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[Part 1] Professionals Composition Techniques – “Visual Guidance”, “Unexpectedness”, and “Subtraction”

In the following, I will introduce more advanced compositions. I have gathered some basic but effective composition techniques that are also employed by professional photographers. Try acquiring them to enhance the level of your photographic works. (Reported by: Tatsuya Tanaka)

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Learning compositions to improve your photographic works

After you have learned the basic techniques such as the Rule of Thirds and centered composition, let’s try challenging more of those composition techniques that professionals utilize. The compositions that I will introduce below are not ones that simply divide the frame into two or three parts, but ones that take into consideration the position of the subject inside the image, the close relationship between the main and sub themes, as well as the perspective of the viewer. Doing so helps to enhance the quality of your works significantly. Start by remembering the steps one by one, followed by combining the different composition patterns to produce shots that are closer to your photographic intention. Let's begin by looking at the different composition techniques.

Use streams and roads to direct the viewers’ attention

Visual Guidance

A diagonal composition is employed to arrange elements in an image based on a diagonal line. For example, you can make use of diagonal lines formed by a mountain slope, river flow, or a road to emphasize the perspective, thereby bringing out movement as well as depth in the image. An easy way to create a diagonal composition is to capture a waterfall or stairs from the side so that the inclination becomes more obvious. Yet another technique is to make use of two intersecting diagonal lines forming an "X" shape to gather the viewer's attention on the point of intersection. However, note that including a diagonal line too deliberately may result in a monotonous composition that merely divides the image into two halves.

Using railway tracks to guide viewers' attention to the train

This composition focuses on the train that came out of the tunnel. In the left example, the tunnel is located at a slightly lower position from the top, causing the viewer's attention to fall on the autumn foliage on the hill above the tunnel. In contrast, when the tunnel is positioned at the top, as illustrated in the right example, the railway track that extends out successfully guides the viewer to the tunnel.

Bending farm road guides viewers' attention to the house

This composition focuses on the thatched-roof house that stands beyond the rice field. The left example is a typical contrast composition with the house located at the far end of the rice field. In the right photo, however, the farm road is captured, which acts as a tool to convey the photographer's intentions by guiding the viewer's attention from the road to the house through the rice field.

Element of unexpectedness from a different point of view


To create a sense of unexpectedness in a composition, alter the angle of the lens and position of the camera that is directed at the subject to photograph from a different viewpoint. This technique is especially recommended for those who tend to end up with a monotonous composition, such as capturing the subject from a relaxed posture, or from a fixed height when a tripod is used. Changing the angle of the lens or camera naturally results in a different composition. When you are using a wide-angle lens, in particular, adjusting the height by several tens of centimeters would often bring dramatic changes to the final image. Meanwhile, for close-up shots of subjects such as flowers, movement by a few centimeters would result in a completely different composition.

"Choosing the correct angle" adds impact to a photo

Here, I took a shot of a gorilla resting from a telephoto focal length. While the atmosphere is relaxed, the photo merely captured the ambience and environment.

This is another shot of the same gorilla. Simply by changing the shooting position and focal length, the resulting atmosphere turns out dramatically different. I observed its expressions and captured the instant when it put its finger into the mouth.

In this shot, I positioned two chimpanzees on the left and right to make them seem like a couple. Here, I determined the composition while imagining what a third party would feel when s/he saw this image.

Subtract elements to define the main theme


Whenever a shot is taken hastily, or when you fail to check the composition through the viewfinder, unwanted objects are often captured in the resulting photo. This is particularly so in the peripheral areas of the image, and when the viewfinder coverage of the camera is less than 100%. "Subtraction" is a technique to omit unwanted elements from the composition. To do so, start by checking the image on the rear LCD monitor after releasing the shutter. Next, eliminate elements from the composition according to your intended image, followed by taking another shot. Cultivate the habit to always recompose a shot.

Bring out the main theme with a simple composition

A shot of a lakeside surrounded by verdant green. The left example provides a clear depiction of the environment, while unwanted elements have been removed in the example on the right, which results in a composition that effectively emphasizes the trees, which are the main theme.

The left example is a "greedy" composition that attempts to capture everything that is in view from the shooting position. However, doing so causes the photographic intention to become vague. In contrast, the intention is clear in the right shot when the background is omitted.

Tatsuya Tanaka

Born in 1956, Tanaka is one of the rare photographers who produce works across a wide variety of genres from an original perspective. These genres range from objects in our daily lives, such as insects and flowers, to landscapes, skyscapes, and celestial bodies. Besides photography, Tanaka has also developed his own approach in post processes including retouch and printing.