Compose like a pro
We examine what makes some images just jump off the page
It’s the fine details that elevate a good composition to a great one. The main aims of composition are to arrange the elements in the frame to create a balance and, crucially, to give the impression of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface.
Most photographers quickly understand the concept of the rule of thirds and the golden section as ways of achieving harmony. Using leading lines to guide the eye around the composition, and making use of foreground interest to create the illusion of depth, also soon become second nature.
More complex – but critically important – is the concept of ‘visual balance’. Visual balance is comparable to physical balance. If we place two objects of equal weight on a seesaw, they need to be equidistant from the fulcrum to achieve balance. Translated to visual balance, this creates symmetry – harmonious, but perhaps somewhat static. With objects of different weights, the lighter object needs to be further away from the fulcrum in order to balance them. In visual terms, this creates asymmetric balance, usually perceived as more dynamic.
Understanding this principle can help us when it comes to placing the main elements in the frame. It’s common to have a main focal point and a ‘counterpoint’ in a composition, so we need to know where to place them to achieve balance. Clearly, we can’t consider the physical weight of our focal points, so what contributes to ‘visual weight’? The main factors are size, colour and brightness (bright, saturated colours have more ‘weight’), contrast, texture and shape – with high contrast, complex texture and complex shapes having greater weight. It’s also worth noting that objects placed towards the top of the frame have more visual weight than those near the centre.
Closely related to this is visual separation. Make sure that the main elements in your composition have visual separation from each other and the right amount of space around them – too little and depth perception is decreased, too much and the eye will not travel smoothly from one point to the next. The same is true for the foreground, middle distance and background planes.
“Make sure that the main elements have visual separation from each other and the right amount
of space around them”