The compositional concept of anchoring is actually a meta-technique. In itself, it has many different aspects. Fundamentally, anchoring is about contextualisation and balance. This can manifest itself through the use of other techniques, such as leading lines, foreground interest, negative space or framing.

The basics

Before considering an anchored image, let us first consider one that is unanchored. In this case, the subject would float without definition. There would be no sense of size or scale. There would be no clear indication of which way is up. Or, it a more blunt case, it would simply be ungrounded… such as a shot of a person with their feet missing from the frame. Incomplete. Out of situ.

An anchored image includes one element (or sometimes multiple elements) that – while not the main subject – is so vital that if it were missing, the feel of the picture would be completely different. The whole would be adrift.

White rope in black and white by ben.pearson.007

White rope in black and white
The rope reaching away from the coil, to the corner, is classic anchoring. It gives meaning to the subject – not just a coil for the sake of it, but storage of the loose end of a working rope. The position into the corner also holds the tilt of the shot in place, giving reason to the angle of the pier.

Chained by Art Rock (Hennie)

Another classic anchoring example, the lines all going into the corners hold the image firmly in place. The screw placed on the primary golden ratio intersection also anchors the image with balance – a natural resting place for the eye from which it can travel the length of the lines and back.

Leading lines

One of the first forms of anchoring that comes to mind when considering the concept is the use of leading lines, especially those attaching the subject to a corner of the frame.

why did the butterfly by jenny downing

why did the butterfly?
Does this image need the stem of the flower to guide us to the subjects? No. but it does need that leading line to balance the scene. In this case, the anchoring line provides a sense of flow through the scene – supported by the background luminosity – which is against the line of the subjects. Any other position would have left the whole unstable.

Foreground interest

In landscape photography, and generally any large-scale scene, the use of a foreground element to provide a sense of depth and scale is a standard practice. This is nothing but anchoring. It provides a close context that the viewer can reach, before plunging into the further depths of the image.

The Two Worlds of Herbert Lake by maclobster

The Two Worlds of Herbert Lake
While this scene would be impressive if it contained only the mountains and their reflections, the inclusion of a near-viewer foreground provides a more complete sense of scale and distance. Allows the viewer a route into the image, that starts just a step away. From there – the near anchor – the movement into the far-away scene becomes natural and fluid. There is context given to that distance.


While leading line anchoring connects a subject to the frame through a single strand, often to a corner, baseline anchoring is more brutal in its connection. It does not need to physically connect the subject with the base element, but it does use a more complete side to do it. This type of anchoring is very much about providing a sense of context. It is similar to foreground interest (indeed, certain forms of foreground interest, as the one above, are also baseline anchoring), but does not need provide the sense of depth.

Gold Dust by missnoma..

Gold Dust
The base of this image does not work as foreground interest – indeed, it is half at the same distance as the main subject, and half further away – but as a body provides context for the one cluster of canola flowers which dominates the scene. It holds it in position, providing (in conjunction with the cloud doing the same) a sense of up-ness.

The secondary subject

A combination of the (virtual) leading line and foreground interest (that may not necessarily be all that fore), the secondary subject provides a starting point from which to explore a wider image.

Capstick, Cabot Trail, Nova Scotia by Pavel M

Capstick, Cabot Trail, Nova Scotia
The house here gives the viewer something to hold on to within the wide expanse of the shoreline scene; itself even anchored to the edge of the frame by the loop of driveway. That is sits on a line that extends out into the opposite side of the image provides the direction of movement.

A supporting base

The concept of anchoring mentioned in the introduction, regarding inclusion of a person’s feet, applies equally to images of objects. By providing something to rest on, and either a shadow or reflection, there is a sense of placement and stability. Indeed, there is no need for the complete subject. It is the point of contact – that anchoring – that is paramount.

faceted by jenny downing

The key element in this image – the one without which it would not work despite the beautiful dynamic range – is that small touch of shadow/reflection where it makes contact with the background surface. A very simple detail that holds the whole in place. Context and support.

Negative space

All the above examples have dealt with anchoring as the presence of an element to stabilise the image. In the case of negative space anchoring, it is the absence of an element – the use of emptiness to balance the subject – that fulfils this role.

where did it all go, I wonder? by kate mellersh

The emptiness in this image – the space into which the cat is looking – provides the balancing element for the scene. The plug chain is a nice additional touch – a leading line – to emphasise both direction and emptiness. This space is required to give the scene meaning. While there is no secondary subject that is visibly holding Lola’s attention, the negative space provides the concept of something for her to wonder about.

GothamCity by Auribins

This anchoring example is a mix between leading lines and negative space. That the emptiness goes to the corners (well, almost) provides a sense of stability to draw the subjects in, together. This emptiness is like glue between the pieces.

Distracting the abstract

Abstract imagery is, by its very nature, somewhat indistinct and vague. The use of a small element – usually in a corner or near an edge – working in a way similar to foreground interest, can help the image stabilise.

Abstraction with Green Distraction by sannesu

Abstraction with Green Distraction
Without the one in-focus element across the corner of this image, it would be just another vague and out of focus collection of soft colours. With the leaf to anchor it, there is a sense of stability to the whole, and the indistinct nature of the main area takes on a balanced feel.

