3 Compositional Rules
Visual artists have long understood intuitively that the use of diagonal elements is yet another way to create drama in a one-dimensional composition. Diagonal lines can lead the eye through an image and help to generate a sense of movement. In landscape photography, diagonals are often formed using roads, streams, walls, or other linear features.
|This image has clear diagonals formed by the model's arms and the
flowing cloth used in the setting. These elements draw the viewer's
eye across the image.
When photographing people, the silhouette of a model's arm, leg or back can be used. It's important to understand that compositional diagonals need not be limited to explicit lines or the edges of a shape. The concept of diagonals can be used as a way of positioning elements in the scene, in much the same manner as the rules we discussed previously.
How does this work? Draw imaginary lines coming from the corners of the frame at 45 degree angles, as shown below, and place significant elements along these lines. In the first image below, note how the model's eye, left foot, and the lens of the camera near her feet are placed exactly on diagonals from the image's corners. The handle of the umbrella lies on an anchor point where two diagonals intersect.
|Here is an image that observes
the Diagonal Method.
|The same scene, but with a
different, non-'diagonal' crop.
The second image is a take from the same shoot that does not observe the Diagonal Method. The frame feels 'cramped', with the camera case too close to the bottom of the frame. And there is not enough of the foreground in the image, relative to the amount of vertical space above the model.
Dutch photographer Edwin Westhoff has formulated what he calls 'The Diagonal Method' as a compositional rule that encapsulates this idea. He has a very good article with numerous examples that explains this approach in more depth.
Putting these rules to use
Knowing how to draw attention to an element begs the question of just what exactly you should be trying to highlight. How do you know which elements of a scene these rules are best applied to?
Think about the focal points of the image. Are you trying to draw the viewer's attention to a particular landscape feature? A model's eye? A product? Compositional elements need not be explicit features such as the stamen of a flower or a product such as a piece of jewelry. Think about using changes in color and texture or negative and positive space in relation to these rules.
As with any technique, the way to familiarize yourself with it is through conscious practice. Start with the Rule of Thirds (it's the easiest to visualize) and try framing images through the camera's viewfinder or LCD with it in mind. This is a great way to learn how to 'see' compositions and begin internalizing the technique.
Golden Ratio and Diagonals will most certainly be easier to practice post-exposure via cropping. Few, if any of us can visualize nested rectangles while we're shooting, for example. Many popular editing programs even offer crop overlays for these compositional techniques, making it very easy to start applying them.
Of course, these rules are only a sampling of the myriad techniques at your disposal for achieving a pleasing composition. Others are formulated around ideas of color balance, selective focus, foreground to background weight, framing, geometry...the list goes on. The rules I've discussed are a good starting point though for thinking critically about composition.
I highly recommend these rules as useful tools to help create dynamic, interesting images. But as with any creative endeavor, these rules should be taken more as suggestions rather than strict dogma. Yes, it pays to consciously apply them for a while, but do not let them be the only voices you listen to during your creative process. Indeed, it is by having an understanding of the theory behind these rules that you can sometimes create dramatic and surprising images by deliberately breaking them. And that's a topic I will explore in an upcoming article. Stay tuned.
Thomas Park is a fashion / fine art photographer and educator based in Seattle, Washington. To follow his work, please visit http://www.thomasparkphoto.com.
Models: Nicole Cooper, Lyssa Chartrand, Beth K, Amelia T, Karren S. Hair and Makeup: Taryn Hart, Danyale @ Pure Alchemy, Dawn Tunnell, Michael Hall, Amy Gillespie, Ashley Gray, Julia Ostrovsky. Beth appears courtesy Seattle Models Guild. Nicole wears Kyra K and vintage Ann Taylor. Beth wears Neodandi. Amelia wears Wai-Ching. Karren wears Cloak and Dagger NYC and Eugenia Kim.