Archive for April, 2011

Composition principles: Borders & Framing

Cours Mirabeau 2 A little later than intended, I return to the idea underlying this blog: the discussion of basic composition principles. This time around, I had planned to post on the joint subjects of borders and framing. Instead, I found that though the two are closely related, they could not be easily merged without leaving too many details and variants out.

Typical So, instead, I delved a little deeper to bring you two separate articles:

Once again, all samples are taken from submissions by members of the Flickr group Learn Composition by Example.

My thanks to all those who participated, offering up the hundred-plus images that provided two full sets of 18 plus one examples.


Just as I am about to call it quits for today, I stumble across a new post from my Flickr friend Nina Skottun (guerriere). I had no choice but to give it its due write-up.

# 1

We hear it all the time: less is more. Sometimes, this is blatantly untrue. But if you want to capture the purity of emotional impact, then it is a statement that cannot be matched. A single flower – white on a white background; the only details slight variations of shading and two touches of soft colour, gold and green. How much less could we ask for?

And yet it is a scene that compels almost meditative calm. While the subject is the rich touch of colour within the frame, it is wrapped in gentle folds: precious, but allowed space. Can we view this with anything short of reverence?

I am sure that most people considering the composition here would pick up on the pairing of the positioning of the spadix across a golden ratio intersection, and the soft, slightly out of focus wrap of the spathe, tinged in delicate green. And while these are unquestionably central to the intrinsic appeal of this image, I believe the crowning touch is an even subtler element: on the right side of the image, the texture of that spathe is just in focus, clearly providing us with leading lines in the enveloping negative space. Subtle, perhaps unseen by most on first glance, but noted by the subconscious.

A flower shot that floats effortlessly above the crowds.


It feels like forever since the last time my friend Elise Hibbard (elise*marie) last posted to Flickr. She returns in blazing form.

First seeing this image, I was struck with two impressions. One was that it just worked: moody and evocative. The other that it looked to be breaking every rule there is. How could these two feelings coexist?

Quite clearly, this is photo-montage. A translucent window floating in the middle of a countryside scene does not happen otherwise (short of a little fantastic writing). It is not a realm of photography I generally feel attracted to… except for Elise’s work that captures a sense of considered balance; artwork that has been carefully planned to be self-explanatory.

So why does this one stand out? There are so many things about it that should make it fail. Centring is generally agreed not to be optimal composition. The height of the window is a exact third (well, very nearly) of the entire frame rather than being based on golden ratios. There is even a harsh streak across the sky that looks almost like a crayon mark (yes, I know it’s a contrail).

I believe the answer lies in the incongruity of the scene. It is, fundamentally, magical. A portal into an alternate reality: so unnatural that it needs to break rules. That explains why it works floating dead centre.

As for the ratios, while the height is based on thirds, the width of the frame is very close (not quite exact, but close enough to work) to filling the space between the horizontal golden ratios. Hence the balance is horizontal rather than vertical, which acts as a counter to the stepping up through the rest of the image implied by the textured surfaces, all of which have such detail as to be fascinating.

One detail I find quite amazing about the whole image is that despite it being sepia, and thereby a single colour, the brightness of the window frame against the glass makes that element feel just slightly monochrome against the colour of the background. Not bad at all for a single-colour image. That harshness of contrast is matched throughout the rest of the image, but in a way that still provides a great depth of texture and detail.

So far, every element mentioned here has been about symmetry. But there is really nothing symmetrical about this shot. There is a contrast of worlds between the bottom and top halves (is the window representative of passing between them, rather than to some alternate dimension?) The gradient of motion across the sky, with trees bordering one side and the contrail anchoring the window from the outside, throw any sense of equality between the two sides. So while the whole is centred and balanced, it still manages to include dimensional dynamics.

This is also a wonderful twist on the concept of image framing; the twist, of course, is that it is framed from the inside rather than the outside. Inversion.

A beautiful example of when breaking the rules is really the right way to go.


The next entry in The Image Composer is a fun shot from my Flickr contact Marcus Lam (DodogoeSLR), who can now break his fast the way he likes to… with crunchy cereal.


The diptych is a long-standing and quite traditional form of composition. Two parts; two panels. Complementary or in opposition, there are many ways they can be combined. It is quite unusual to find a photographer who can effortlessly craft an image that is a natural diptych, without it looking forced and fake.

In this image, the simplicity of the subject – combined with the unappetising brilliance of the cereal’s palette – and the degrees of contrast between the two halves make the whole work wondrously. Colour versus monochrome. Chaos versus order. Live against the stillness of death. Sharp focus contrasted with the insubstantial fade under liquid.

