A brief refresher on things to consider when framing shots for both still pictures and video recordings.

What goes through your mind when framing a shot? Are there rules you follow – or are you driven by an instinctive ‘it just looks right’ feeling? Photographic composition can be tricky because, while everyone agrees there are certain rules to follow, they’re equally sure they can be broken. So, where do you start?

Some photographers seem able to produce great shots almost instinctively. The legendary 20th Century photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, put it this way: ‘Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.’ Others offer a simpler solution: ‘A good photograph is knowing where to stand’, according to the equally famous Ansel Adams.

A note of caution is raised by Edward Weston, who is renowned for his innovative landscapes, still life works, nudes, portraits, genre scenes and whimsical parodies: ‘When subject matter is forced to fit into preconceived patterns, there can be no freshness of vision. Following rules of composition can only lead to a tedious repetition of pictorial clichés.’

Choices! Photographers have to decide for themselves what to include when framing shots. Which makes a better picture: the wide view or the close-up? Viewers will have different opinions as to which works best for them.

Effective compositions always result from the photographer’s choices; what is included in the frame – and what isn’t. Competent photographers can create eye-catching compositions with even the most basic gear and in conditions that would deter casual snapshooters. There are three basic preconditions to capturing well-framed shots:

1. You must have a clear ‘eye’ for what looks ‘good’, which you can learn and develop by looking at a wide variety of images. Since ‘good’ is a subjective judgment, you must also be confident you can back that judgment when evaluating (and defending) your images.

2. Great equipment is not a prerequisite for great photos. It’s more important to understand the gear you use so you can capture the picture you have in mind.

3. Control over exposure parameters is vital. Without it, shots can be out-of-focus, over- or under-exposed, off-colour or spoiled by other inappropriate camera settings.

Interestingly, even someone with a good pictorial ‘eye’ can produce ‘dud’ shots – regardless of their expertise. Professional photographers often produce technically perfect images that aren’t visually compelling. In this feature we’ll look at ways to identify what works and why it does so you can produce more appealing shots.

Compositional elements

The basic ‘tools’ for composing pictures are contrast, colour, lines, shapes, patterns, texture, symmetry, viewpoint and depth of field. Like the painter’s palette, they work best when used selectively.

They can be used to guide the viewer’s eye into and around the photograph, or direct it to certain areas in the scene and away from others. The path need not be predictable; an element of surprise can ‘grab’ the viewer’s attention.

Careful framing is essential. How the photographer decides what to include will define a shot’s success. The arrangement of objects should help the viewer to understand, appreciate and enjoy the picture.

There are plenty of ways to change what’s included in an image frame. You can shift your position with respect to the subject, change the lens focal length (easy with a zoom lens) or alter the angle of view. Each adjustment should fine-tune your perception until you’re happy with what you see. Then (and only then) should you release the shutter.

Framing tips

While there are no hard-and-fast rules that guarantee effective compositions, there are some guidelines that can improve your chances of framing attractive looking pictures – provided you observe the necessary caveats.

1. Rule of Thirds framing is so well-known that most cameras include guideline overlays to make it easy to integrate into normal shooting. This rule divides the image frame into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. Important structural elements in compositions can be placed at the intersections of the lines or run along any of the lines.

An example of Rule of Thirds framing, with the main point of interest in the upper left intersection. This type of framing works best when you want to create a peaceful impression.

The main problem with using Rule of Thirds framing is that it has become clichéd. It often results in compositions that are static and somewhat boring.  Used sensitively it can imply elegance and serenity, but only with skilful selection of elements like texture, symmetry, colour, contrast, negative space and leading lines.

2. Leading lines is another popular compositional element. Regardless of whether they are straight or curved, broken or unbroken, linear paths created by structural elements in a photo should guide the viewer’s eye from one point to another.

Diagonals and triangles will add ‘dynamic tension’ to a photo, while horizontal lines impart a sense of calmness. Curving lines create a ‘softer’ impression. In some cases, the lines will end up at the main subject; in others, they will be the vehicle that takes the viewer on a journey through the scene. Lines should draw attention to the central area rather than out of the frame.

Lines are the principal compositional element in this picture and, even though most end at the edge of the frame, they cause the viewer’s eye to travel across and around the scene. Most of the areas they delineate are effectively negative space with little or no texture. Texturing in the brightly-lit orange sand adds interest and intrigue to the composition.

Lines can also imply direction, particularly the direction of a subject’s attention or motion. Moving objects work best with more space in the frame in front of them than behind. Similarly, people in a shot should usually face into the frame rather than out because viewers usually follow the direction cues provided by subjects.

3. Symmetry is achieved when similar (or identical) elements face each other on opposite sides of the frame. Forget what you’ve been told about not placing a subject in the centre of the frame; in some situations it can work really well and is particularly effective in scenic shots, especially those involving buildings and/or reflections.

Symmetrical compositions can work well for shots of buildings, particularly where reflections can be included. People passing and minor differences in the content on either side of the entrance add a liveliness to an otherwise static scene.

4. Foreground/background interest covers the visual dialog between subjects close to the camera and those in the distance. Foregrounds are important for setting the scene and should contain something interesting to look at. When the main focus of interest is in the background, frame the shot to include the foreground while leadings viewers’ eyes towards the main subject.

Frame-within-frame shots are an easy way to use this technique. Look for elements like windows, arches or overhanging branches to frame the main subject. Framing elements needn’t necessarily surround the entire scene to be effective.

Structural elements like arches can be used to frame the main subject and guide viewers into the scene. In this shot differences in brightness, contrast and colour saturation between the areas inside and outside the frame complement the physical framing.

5. Negative space vs ‘fill the frame’. Traditionally, photographers are encouraged to fill the frame with the subject. While this advice is generally sound, there can be times when ‘less is more’ and subjects can benefit from negative space (empty areas).

Busy scenes will fill the frame leaving no negative space. When you want to draw attention to a subject, surround it with negative space to allow viewers to concentrate on the subject without distractions.

6. Use juxtaposition of opposites to create contrast in photos. Think large vs small, near vs far, dark vs light, high vs low. The combinations are almost limitless. Tonal contrast is vital for black and white photos and contrasts of both tones and hues can be effective in colour shots.

The tiny figure at the edge of the water on the right hand side of the picture imparts a sense of scale, emphasising the vastness of the landscape. The dark patch in the water left of the figure interacts with the figure by drawing the viewer’s eye back and forth. This conflict turns a static scene into something more dynamic.

7. Patterns and textures naturally attract attention, so they can be used to move the viewer’s focus to specific areas in the scene. Patterns can be artificial like tiling, brickwork, a series of constructed objects, or natural like petals on a flower, ripples in water or clouds in the sky. Use them when they are visually attractive and to suggest harmony or conflict.

8. Odd numbers are popular with designers because they are perceived as being closer to nature and because they add dynamism to pictures. The theory is that an even number of elements in a scene can leave the viewer unsure which one to focus on, whereas an odd number encourages the eye to move from one to another. We’ve put this one last because the rule can be easily broken. It’s worth bearing in mind when framing shots since in some situations it can make the difference between a ‘keeper’ and a ‘discard’.

There are five ladles in the foreground of this shot and four in the background, so either way you look at it, there are nine subject components; an odd number. This composition is strengthened by its symmetry and the leading lines created by the handles in the foreground. Horizontal lines provide structural contrast, while foreground textures add interest to the shot.

Article by Margaret Brown (see Margaret’s photography pocket guides)

Excerpt from Photo Review Issue 81

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