Petteri's Composition Class 4: Geometry (1/2)

Started Feb 3, 2003 | Discussions thread
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Petteri Sulonen Forum Pro • Posts: 24,585
Petteri's Composition Class 4: Geometry (1/2)

Well, it's been a while... but I've had a busy couple of weeks and little time for photographic pursuits, and as I mentioned, I don't want this to turn into a chore. However, I have been writing a bit one day, a bit more the other, and this is what I've come up with. Enjoy!


In the previous Lessons, we've gone over some general principles about making photographs. The first lesson, the Rule of Thirds, introduced a widely usable principle that helps decide where to put the subject . The second one, Simplicity, was about taking out what's unnecessary and concentrating on the important. The third one, The Phony Subject, was about adding something to a picture to make it more interesting or dynamic.

The previous lessons have more or less taken the subject, or main interest, of the photograph as a given. This one is different: its purpose is to give ideas about "what to photograph," not in terms of subjects, but in terms of what to look for in subjects or compositions. To get beyond the three K's (that pictures with children, animals, or beautiful women will usually win out over pictures without them; ask Chuck what the K's stand for), we're staying at a somewhat abstract level.

We're going to look at geometrical elements, and how to use them in a composition.


Geometrical elements are rarely very good as subjects, primary or secondary. Instead, they serve an auxiliary role, helping pull the picture together. They have at least three common and very important uses:

1. The leading line

A leading line does what it says: it leads the eye from one part of the picture to another: from the foreground to the background, the secondary subject to the main subject (but very rarely the other way round). The leading line adds motion to an otherwise static picture and ties different elements in it together. Diagonals and arcs or other unclosed curves make good leading lines.

2. The spatial divider

A spatial divider divides the picture into discrete areas, which work together to make the composition. Not all pictures are based on areas, but sometimes areas can make for a strong composition even in the absence of clear points of interest. Triangles are particularly useful as spatial dividers, but other elements (diagonals, open curves) can perform the role as well.

3. The framing element

A framing element serves to focus attention on the main subject. It usually covers at least two edges of the picture and can intrude a good way into it, sometimes taking up most of the space in it. For this to work, the framing element has to have some interesting characteristics of its own: color, texture, or shape. Bold, geometric shapes can work very well as framing elements: triangles or arcs work especially well. Usually, framing elements should be lower-key and more muted than the main subject: they are not meant to distract, but to focus, even when the actual point of the picture is the framing element, such as with some of the Phony Subject examples.

(... continued ...)

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