THE S-CURVE

The principle of the S-curve is one that many people have an intrinsic feeling for, but is very rarely to its fuller potential. Fundamentally, the S-curve is anything that has a S-like shape to it. Where the potential remains unmatched is in the way it is implemented: all too often, S-curves are used as-is- the subject offers a S-like form which provides ready-made composition. However, the stronger S-curves, the real value of them as a compositional tool, is when they are crafted from multiple elements. Unfortunately, of the examples I have pulled together for this article, only a few can boast the combinatory approach.

The basics

The fundamental aspect of an S-curve is that it has three parts – whether merged or disjointed – providing changes in direction. This allows the eye to move along the different lines, through full width body of the image.

Stairs in the Limelight by Pavel M

Stairs in the Limelight
This is a very powerful S-curve: the natural double-curve of the stairway provides three clear directions, and a sense of continuity between them. The eye is drawn along the line, effortlessly travelling the elongated diagonal. That the dominant S is mirrored in the second wall only serves to enhance the need to travel that path.
The strength of this image is such that it reminded my that the S-curve was a principle that needed to be covered.

A frame-filling feature

Perhaps the most powerful feature of the S-curve is that it is fully two-dimensional. Where the leading line will draw one into an image, the S-curve – because it changes direction – can easily fill an area in itself, thereby becoming the subject rather than just a compositional tool (which is probably the reason pre-existing S-like forms so dominate the concept).

Dune 45 by aftab.

Dune 45
A very powerful subject, the curve here is beautifully sinuous. There is no need for detail in either half of the image: cropped tighter, it could be a simple two-tone abstract held together by the completeness of the curve: there is no point within the frame unaffected by it.

Classic S-curves

There are several off-the-shelf S-curves that we all think of instinctively: the road or river is perhaps the most obvious, as it both fills the frame and draws us in to the distance. Another common S-curve is the bird’s neck – particularly the swan’s – that has a natural sinuous grace to it.

s creek steens by ole’ Betsy

s creek steens
A classic S-curve subject example, this gentle form occupies the lower half of the image with ease, despite most of it being on a diagonal. The eye is immediately captured by the changes of direction and drawn in to the second line subject: the distant mountains. These two elements together are comfortably balanced. Of key interest within the lower part of the S is that there is no way into the image from the bottom that does not get caught up in that flow and drawn along the curves.

S-curves from leading lines

Continuation of a leading line

Looking at the category of compound S-curves – those made from multiple elements – perhaps the simplest concept to grasp is the S-curve that derives from a leading line. This is achieved quite simply by having the leading line point to one end of the subject, which is at an angle, and includes a switch-back in its form.

patience is all, sit and wait by kate mellersh

patience is all, sit and wait
While some people may feel that the cat here constitutes an S-curve in herself, for her head is at a slight angle to her body, it is the way she interacts with the crease in the shower curtain that really makes for the compelling flow: down that gully, bending into the line of her body, then flicking off the tail (and then interacting with the expanse of negative space). An S-curve created from multiple elements is inherently stronger than one that exists entirely within the form of a single subject.

Framing leading lines

S-curves can have a slightly different use in leading lines: rather than pointing to the subject, they can “wrap around” the subject. This leading line turns into a framing element as it approaches the subject. Of course, this can all be turned on its head if the S-curve is more prominent and interesting than the subject it is allegedly framing.

Day 64 by elise*marie

Day 64
An interesting image in that its use as an example of framing leading lines in an S-curve is slightly skewed by the background portion of the image being almost lost in haze, such that the structure of the wall and the S-like shape it forms becomes the primary (dominant) subject. Of course, with such compelling texture, a cityscape would always have to play second fiddle. The principle, however, is still clear to see: the protrusion of the S-form at the bottom catches the eye, moving it up the frame; when it is pulled off to the left, up, then flicked to the right at the tip, the eye is left to investigate the scene of buildings, woods and marina.

Visual effects from S-curves

Sense of motion

It is possible to use an S-curve – especially with a living subject – to create a sense of motion: where the eye flows, the subject appears to be moving. Just as an undulating snake looks, in a captured moment, to be moving along its length, this same principle can give motion to any static S-shaped subject that has a directional front and back.

colours by Mauritius100

colours
This image includes S-curves on several levels. There is the largest, between the two out-of-focus foreground elements and the diagonal the lizard is perched upon. Then there is the twisted nature of that perch. Finally, though incomplete, the lizard itself is an S-curve. Because the head and tail are clearly distinguishable, the sense of flow along that last curve is implicit, despite the stillness of the setting: the eye knows which way to follow it, and where to continue beyond the visible.

A sense of depth

As is the case with the classic road and river S-curves, a key strength of the form is that it can easily be used to imply – or emphasise – a sense of distance. The curve is followed into the frame: into the depth of the scene.

foster ss6 by ole’ Betsy

foster ss6
The difference between this image’s composition and a more traditional S-curve is how the S-like shape is defined. The traditional road/river is a sliver through a landscape. This, on the other hand, approaches the subject by carving out the parts that do not form the S with bank. The result – and close foreground positioning – result in a lot of perspective being applied to the S-shape itself. This results in a very effective sense of the distance we are being led into the image.

The figure-8

There is one use of the S-curve that is quite simple, yet easy to overlook: take two S-curves, flip one and overlay them. You end up with a figure-8. So long as the whole provides the joining elements to follow the continuous twin-looped form, this can create a compelling composition with two subjects (where many think three is always a preferable number).

