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Photography 1, 2 & 3: Laws of Composition


Definition 1:  Arrangement of the elements in a photograph to form a unified, harmonious work of art.

Definition 2:  What is included, what is left out, and what is implied.

Laws of Composition

Temporary vogues that are constantly undergoing continual change and revision should only be considered as aids to help the photographer interpret his subject.

  1. Compositional elements exist in relation to the lines that are determined by the shape of your picture space.  Everything that occurs within a picture occurs in relation to its margins.  Not all photos should be of standard format.  Try extreme horizontals and verticals.  Also try unusual shapes such as circles and ovals.
  2. Compositions have a heart or dynamic center around which the rest of the pictorial theme unfolds.
  3. Give importance to that which is important.
  4. Extremely low or high horizon lines create a strong illusion of picture depth.
  5. Investigate unusual viewpoints.
  6. Get closer.
  7. Lines (real and implied) are expressive:
    Straight lines solidity, strength, vigor
    Curved lines beauty, softness, grace
    Vertical lines power, hope, courage
    Horizontal lines       quietude, balance, rest
    Diagonal lines speed, motion, activity
    Zigzag lines most active
    S-shaped lines most graceful
    Crossing lines violent action
    Parallel lines sympahty. understanding, acceptance
  8. Keep the main object away from the outside edges of the picture area.  No tangents!
  9. Arrange the light and shade so that the greatest contrast falls at the point of greatest interest.
  10. The closer an object is to dead center, the less it catches the eye; the nearer the edge, the more it attracts.
  11. Lines intersecting at angles draw the eye; the nearer the angle is to a right angle, the stronger the pull.
  12. Parallel lines that run across a picture area tend to carry the eye right out of the picture.
  13. Don't include too much in the picture.  Exclude the extraneous.  Keep it simple.
  14. Everything in the picture must be in some sort of harmony with the main idea or object.
  15. Never let a line cut your picture exactly in half, either horizontally or vertically.
  16. Never let an uninterrupted line run parallel to any side of your picture.
  17. Eliminate useless foreground or sky.
  18. The skyline should never be in the center of the picture; place it about a third of the way from either the top or bottom.
  19. The eye naturally follows light.  Glancing across a picture it goes from the dark areas to the light ones.  A white spot on a black background pulls the eye more than a black spot on a white background.  And a small white spot on a dark background pulls more than a large white spot on the same background.  Avoid bright objects in the background that will distract the viewer from the main subject.
  20. If the picture shows people moving, leave more space in front than behind them.  Similarly, leave more room in the direction in which people are facing or looking.
  21. Light and dark masses in a picture should always be unequal.
  22. A continuous series of spots acts like a line.
  23. Long lines that run right out of the picture should be interrupted before they leave the picture area.  This will help to keep the eye within the picture.
  24. Arrange the pattern of the picture so that they eye enters from the lower left or right-hand corner.
  25. Be aware of negative space created by the absence of detail in signficant areas of your photo.  It can be distracting.
  26. "It seems that perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away."  St. Exupery, artist-aviator. 
    Attributed M. Gorley