Composition Techniques to Create Engaging Imagery

Article 9 min
Explore various composition techniques that will help you create impactful photographs.
Understanding composition and how to use the variety of composition techniques will help you move beyond just “taking a picture” to creating impactful images. Capturing an impactful image takes planning. Although much of the planning process is internal, being aware of the basic composition techniques and using them effectively can significantly improve the quality of your imagery. Let’s explore basic composition techniques such as the center of interest, framing, balance and the rule of thirds; and using creative elements in compositions, including shapes, lines, patterns and textures; balance and perspective.
 

Basic Composition

A photo should contain only one center of interest. This will help arrest attention and the viewer will not be confused about the message you are trying to convey. Whenever you plan a photograph, look long and hard at the subject until you are aware of every single aspect and detail. Then analyze what you see. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What’s the strongest point of interest?
  • How can I make this feature prominent?
  • Which other elements support the main feature, and where should they be placed to balance or add drama to the picture as a whole? 

Once you have a clear idea of what the main element should be, start thinking about how you can give prominence to this feature and make sure other details in the scene do not compete for attention.

Three ways to ensure you have one center of interest:

1. Frame in the viewfinder - Frame the subject in the viewfinder to eliminate distracting elements from the photo.

2. Contrast - Use tonal or color contrasts between the subject and surrounding areas.

3. Selective Focus- Use depth of field to isolate the main subject by making the background out of focus.

In this photo, the strongest point of interest is in the center. Depth of field is utilized to give context, but doesn't take away from the main subject. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION
soldier aiming a rifle
In this photo, the strongest point of interest is in the center. Depth of field is utilized to give context, but doesn't take away from the main subject.
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION
VIRIN: 200626-D-ZW071-0004

The main subject should occupy a strong position in the frame. One way to do that is to employ the “rule of thirds.” Divide the frame into 9 equal rectangles, 3 across and 3 down. Imagine a tic-tac-toe board overlaid on the viewfinder. 

The idea of the rule of thirds is to place the important element(s) of the scene along one or more of the lines, or where the lines intersect, with the subject looking in the direction of the empty space that remains.  Although you may want to place the subject squarely in the middle, the photo is more interesting when you place the subject along one of the intersections. 

The rule of thirds is not a guarantee to good composition, but it can keep you from making disastrous mistakes, including putting your subject too close to the edge. 

Many camera manufacturers have the capability to display the rule of third grid in the viewfinder.

In this photo, the main subjects and action points are not directly in center, which gives the photo more energy. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION
two soldiers engaged in fight training with grid overlay
In this photo, the main subjects and action points are not directly in center, which gives the photo more energy.
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION
VIRIN: 200626-D-ZW071-0014

The “golden mean” or “golden ratio” is a great way to create aesthetic proportions in your photographs. This classical rule is similar to the rule of thirds, but it places the subject slightly closer to the center, and helps you avoid imbalance in your images. 

The grid below is referred to as the “Phi Grid” which consists of squares and a spiral that looks like a snail’s shell. Use the squares to help position the elements in the image. The spiral acts like a leading line that gives the viewer a sense of how the image flows. 

In this photo, notice the subject positioning guides your eye up and around and back into the image. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION
military diver emerging from the water with a golden triangle overlay on the image.
In this photo, notice the subject positioning guides your eye up and around and back into the image.
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION
VIRIN: 200626-D-ZW071-0008

Frames give your photographs depth. You can use man-made elements, such as arches or windows, to act as frames around your main subject, or use natural elements found in your scene such as trees. 

Use the technique of creating “frames within a frame” to:

  • draw attention to the main subject
  • hide unwanted details in a scene
  • add contrasting tones or colors into what could be a flat or monochromatic scene 
  • get creative with your surroundings and add depth to your images

When deciding to use a frame, ask yourself:

  • Does this frame complement the main subject?
  • Does it add relevant information?
  • Is there a valid reason for using the frame?

If you answer no to all of those questions, you should avoid using framing and use another composition technique.

In this photo, a frame overlay has been added to call attention to the main subjects. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION
soldiers in a tent watching a scene outside.
In this photo, a frame overlay has been added to call attention to the main subjects.
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION
VIRIN: 200626-D-ZW071-0006

Creative Elements 

Lines in your photographs can create different feelings. For example, vertical lines create height and give a sense of strength. Horizontal lines create stability, and create a sense of peace and tranquility. Diagonal lines create a sense of speed, motion or instability. Curved lines create a sense of grace. Understanding the effect that different types of lines create will help you add a depth and dimension to your photographs.

In this photo, notice how the lines; vertical, horizontal, diagonal and curved, evoke different feelings. Each can be used to the photographer's advantage to enhance the story. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION
4-square image featuring a plane, a sunset, a curving road and a plaque.
In this photo, notice how the lines; vertical, horizontal, diagonal and curved, evoke different feelings. Each can be used to the photographer's advantage to enhance the story.
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION
VIRIN: 200626-D-ZW071-0012

Leading lines draw the eye to the main subject of the photograph and focus attention on important elements. You can find leading lines in objects such as walls, walkways or patterns. Keep in mind, however, that not every line in an image is a leading line. 

In this photo, the angle of the shot guides the eye along the entire line of divers. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION
seated divers lined up along the edge of a pool
In this photo, the angle of the shot guides the eye along the entire line of divers.
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION
VIRIN: 200626-D-ZW071-0010

While horizontal and vertical lines create stability in images, incorporating diagonals and shapes like triangles into your images create dynamic tension. You should look for actual triangles that appear in your scenes, but you can also imply triangles by how you position elements in your scenes. Leading lines can be placed on a diagonal to form triangles that all meet at a single point, which should be the center of interest.

