Photo Tip: 5 Elements to Consider in Composition

Many see a photo they like but cannot tell you why they like it.  Often the key is the use of one of the following elements within the image. Are they the only elements of composition?  No, but this group are some of the most common and easy ones to incorporate.  If you know and understand them, you can incorporate these ingredients into your compositions.

As you review these elements, keep in mind that you don’t need all of these in a single image.  Matter of fact, most often only one of the elements will be used in a strong composition, but that one is enough to carry the viewer through the image and effectively convey the feeling of the artist.

Pattern

There are patterns all around us if we only learn to see them. Patterns are more obvious in macro-photography and man-made designs, but also exist on the grand scale in nature. Emphasizing and highlighting these patterns can lead to striking shots – as can high lighting when patterns are broken.

Zebras, the 'poster boys' of patterns. Please note that the pattern is just the stripes, but the repitition of the zebras themselves - Photo © Justin Eleazer

Patterns are once more created in the repeating back lines and horns of the sable. The lone impala creates an effective contrast to add interest - photo © Justin Eleazer

Symmetry

Symmetry is a really powerful tool.  Use it with care.  Symmetry can work, but can also cause a lack of interest.  The ‘rule of thirds’, for example, is based on the idea of asymmetry having a more pleasing feel that symmetry. Depending upon the scene – symmetry can be something to go for – or to avoid completely.

The key to symmetry working in an image is to have a strong point of interest.  Without the strong point of interest the eye will not instinctively flow through the image.

Symmetry: The lone tree and sun work well in this image - © P. B. Eleazer

Symmetry - The symmetry works because the croc's teeth create a dominant point of interest - Photo © P. B. Eleazer

Texture

Photos are flat, two dimensional artwork yet with the clever use of ‘texture’ they can have the feel of a third dimension.

When looking to incorporate textures, I my mind always goes to the axiom that light illuminates and shadows define.  Use the light and shadow to create the illusion of that third element.

Textures - Note how the shadows enhance the textures on this elephant's ears - Photo © P. B. Eleazer

Depth of Field

The depth of field that you select when taking an image will drastically impact the composition of an image. In macro photography, it is one of the most important tools to separate the subject from the background.  It can easily be used in wildlife also.

It can isolate a subject from its background and foreground with a large aperture (small f-stop), you can minimize distractions in the image.  The telephoto lenses used in safari photography work well to create separation, but any lens is up to the task.  While we like using this technique, be careful to use enough depth to have the key elements in your composition tack sharp.

Depth of Field - This warthog is easily separated from the out of focus region in the distant background - photo © Justin Eleazer

Depth of Field - This image evokes a powerful feeling which is enhanced by the controlled depth of field - photo © P. B. Eleazer

Leading Lines

This ‘element’ is the most natural one for me to use in my landscape photography.  Leading lines create flow.  They draw the eye to key focal points in a shot.  This progression through the image helps create a harmony when looking at the composition..

Leading lines can be diagonal, horizontal, vertical and converging lines.  My preference is the diagonal line and I most often use this line coming from the lower left of the image and pregressing toward the upper right side of the frame, but this note is added as commentary.  You can use leading lines in many, many ways.  The key is that you need to spot the leading lines while framing a shot and then utilized this element to strengthen it.

Leading lines - Note how the angle of the background grasses merge with the leading diagonal line of the fish eagle to guide the eye - photo © P. B. Eleazer

Leading Lines - here a simple dirt mound effectively creates a leading line to the carmine bee eater

Combinations of Elements

We have noted that a single element is all that is needed.  You will probably never have an image with all 5 of the above elements.  Matter of fact, if you did, the image would probably be confusing to the eye.  However, in some of the images above, you may see a secondary element that also helps build the image.  Below is another example of combining elements.

Combined Elements - The fish eagle has strong leading lines in the image, but just as important is symetry as the white body and sharp eyes create the strong focal point. - photo © P. B. Eleazer

Combining Elements - In this image, the foreground hippos provide leading lines to the upper right hippo, however the textures of the water and of the hippo heads are also key elements in this image - photo © Justin Eleazer

Summary

Many camera owners are ‘picture takes’ who take ‘snapshots’.  this is fine if all you wish to do is to document an event.  However, it is just as easy for a camera owner to create images that are ‘wall hangers’, images that everyone wants a copy of and that you will want to frame.  To transition from picture taker to photographer is as easy as understanding a few elements to consider while looking through the viewfinder of your camera.  If you can master the five elements above, you will begin to shoot winning compositions.

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