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The Magic Word: Composition

The perfect composition for expressive photos

Dynamic or static, no matter what you’re photographing or how, it’s you that decides where the viewer’s eye is drawn. To create an appealing image and draw their gaze to the essential details, there are a few basic rules of (image) composition that you should definitely know and apply. Of course, you’re free to experiment and deliberately break some of the rules, too.

The Golden Ratio

The golden ratio is generally regarded as the ideal principle of aesthetic proportions. This mysterious-sounding term refers to the specific division ratio of a space: the ratio of the whole to its larger part is the same as the ratio of the larger part to the smaller part. In the 19th century, the golden ratio became an integral part of aesthetic theory, but it was probably applied much earlier: artworks from antiquity to the Renaissance display the golden ratio.

Known from mathematics: the spiral of the golden ratio influences our perceptions of beauty.

Known from mathematics: the spiral of the golden ratio influences our perceptions of beauty.

Even nature follows this aesthetic principle. The harmonious arrangement of leaves and flowers on many plants is the best example of the proportions set out by the golden ratio. Of course, the golden ratio is also used in photography, to create pictures that are as harmonious and expressive as possible. For the sake of simplicity when photographing, people follow the rule of thirds, which is derived from its complicated proportional rules.

The Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds, often also known as the rule of two thirds, leans on the proportions prescribed by the golden ratio. When photographing, you mentally divide the picture into nine equal sections by drawing two horizontal and two vertical lines. Some cameras and smartphone cameras help you out by showing a grid, which is a great help for beginners. The alignment results in four intersection points. Your main subject should be at one of these points, or alternatively on one of the lines. The horizon of your photo should similarly match one of the horizontal lines. Beginners can be tempted to place their main subject in the middle, but in this way you hamper your image’s chances of appearing harmonious and interesting. Instead, stick to the rule of thirds, and you’ll shoot more all-round dynamic and balanced photos.

The Diagonal Method

As an alternative to the rule of thirds, you can also work with the diagonal method to achieve a balanced composition. This method was discovered and implemented by Dutch photographer Edwin Westhoff. He found that important points of focus lie on the diagonal lines of a square. However, photos are rarely taken in a 1:1 format. They are not squares, but rather rectangles, mostly with proportions of 4:3 or 3:2. Despite this, when photographing, you can position your central subjects on the lines bisecting the corners, i.e. diagonally, to achieve a balanced composition.

A diagonal image composition brings variety and dynamism to your photos.

A diagonal image composition brings variety and dynamism to your photos.

Diagonal compositions create tension, and can bring movement into the photo. Whilst horizontal and vertical (imaginary) lines convey stability and calm, diagonals achieve dynamism.

Triangles

The same also goes for triangles, whether that means imaginary triangles or triangular objects in the photograph. Above all, diagonals, and the sides of a triangle, pointing in different directions, can help your photo gain much more depth and imply movement. Tram tracks, a path, a river: placed diagonally, they give the viewer the feeling that they are really walking on that path, which leads onwards, out of the picture. A triangle comes about when, for example, a street tapers so heavily towards the horizon, because of perspective, that it ends in a dot, when it was wide in the foreground. Even when you are photographing two or more people, for example, you can work with imaginary triangles. Have you seen old family photos of your grandmother or even great-grandmother? In these portraits, people never stood next to each other – they were arranged in a group by the photographer, forming a triangle!

Symmetry

The golden ratio, the rule of thirds and the diagonal method forbid central composition. The eye wants to move, and this is often prevented by a centrally-focused image. There are, however, other subjects that are wonderfully effective when placed and photographed in the centre. Architecture and landscape shots can thoroughly benefit from central composition, especially when there are symmetrical subjects. Bridges and avenues, for example, are often mirror-symmetrical. Symmetry is also very common in nature: most living creatures and some plants are symmetrical.

Symmetrical shots, e.g. of architecture, benefit from a central image composition.

Symmetrical shots, e.g. of architecture, benefit from a central image composition.

The human eye recognises perfect symmetry instantly, and we essentially perceive symmetry as beautiful. Therefore, you should try to photograph symmetrical objects symmetrically: in a street or a room, stand exactly in the middle and follow the central axis. You can also take other photos from another perspective, or with other compositional techniques, and compare them afterwards. Which photos do you prefer: the symmetrical ones or those that deviate from the symmetry?

Odd Numbers

An odd number of objects can make your photo appear much more harmonious and interesting. An even number of objects sometimes confuses the viewer, because they don’t know which object they should concentrate on. The human eye wanders across the image, but wants to rest in the middle. If you have two, four or six objects in the image, the middle – depending on the organisation – is empty! When possible, arrange an odd number of objects before you begin to photograph, or try to capture five sailing boats on the sea instead of four, to create a harmonious photo.

Editing

Sorting through your photos after your photography trip and getting disappointed because you haven’t achieved an ideal composition? Or you have a particularly great subject, but it’s ruined by ugly details in the background? No worries: you can trim a whole lot of things out! If you edit your photo in Photoshop or with the help of another image editing programme, you get another chance to consider which composition variants are best-suited to your subject. You can even display a grid to balance exactly how you need to cut the photo so that the subject looks best!

Have you managed to take a beautiful photograph? Your own images can be decorative, e.g. as a canvas prints. Perfect for your living room or sleeping area.

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