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[Part 2] Composition Basics! “Main Theme & Sub-theme” and “Triangular Composition”

In part 2 of the easy-to-understand guide for basic knowledge of composition, the relationship between "main theme" and "sub theme" is explained which is the first thing you want to focus when taking a shot. Also, the "triangular composition" is introduced for capturing shots with stability. This article is ideal for those who have never paid attention to the composition when taking a photo. Let's learn the basics with the use of illustrations and photo examples. (Reported by: Tatsuya Tanaka)

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Determining the Leading and Supporting Roles in a Composition. "Main Theme & Sub-theme"

Look for sub-themes to bring out the main theme

Sub-theme looks like the main theme.

Red: Main theme

Blue: Sub-theme

Though they may come in a different color or shape, the main theme and sub-theme cannot be clearly defined if they appear equally large in an image. In this shot, the sub-theme in the foreground, which is lighter in color, may appear more prominent than the main theme to some viewers.

Main theme and sub-theme are indistinguishable.

Red: Main theme

Blue: Sub-theme

Viewed from the front, the tractor appears small in size and indistinctive due to the dark colors, making it difficult to identify the main theme.

Place the main theme at the center and adjust the size it appears.

Red: Main theme

Blue: Sub-theme

Here, I made adjustments to the position of the main theme and also how large it appears in the image. Doing so makes it easy to identify the red tractor as the main theme.

"Main Theme & Sub-theme": Pay attention to the focus and layout according to the role

The main theme and sub-theme of a composition can be likened respectively to the leading role and supporting role of a stage performance. Failure to maintain a good balance between them will result in a photo that is unable to convey the intention of the photographer. You should therefore devise ways to make the main theme appear most charming by considering carefully factors such as where to place the main theme, which angle to capture it from, and how much space it occupies in the composition.
Yet another important consideration is the position of the focus. Regardless of how large a subject appears in an image, it would not become the main theme if the subject is not in focus. The example below illustrates how the main theme varies with the point in focus. When you are taking a shot, bear in mind to assign different roles to the main theme and the sub-theme.

Main theme changes with the point in focus

On a rainy day, establishing the focus on the trees blurs the rain, allowing the trees to be defined as the main theme.

When focus is set on the rain, the trees blend into the background, making the rain the main theme.

Tip: Placement of the main theme in pan focus state

In a pan focus state where focus is achieved throughout the entire image, it would be effective to place the main theme in the most prominent location within the composition, and contrast it with the sub-themes in the surroundings.

"Triangular Composition" for a Stable Impression

Creating a triangle in the subject

Triangular composition with the tapered roof as the vertex.

In this upward view of a building with a triangular roof, a triangular composition is employed with the main theme occupying the entire frame. The shape of the architectural structure is broad at the base, and tapers off toward the roof at the center. A large triangle can therefore be created by bringing out the contour of the building.

Triangular composition using a tree and its shadow.

A simple composition that captures a tree standing on a snowfield together with its shadow. Although the tree alone forms a triangular shape, including the shadow allows you to create a larger triangle.

"Triangular Composition": Forming a triangle within the image

Triangular composition is a technique for composing a shot by forming a triangle within the image. For example, you can employ it to capture triangular objects such as a pine tree as your main theme, or to form a triangle using three points, one each at the two sides of a river and one at the upstream, when you are looking down at the river from a bridge above. Triangles with a broad base, such as that of a pyramid, are capable of creating stability in the composition. Also, you can make use of different types of triangles to compose a shot, including a reverse triangle. While the triangular composition may be a widely-employed and convenient technique, some precautions are needed. For instance, avoid excessive emphasis of the triangle, as this may direct your attention to the center of the image, thereby overlooking unwanted objects that are captured in the peripheral areas.

Composition using a reverse triangle

Capturing the wide crater in a reverse triangle composition.

The crater lake of the volcano, which forms a reverse triangle, is positioned at the center of the composition.

Triangular composition created by a cluster of flowers.

In this shot, tiny flowers that cluster closely together form an equilateral triangle, which helps to create a well-balanced composition.

Tip: Combining multiple triangles

If the subject is triangular in shape, it would be interesting to compose a shot that comprises multiple triangles. Try challenging graphical expression that directs the attention of the viewer to a certain point, or by creating regular patterns.

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.