In this photo, multiple diagonals and triangles in this photo create tension and drama. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION
color guard standing on a plaza in the daytime.
In this photo, multiple diagonals and triangles in this photo create tension and drama.
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION
VIRIN: 200626-D-ZW071-0015

People are attracted to patterns, especially when patterns appear as a kind of geometric construction. Patterns can create a sense of harmony in a photograph.

Two types of pattern effects:

  1. Informal patterns are used for decoration and can be used to add dimensions to an image, breaking up the flatness and dullness of the background or foreground. Think of items you see in nature that tend to not be symmetrical - such as leaves, rocks and mountains. Using informal patterns gives a feeling of freedom and unpredictability.  
    The angle of the photo, the colorful climbing grips, even the way the subject's hair is braided all add to the joy and movement of the composition. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION
    Ceiling installation mimic uniform ribbons in both layout and pattern.
    The angle of the photo, the colorful climbing grips, even the way the subject's hair is braided all add to the joy and movement of the composition.
    Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION
    VIRIN: 200626-D-ZW071-0009
  2. Geometric patterns occur when figures in a scene are distributed geometrically, such as arranging figures of a photograph into the vertices of a triangle. They can show up as circles, squares, rectangles, polygons, etc... Geometric patterns tend to be symmetrical. To emphasize these patterns, shoot straight on at right angles to the surface. Black-and-white and monochrome images will highlight the shapes and patterns more clearly. If you shoot down along the surface, you can create a sense of depth, because the patterns will change in shape as they recede into the distance.

Notice how the ceiling, which mimics uniform ribbons, presents a number of geometric patterns. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION
Ceiling installation mimic uniform ribbons in both layout and pattern.
Notice how the ceiling, which mimics uniform ribbons, presents a number of geometric patterns.
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION
VIRIN: 200626-D-ZW071-0007

Textures also create visual interest and depth in your photographs. People are attracted to them because they convey both visual and tactile sensations. With the right lighting, you can pick out rugged surfaces in sharp textual relief or reveal fine texture in surfaces that seem almost completely smooth to the eye. 

To bring out the texture of an object, the light should come from an oblique angle so that it rakes the subject’s surface, highlighting each small relief and creating shadows within the indentations.

This photo is so texturally rich, you can almost feel the flour on your hands. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION
hands covered in flour forming a dough ball.
This photo is so texturally rich, you can almost feel the flour on your hands.
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION
VIRIN: 200626-D-ZW071-0001

Balance 

While the rule of thirds and the golden mean encourage you not to place subjects in the center of the frame, if situations arise where symmetry is naturally occurring, this is a perfect time to create a formal or symmetrically balanced image. 

Formal or symmetrical balance occurs when elements of a similar size and shape on both sides of a photograph are of equal visual weight. Each element contributes to the composition but no one area overpowers another. While images with formal balance can look static and unexciting, they are aesthetically pleasing and present a sense of stability, formality and dignity. Architecture, roads, bridges and scenes where reflections are visible are excellent candidates to use this composition technique.

In this photo, a powerful lifter is showcased beautifully in black and white, with strong lighting to show off the physical symmetry. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION
body builder showing off upper body muscle structure
In this photo, a powerful lifter is showcased beautifully in black and white, with strong lighting to show off the physical symmetry.
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION
VIRIN: 200626-D-ZW071-0002

Informal or asymmetrical balance occurs when two or more elements in a photograph are of different size and shape, but still visually balance out the areas within the frame. Asymmetric balance occurs when the perceived visual weight of two or more lighter objects is evened out by a single, heavier object placed on the opposite side of the image.

Typically, asymmetrical balance is visually more interesting than symmetrical balance.

In this photo, both the helicopter and the yellow shirt airman are equally weighted in the frame. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION
Airman signals to a helicopter during a shipboard delivery
In this photo, both the helicopter and the yellow shirt airman are equally weighted in the frame.
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION
VIRIN: 200626-D-ZW071-0003

Perspective 

Perspective in photography refers to the sense of depth or spatial relationships between objects in the photo, as well as with their size and shape, with respect to the camera lens or the viewer. Since photography is a two-dimensional art, perspective is the most important composition technique to help extend the image into the third dimension. 

A lot of photos are taken at eye level, but one simple way to achieve drastically different looks is to change your point of view. Get high up and shoot down on the subject, or get down low and shoot up at the subject to create a more interesting image.

The top down angle of this shot adds much more to the composition than a straight on photo. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION
Hard hat wearing military rescuers send a rescue toboggan up a wall
The top down angle of this shot adds much more to the composition than a straight on photo.
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION
VIRIN: 200626-D-ZW071-0013

Linear perspective is achieved by capturing parallel lines that converge in the distance. Creating linear perspective will often produce a stronger sense of depth and distance than other visual elements in a photograph, especially when a photograph is composed so that the converging lines lead a path straight away from the camera.

In this photo, the converging lines in this photo add depth and drama to this photo Photo by DINFOS PAVILION
Fatigue wearing soldier standing in a room of books.
In this photo, the converging lines in this photo add depth and drama to this photo
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION
VIRIN: 200626-D-ZW071-0011

Dwindling size perspective is achieved when objects farther from the camera appear smaller than objects that are closer to the camera. This composition is effective at creating a sense of depth in an image.

Even though all of these headstones are identical in size in this photo, the angle at which they are shot makes some appear smaller. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION
headstones at Arlington National Cemetery
Even though all of these headstones are identical in size in this photo, the angle at which they are shot makes some appear smaller.
Photo by: DINFOS PAVILION
VIRIN: 200626-D-ZW071-0005

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