountains in the image had extended down to the bottom of the image. Instead, the foreground is composed of two strong lines formed by the sand dunes. The most important line points directly at the moon. The strength of the image lies heavily on this line. As soon as the eye falls on the foreground dunes, they pick up this line that directs the attention precisely at the moon. The second line is formed by the dune that cuts diagonally across the lower right corner. While this line does not serve to direct the attention as the other line, it adds interest to the image, particularly because of its diagonal direction that adds a bit of the dynamic to the image.

For photographers wishing to intentionally direct the viewers’ eyes, lines and curves are a strong tool.


Figure 17: Shapes

Shapes function similarly to lines. Shapes add both emotional content and lead the eye. What has been said of lines and curves holds for shapes (e.g., horizontal shapes tend to indicate stability and diagonal shapes tend to add a touch of the dynamic). Therefore, the previous material will not be duplicated. Rather, a couple of examples will be given. Figure 17 shows a waterfall. The elegant curve in the flow of the water above the waterfall followed by the diagonal path as the water falls add impact as would be expected from the previous discussion of curves and lines. Should the viewer’s attention stray from the waterfall, it will eventually pick up the foreground. As soon as the viewer looks at the foreground, the vivid color of the red needles against the gray rock catches the viewers’ attention. Then, the arrow shaped patch of needles quickly points the viewer’s attention back to the waterfall.

Figure 18: Shapes
Figure 18 has a wedge shaped log and its reflection in a lake. Both the log and its reflection grab the viewer’s attention. The log and reflection then point the viewer’s eyes out into the water where the reeds and their reflections are picked up.


Figure 19: Interactions

Sometimes, an image consists entirely, or nearly so, of one type of line, curve, or shape. This is shown in Figure 15. However, the most dramatic images are often produced when different types of lines, curves, and shapes are used interactively. This can be done to produce more complicated or even contradictory emotions in the viewer. The number of combinations that are possible is limitless. A couple of examples will have to suffice. In Figure 19, the statue functions as a strong vertical shape that indicates stability, a lack of change, and a touch of sternness (all derived from times gone by in the form of a Spanish Explorer). However, the strong curved pathway adds a touch of vitality and grace and also indicates the presence of more modern visitors. This contrast strengthens the image compared to a straight shot of the statue alone.

Figure 20: Interactions
One of the most predominate compositional aspects of Figure 20 is the river. The river is forms a graceful shape that leads the eye into the center of the picture. Once there, the eye picks up the tall, vertical lines of the trees that lend a feeling of peacefulness to the image. However, the lines formed by the tops of the trees (one on the left and one on the right) as well as the line formed by the mountain ridge in the distance all flow diagonally. The two lines formed by the treetops create a V shape that serves to draw the viewers' eyes into the image, similarly to (although not as dramatically as) the river. In addition, all three diagonal lines serve to add a bit of impact to the image.

Part I Summary

For photographers that want to improve the quality of their images, composition is often a great place to start. Within the subject of composition lines, curves, and shapes offer tremendous capabilities to create mood and direct the viewers’ eyes.


Advanced Composition -- Part II