You have amazing ideas floating around in your head, but they just don’t seem to come on a delimited canvas, you’ve not much sense for dimensions and proportionalities, and you struggle to arrange all the components to be a concerted, aesthetic composition?
Worry not, your artistic idols are not practicing sorcery, they have distinctive patterns they’re relying on. The aesthetic has its own formulas, and here, I will introduce you to those – and you’ll notice quite fast that they’re, with a bit of practice, a breeze to adapt to your own work, without it losing its own personal touch.
Tension and harmony
First, you’ll want to figure out which one of the two basic compositing styles you’ll want to go for: Creating absolute harmony, or creating a center of agglomeration, of tension. Almost all the photographs have a detail that the viewer’s attention is automatically drawn to. But that does not exclude the possibility of, still, creating a harmonic image.
Harmony refers to distributing all the details, colors or shapes on a picture so well, that when you squint your eyes, you will not find a visual “hole” anywhere on the canvas. Your final image will be prone to express tranquility and order.
Tension refers to, on purpose, cramming a bunch of details into a certain area that can be anywhere on the canvas, and, using the center of tension as a focal point, arranging the rest of the details in the frame in a way that they form a sort of fading out, the farther away they are from the created center of attention. This sort of “Gaussian-style distribution”, creates, once again, a harmonic view that will satisfy.
There are diverse ways for you to achieve these effects on your image.
- Create a “frame” around your main center of attention. Arrange your props evenly distributed in your frame, and if you have no props, then for example, let trees or buildings, etc., frame your main motive.
- If you have a mostly dull-coloured photograph with very little contrast, you can create a focal point with a splotch of color.
- Create tension by putting your center of attention in an odd place in the frame, such as the corner of the image.
- Absolute harmony can be created by repeating a color various times in the frame.
The use of complementary colors is another way to create a harmonic composition. On the Itten’esque color wheel below, you can see which colors are complementary; they are directly opposed to each other on the color wheel. Such as red and green, orange and blue, etc.
An example would be a blue sky paired with sand dunes, or editing a bit of purple into the shadows of the photograph of a yellow summer dress, and so on and so on. Once you have realized the value of complementary contrasts in your photographs, there is basically no going back. Their use is second nature to most photographers.
Example: The dunes seem to have a warm glow in contrast to the cold, clear sky.
Intentionally zoning your image
Imagine the frame you’re shooting to be overlain by a grid. That grid must not necessarily consist of squares, you can as well picture it being made from triangles and so on. Start off by finding the center of your image, which doesn’t have to be the very middle of the canvas. You make your own rules what you want to perceive as the center of the image, there.
Your grid does as well not have to be a boring, repetitive or even symmetrical grid. The shapes you’re imagining can be different sizes. Since that can be hard to imagine, I advise you to sketch that basic grid on paper. Doesn’t have to be clean, but the final arrangement of lines shall be aesthetic to your eye. Now, try to adapt the concept of your photograph to that grid.
This act can help you with finding out what might be missing in your image, where to place props or people, what is missing to create the absolute harmony or tension you want to achieve. As you’re trying to depict your rough idea on a small piece of paper, you are going to get an impression of the total effect of your idea and the picture you’re about to shoot.
This method was already being used by the old painting masters of the Renaissance, who put a lot of attention to aesthetic perfection and added a grid to their empty canvas to plan on where to paint which detail. A photograph is a painting too, technically; you’re painting with light.
Example: Why is this image aesthetically arranged? Colours frequently repeat, such as the green of the lamps is found in the chairs, the table in the corner of the image, and the bald dude’s shirt. The blue is found in both the bottles on the shelf, as in the bowl on the brunette lady’s table and the guy with the moustache, etc. The details are neatly distributed.
Mirroring and rotational symmetry
Using similar shapes in similar sizes in your image is key to achieve even distribution of details and, therefore, harmony. For example, if your picture includes a rose somewhere towards the bottom left corner and it’s a background, a stylistic idea would be to include a rose in the top right corner of your image as well, so on the opposing side. The same thing works with colours you’re using.
An example for the effective use of visual rotational symmetry would be if, for example, when your frame includes an arm pointing to the left, you would use another detail pointing to the right on the opposing side of the canvas. This creates a visual balance of details. The human eye is automatically looking for similar details and symmetries.
The golden ratio
The golden ratio is a picture compositing formula that was conceived during the Renaissance. Artists back then realised that a canvas, divided in two equally large halves by a conceptual line, is not as aesthetic to the human eye as the line being a little closer to one side. Even though there is an exact mathematical formula for that aesthetic, most artists imagine that line to cross their photographs and paintings intuitively without making any calculations.
The golden ratio.
Example: The focal point, the tower, being very close to the golden ratio.
Whether you draw the line marking the golden ratio horizontally or vertically in your mind doesn’t matter. What matters is that what exactly is in that area is something that is clearly distinctive. The simplest and most common way to include a golden ratio in your image is to shoot the horizon, but is can as well be formed by arranging things that aren’t connected to each other in any way, in a way so that they form a line the mind automatically sees, without it actually being there. Just like it occurs with the pointy tower in the exemplary photo.
Direction of lines
Why do some photographs seem calm, why do some seem full of agitation? Really often, those moods are caused by the direction lights and details in the image “point” – here’s why:
Horizontal lines have a calm effect on the eye, as humans instinctively look for a horizon, a “calm anchor”. That is why most photographs of the sea have a feeling of tranquility to them.
But that does not mean you have to include a sea in your photograph to create a calm horizontal line. Any horizontal line will create that effect, no matter if it’s an actually visible line, or just a line woven by your thoughts when looking at the picture.
Self-evidently, vertical lines achieve the opposite effect. There is a tension in the picture, there is motion, something going on. A cone of light shining from above on the top of someone’s head will look exciting, not calming. You’ll want to find out what will happen next. A wonderful stylistic element to use on an obscure concept, a photo to look at for a longer time to spot all the details.
If majority of your details are in an askew angle, seem to point in a diagonal direction, they express an emergent, ambitious feeling, as if something is about to rise. An explanation for this perception could be our association with diagrams (example: stock market diagrams), for which a gradually increasing, diagonal line depicts success. Therefore, it also expression a lot of motion. Your image will seem neither calm nor tensed, it will seem as if it is only a temporary depiction of what is going on, and is bound to change into something else very soon.
Most photographers and editors take use of those tips in a way that their entire image will either consist of horizontal, vertical or diagonal elements in order to create harmony and an immediately understandable basic conception to the eye.
There are also possibilities for you to combine these stylistic elements in a way so that they achieve two-faced expressions, depending on what kind of photography you do. There are no limits to artistic expression.
Add your final touch to your photographs by editing them in an artistic way that brings out all the features that you want to underline most, or create an entirely new composition of different shots on a photoshop canvas.
If you enjoyed this peek at the wonderful world of composition, and want to learn more, make sure to check out this comprehensive and fun tutorial, Incredibly Important Composition Skills.