Covered by Art Rock (Hennie)

Covered
This image is a classic figure-8: evidence that a three-way subject is not necessarily better than two. However, it is not the fact that there are two subjects that makes it work: it is the way they are joined. The angles of the lines between them hold them together: the angle of the area clear of snow that points from the top of the left light to the bottom of the right, and even the line the other way where the snow accumulates again, which completes the continuous flow around the two linked elements.

The human body

When it comes to finding subjects that can be used in S-curve compositions, perhaps the most ubiquitous is the human body. It has the advantage of being malleable, and contains enough curves that a pose per se is not always required.

Sculpted by andy_57

Sculpted
This is an interesting S-curve example. It is filled with many S-curve forms, as part of the model’s figure. These, however, are not compositional elements per se; they are the subject. The compositional S-curve in this case is the framing line of her arm and lower torso, which give prominence to her face.

Doesn’t have to be smooth

One of the key implications so far (especially from the samples) has been that S-curves are generally smooth. The lines flow one into the other: a single continuous shape. This does not need to be the case: the Z-shape is just an S-curve inverted and with sharper changes in direction. Indeed, there is no reason that the switch-backs cannot be brutally sharp: one point of the S-curve is to fill an area.

the light of hidden flowers by kate mellersh

the light of hidden flowers
This image is fundamentally an example of a frame-filling S-curve. The shape is the subject, and in its width (though turned on its side) it occupies the entire frame. Many might not instinctively consider this to be an S-curve because the interaction between the three dominant lines are not continuous curves. The reality is that they don’t need to be: the same effect of moving the aye across the wider expanse of the image is fulfilled even with a razor-sharp switch-back.

Two out of three ain’t bad

While the S-curve is fundamentally composed of three lines, which – by virtue of being at different angles – create a sense of area, it is possible to remove the middle element, so long as the other two terminate. The central connector can be implied.

Day 67 by elise*marie

Day 67
There are two dominant lines to this image: from the bottom left corner, and a lighter one reaching down from the right side of the top of the frame. Both these lines terminate within the frame. There is, in this case, subject between the lines, but it is a blob rather than a line. Nonetheless, the two outer branches are enough to imply the S-curve, allowing the eye to flow in, back, and up and out.

The other switch-back

It could almost be the twist… The S-curve is fundamentally about changing direction twice; the generally understood premise is that the two direction changes will for the most part cancel each other out, such that the end elements are generally speaking parallel. This does not need to be the case. The filling of an area can be as easily accomplished by the second switch-back turning in the same direction (does this mean that triangles are just an extreme extension of the S-curve?)

Looking down at Ghost by ben.pearson.007

Looking down at Ghost
Clearly, the curves in this image are continuous. So how can they be variants of S-curves? The distortion of the fisheye and the slight clipping on the left mean that the far upper rail has two directions to it, and the foreground, by virtue of its disconnection, provides the third. This three-part linear arrangement fills the space; it accomplishes the same task as a conventional S-curve, but in an unusual say. For those who need their come conventional S-shape, this can be found between the foreground and the lower rail, framing the upper part of the subject.

Gallery

As id my habit in these articles, I will now fill out the rest of the initial 18-image selection with a gallery of strong and interesting S-curve examples.

Race…! by VikasAher

Race...!
This image may not, at first glance, appear to involve S-curves. However, if one follows the lower edge of the yellow cloud as it arches over the left-side animal and descends again on the right, it can be seen to frame them, providing separation from the crowd in the background.

My Favorite Visitor by sannesu

My Favorite Visitor
This is an interesting S-curve subject. While the instinctive approach would be to consider the bird’s form alone, and see in that the distinctive form, that would be a subject-based curve rather than a compositional one. Bringing the flower into the picture emphasises the continuation of the line between two subject.

# 1 by guerriere

# 1
Nature provides us with many natural curves. And if viewed from the right angle, these can easily combine into some fabulous S-curves. As here, where the two sides of the petal wrap come together, providing a continuous series of lines that eventually arch up and – in a wide, sketched arc – out the right side of the scene .

bandon sunset by ole’ Betsy

bandon sunset
As with roads and rivers, shorelines provide strong natural S-curve subjects. This image takes that compelling depth further in the mirroring of the primary line within the shape of the clouds: taken together, the S-curve is an intangible surface that weaves its way to the horizon.

Sharing Confidences, Orangutang, Toronto ZOO by Pavel M

Sharing Confidences, Orangutang, Toronto ZOO
As the human body contains many natural S-like curves, so do the features of other members of the animal kingdom. This image contains both subject-based S-curves (such as the baby’s hand and wrist under the mother’s chin) but also the compositional one that joins them together along the line of their protruded lower faces. While this dividing line between the subjects could be seen as separation, it is how snugly they fit together along it that makes the connection endearing.

A Dancer’s Pose by andy_57

A Dancer's Pose
Another example of how the malleability of the human form can create strong S-curves, this image would be very appealing with only the diagonal of leg through torso. But the addition of the crooked leg adds a second dimension, allowing us to explore the width as well. Indeed, so strong is it that the straight leg is relegated to an leading line anchor and the dynamic of the image is that strong, sharp S-form.

A special twist

And finally, we finish up with a special case: a twist on the S-curve: quite literally this time.

brush stroke by jenny downing

brush stroke
Where is the S-curve in this, you ask? The concept of the bent line is simple enough to contort that if viewed from the side, it provides a shallow loop. This is the alternate switchback, viewed from the side, thereby largely obscuring the central portion into a tight curve. The key to it working is the line of dew droplets, that allow the eye to concentrate on one side of the leaf in the foreground but follow the central line as it descends later, extending the width of the central connector.

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