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Composition Basics (2): Main and Secondary Subjects; Triangles

Now that you have decided on what to include in your frame and ensured that your image is horizontally and vertically straight, the next thing you want to decide on is your subject: Where do you want your viewers’ attention to be focused on? In this article, we look at primary and secondary subjects. At the end, you will also learn another technique for creating stable images. (Reported by: Tatsuya Tanaka)

 

Main and secondary subjects: Your leading and supporting actors

Main and secondary subject icon

The main (primary) and secondary subjects in a photograph are like the lead and supporting characters in a movie respectively. If you don’t balance them well, you won’t be able to convey your photographic intent to the viewer.

 

The main subject

As your lead character, the main subject should capture most of the viewer’s attention. You should make it stand out by giving careful consideration to factors such as:

- Where to place it
- Which angle to capture it from
- How much space it occupies in the composition

 

The secondary subject

As your supporting character, the secondary subject provides visual support to the main subject. It often does so by balancing out the composition, adding visual interest or drawing more attention to the main subject. It should not compete for attention with the main subject.

For more examples of shots with main and secondary subjects, with a description of how they were created, check out:
Capturing More Attractive Shots of Dishes on the Table
Use a Secondary Subject to Bring Out the Main Subject
Camera FAQ #20: How Do I Photograph Flowers More Dramatically?

 

Common mistakes

1. The secondary subject attracts more attention than the main subject

Tractor and secondary subject same size
Tractor and secondary subject same size (outlined)

Red: Main subject
Blue: Secondary subject

When both the main and secondary subjects appear the same size, they will hold equal attention, all other things remaining constant. Factors such as colour can sway the viewer’s attention. To some viewers, the light green colour of the secondary subject will make it more prominent than the main subject.

 

2. Can’t tell which is the primary and which is the secondary subject

Tractor and shovel side by side
Tractor and shovel side by side

Red: Main subject
Blue: Secondary subject

The objects are now placed side-by-side, but the tractor still commands less attention than ideal because of its darker colour, which makes it look smaller.

 

Solution: Place the main subject at the centre and make sure it looks big in comparison

Main and secondary subject good example

Main and secondary subject good example(diagram)

Red: Main subject
Blue: Secondary subject

Here, I moved closer to the tractor so that it takes up more of the frame. This makes it look larger and more easily identifiable as the main subject. (The gif below compares the first failed shot with the current shot).

Smaller tractor, bigger tractor

 

What you put in focus matters

It is also very important that the main subject be in focus. Regardless of how large a subject appears in an image, it would not get as much attention if it is not in focus.

Trees in focus

This was shot on a rainy day. As the focus was placed on the trees, we can barely see the rain. The tree becomes the main subject.

 

Rain in focus

The same scene, with the focus set on the rain. The trees blend into the background and the rain becomes the main subject.

 

Tip: Where to place the main subject in deep-focused shots
When you need all elements in an image to be in focus, such as in a deep-focused shot, place the main subject in the most prominent location. The secondary subject(s) should be in the surroundings.

 

Triangular composition: A method for creating visual stability

Triangular composition

Triangular composition involves forming or making use of a triangle within the image. Right-side-up triangles are good for creating stability because of the broad base.

 

Examples of triangular composition

1. A triangular-shaped cluster of flowers

Small flowers

Small flowers (Diagram)

The equilateral triangle formed by the tiny cluster of flowers helps to create a well-balanced composition.

 

2. Architectural structures with tapered roofs

Church roof

Church roof (outlined)

The shape of the architectural structure is broad at the base, and tapers off toward the roof at the centre. You can use these contours to create a large triangle in the composition.

 

3. Implied triangular compositions

Tree with shadow in snow

Tree in shadow in snow (showing triangle)

A tree standing on a snowfield together with its shadow form two sides of a right-angled triangle. The tree forms a triangle on its own, but it’s the bigger, implied triangle that are key to the composition.

 

4. Reverse triangles

Lake in crater

EOS RP/ RF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 63mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/5.6, 1/1,034 sec, EV-1)/ ISO 100/ WB: Manual

Lake in crater showing triangle

Reverse triangles or triangles at interesting angles can add a graphically interesting element to an otherwise ordinary shot, like in this shot of a lake in a crater taken with the EOS RP.

 

Tip: Triangles can draw attention to the elements at their apex
Each edge of the triangle functions like a leading line that draws viewers’ attention to whatever is at its apex, or even at each of its corners. You can use this quality to emphasise your main subject. However, be careful of the other, non-essential elements that you place near the area.

~~~

Now that you have learned these concepts, it’s up to you to play with them! Look for the obvious and implied triangles in the things that you see. Experiment with different ways to place primary and secondary subjects, or with how you can use triangles to draw attention to different things in the image. You could even combine the techniques, and use a triangular composition to balance out your primary and secondary subjects.

Next: Professional Composition Techniques (2): “Pattern & Rhythm” & “S-Curve”

 


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Tatsuya Tanaka

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.

http://tatsuya-t.com/