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[Lesson 15] Basics of Composition

Composition greatly affects the impression of a photo. Elements that generally make up composition include the position of the subject in the image, shooting position (high or low) and angle. In this article, let's learn about the basic composition principles. (Report by: Ryosuke Takahashi)

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Basic composition patterns

When we look at an image, the first thing we feel is the general impression we get from it. Unless a particularly eye-catching subject is present, we would try to sense something out of the overall balance of the image. How the subject is positioned determines whether an image conveys a relaxed or tense atmosphere. Composition consists of the position where the subject is placed as well as other factors apart from the subject.

The first step to learning the basics of composition is to determine where to place the subject. A basic composition technique that is commonly employed is the Centre Composition method, which places the subject at the centre of the image. Other types of composition include the Diagonal Composition, which places the subject on the diagonal line to guide the viewer's attention, the S-curve Composition method for bringing out the dynamism of a meandering street or river, and the Rule of Thirds, where an image is divided (both vertically and horizontally) into thirds, and the subject is placed on one of the intersections of the horizontal and vertical lines.

Centre Composition

Useful for portraits and all sorts of other scenes, this basic layout places the subject at the centre of the image.

Diagonal Composition

In this technique, the subject is placed diagonally across the image. It is often employed in landscape shots, and is effective for subjects such as mountain ridges. For example, placing a mountain ridge diagonally helps to create a strong impression.

S-Curve Composition

S-curve Composition can often be found in landscape photos. You can create a dynamic impression by including a distant S-shaped subject in the image, such as a river.

Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds breaks an image vertically and horizontally into thirds, forming nine equally-divided parts. The main subjects are placed on the intersections of these lines. Being one of the most frequently used techniques, the Rule of Thirds is effective for creating a stable composition.

An example of the Rule of Thirds

Program AE (f/10, 1/320 sec)/ ISO 100/ WB: Daylight

In this example, the image is divided into thirds both horizontally and vertically, with the subjects positioned on the intersection of the vertical and horizontal lines. Without any rock in the foreground, there would be a large empty space at the bottom right, which makes the image look unstable. Here, with the rock in front, the composition is well-balanced.

An example of Diagonal Composition

Aperture-priority AE (f/10, 1/100 sec, EV -0.3)/ ISO 100/ WB: Daylight

The wheels are arranged diagonally in this image, which emphasises the depth and creates an interesting atmosphere. If taken directly from the front, the image would have looked bland. The impression a photo gives to the viewer is significantly affected by the shooting position.

Shooting angles and visual effects

In addition to how the subject is positioned, shooting angle is yet another factor that affects the composition significantly. Even when a subject is captured from the same position, it would turn out completely different depending on the angle at which the camera is placed. The illustration explains changes in the visual effects when the camera is held at different heights. It shows clearly that varying the shooting angle affects how both the subject and the background turn out.

  1. High angle
  2. Eye level
  3. Low angle

When the photographer is standing and aims his camera straight at the subject, this shooting angle is called the eye level. If the photographer is looking down at the subject, it is a high angle, while it is a low angle if he is looking up at it.

High-angle shot

Effective for capturing the entire environment, a high-angle shot produces a straightforward depiction with only little perspective effect.

Low-angle shot

Because of the visual effect it creates, a low-angle produces shots with a stronger impact.

Ryosuke Takahashi

Born in Aichi in 1960, Takahashi started his freelance career in 1987 after working with an advertising photo studio and a publishing house. Photographing for major magazines, he has travelled to many parts of the world from his bases in Japan and China. Takahashi is a member of the Japan Professional Photographers Society (JPS).