Using corners

As we have seen with basic line anchoring, corners are very powerful tools. As the intersection of two dominant lines, they are obvious points at which to attach elements, thereby anchoring scenes.

to calibrate or not to calibrate … by Mauritius100

to calibrate or not to calibrate ...
The soft area of reflected light in this image, leading from the water down to the left corner, serves a similar function to foreground interest or a secondary subject. While the rest of the scene may be the real draw, it is the anchor that gives it context and leads the viewer into the greater picture.


While I started this post by mentioning that one general form of anchoring is providing a base for a subject, the inverse is also true. Anchoring may come in the form of a tight containing crop – the elimination of details in the extremities. As this will translate into a feeling of constriction, it needs to be used to emphasise an emotional concept. This form of anchoring needs to be accompanied by other compositional mechanisms: containment restricts movement, so the right combination of lines within the remaining space is needed to keep the image interesting.

Inside by aftab.

While every extremity appears chopped off in this composition – fingers, elbows, shoulder, head – it is the tightness of the frame that holds the subject in place, constricting her movement and providing the emotional story behind the shot. This is then balanced by the internal triangular composition, which keeps a flow within the restricted area.

Sympathetic anchoring

This last anchoring theme could easily have been my twist. It works best in subtle scenes, where much is either blacked or whited out. It relies on the scene being balanced between the elements (there need to be at least three, and of similar prominence). Sympathetic anchoring does not connect the image to the frame, but uses each of a set of elements to balance each other within the wider space.

The Ground Floor by cormend

The Ground Floor
The three elements of this scene – steps, rail and window – all offer a similar weight to the luminosity of the whole. And while the foreground connects to the edge of the frame, it is the interaction between the elements that holds them together in balance. Each anchors the other two; a symbiosis.


I will now fill out the 18 images in this article with a gallery; other examples of the above-covered forms of anchoring.

Promenade des Anglaise, Nice last Saturday. by guerriere

Promenade des Anglaise, Nice last Saturday.
This is a combination between baseline and leading line anchoring; the foreground subject mostly fills the lower half of the image, but also provides enough of a sense of depth and direction within itself to lead through the frame. That it finally leads to an explosion of action, providing a connection point, also has it serving as a supporting base.

Chaussures by Art Rock (Hennie)

Another combination of anchoring methods used here; we have both a baseline at the bottom of the image, providing a contextual starting point down the stairs, but also one foot completely visible above the line of a step, attaching the subject to the flowing curve of leading line that takes us through the image (that the other foot is cut does not matter; context is given by the visible one, and the intuitive understanding of steps).

Preserve the Trees by maclobster

Preserve the Trees
This example of foreground interests anchoring (of the corner/secondary subject type) has an added benefit: the foreground subject being a bench looking into the scene gives us a psychological attachment to the rest of the image: that seat is us, the viewers. We are it, looking out. There is connection not only in nearness and lead-in, but anthropomorphising of a seat inviting us to use it.

Unwritten by aftab.

While it could be said there is only a single subject in this image, that it is made up of distinct parts allows them to interact and play off each other. The top wire, going corner to corner, is anchored on the diagonal. It, then, provides supporting base anchoring for the primary subject, which is the in-focus elements (themselves anchored to another corner) and the sharp drop of water.

How Small We Are by cormend

How Small We Are
A rainbow – when clear – is always impressive. But when seen in context, as here with baseline anchoring, it takes on a further grandeur. It is given context.

A special twist

To round this article out, an anchoring example that comes at the concept from an unusual perspective. Anchoring… without the anchor.

Disenchanted by neelgolapi

One of the first rules of composition people learn is: do not centre your subject. But like so many rules, it is made to be broken by those who can do it artistically. This example of a centred composition works because the subject itself is complex enough to provide balance. And in doing so, the negative space all around it is just enough – a perfect buffer on all sides to hold the subject in place, anchored by emptiness on all sides!

    • Nina
    • June 26th, 2011

    Seems like you have been away for ages…..

      • Rick Yagodich
      • June 26th, 2011

      I have… went to Croatia and Scotland in search of more pictures of my own, only to be frustrated by the weather. But I am back now.

    • LeFred
    • August 4th, 2013

    Hi Rick !
    I learnt a lot through you blog and your Flickr articles. Thank you very much.

    However, I have a question regarding image corners. I read in a lot of other sites that “you should not split corners”, but I found very few justification about it.
    I only found some hypothesis about the way splitting a corner with a leading line could emphasize the opposite corner and draw the implied diagonal, cutting the image in two static halves. Worse, we could end up with a unwanted exit point either in the cut corner (but when it is an entry point, can it be an exit point at the same time ?), or in the opposite corner (couldn’t a visual barrier take care of this problem ?).
    I notice you like anchoring leading line right in the corners. What do you think of this problem ?

    Finally, I have an article suggestion : maybe you could write something about the way we can extend a visual path, and hide the subject or the key of an image until the viewer is ready to see it, in order to increase his enjoyment.

    Best Regards.

    • By their very nature, lines are bidirectional. It needs changing shape – be that chevrons or perspective thinning – to have any sense of direction. As such, the difference between a line acting as an entry and an exit point in an image can be reduced to interest and attitude (of the image, and the viewer, respectively).
      When editing my own images, I have many times needed to adjust an angle or a crop to get a sharp line to fit neatly into a corner – because when it is close but not quite, it really throws off the balance.

    • LeFred
    • August 7th, 2013

    Thank you for your answer.
    I didn’t understand I could give myself a direction to lines.
    As for angles, I think I will have to find what works best for me, but I have to admit I share your inclination for neatly positioned lines.
    Best regards.

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