And that the division between the halves is not straight, but rather an S-curve reminiscent of yin and yang, creates a circular complementary balance; the one spilling into the other displacing it. Motion despite stillness.

If the balance were the only compositional aspect of this image, it would work, but not stand out and catch one’s attention. But there are other more subtle elements at play. The whole is framed – held in place by three corners that grant perception of the world beyond the bowl (even that it be white). And then there is the placement of the spoon itself: leading line into the circular motion, and an anchor.

Excellent photography that brings together so many elements effortlessly.

Soft touch

Another of my Flickr contacts, Allison (snippets_from_suburbia), provides the latest sample of excellent photographic composition:


It is not often that I would choose an image that includes lens flare to laud. In this case, however, it is an integral part of the composition. This is a picture about the light touch of ideas, and how they germinate once rested upon the soil of one’s mind.

An idea – planted in the mind, nourished sometimes, neglected others – often grows despite receiving neither care nor tending. One can try to pluck at certain ideas to remove them, but the roots are often deep, they take hold, they burrow down into the psyche and consume each moment of one’s day.

As such, the inclusion of such an extreme stretch of negative space – for the thought to grow into – is vital; the subject (itself, interestingly, firmly rooted into the bright surface of mind) is is almost entirely below the secondary golden ratio.

Within all that room, the gradient provided by the lens flare does three things:

  • it represents the light that is needed for a germinated idea to sprout roots and grow.
  • it provides interest and texture to the background
  • it anchors an image that would otherwise be horizontally symmetrical

It is this last point that makes the whole picture work: the subject is centred, yet there are touches that provide a horizontal dynamic. One is the lens flare. The other more subtle: the ever so slight tilt of the seed’s line upwards to the left is counterbalanced by the shadow of its pod, sharply down to the left. Direction. Motion.

Overall, a stunning combination of power and delicacy; of simplicity and deep meaning.


I am a little surprised at myself with this latest post from my Flickr contact Nick Pastinica (lightwelder); it is taking a very different approach to the subject of composition, but one no less important or valid.


To date, all aspects of composition I have dealt with on this site have had to do with the positioning of elements around the area of an image. So, why not consider how they are positioned – and interact – in depth?

This photo of Doina is a perfect example of how the arrangement of elements, to interact through superposition, can compel. When first I viewed this, my immediate response was to admire the subtle and delicate depth of emotion. It brought to mind the intensity of admiration people say the Mona Lisa invokes. (I should probably point out that while I fully appreciate the technical proficiency displayed in rendering that famed portrait, I have never understood why people think her expression so enigmatic.)

That the three dominant lines of water cut through an eye, along the nose, and finish by framing the other half of the subject’s face allows us to give attention where it belongs: to the mystery of identity. Indeed, it is important in this case that it is the water rather than the face in focus, for it softens Doina’s expression, while providing intense slivers of (distorted) focus through aquatic refraction. That those lines are part of a more complex – haphazard – pattern gives the intense allure an entirely natural feel.

Now, there are aspects of this image I think could have been slightly stronger – specifically the horizontal crop – but the mood captured through focal layering more than makes up for that.

Floating Peak

Just as I was beginning to wonder where the next blog-worthy post would come from, my Flickr contact Ethan (cormend) regales us with this breathtaking view of Cho Oyu.

Floating Peak

A prime example of photographic subtlety and the use of layers, this picture is enough to stop one in his tracks (as I am quite sure the scene arrested the photographer), hence we benefit from it.

The immediate compositional aspect is the slightly crude use of chiaroscuro – the stark contrast between the sombre immediacy of the foreground and the brilliant divinity of the peak (well, Cho Uyu does translate to Turquoise Goddess). This provides foundation: context within which we can view the magnificence of the revealed mountain. That the tonal elements are also physical layers brought together with direction and revelation is a bonus; the incursion of the cloud layer over the left side of the foreground adding greatly to the sense of depth.

The curved leading line within the foreground is another factor giving the scene depth, and a sense of scale: without that detail, we would not know that the col itself is so large, so reinforcing just how the snow cap lords over all below it. (There is an altitude difference of 3450m between viewpoint and mountaintop – the scale here is domineering.)

But perhaps the most effective element of this image’s composition is reflection: the mirroring of the mountain’s shape in the form of the valley, even down to the secondary peak having a matching dip in the line of the foreground. Not perfectly aligned, but unquestionably linking the elements together.


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