I have decided to write a few articles on the most basic aspects of photography, which will become natural as you start mastering this art. However, I remember struggling with them when I first started – and I guess that most of us have a similar experience.
Today, I will discuss one of the key factors that separates photographs from snapshots: composition. This is far from being a technical and camera-related discussion. Indeed, composition is a skill that photographers acquire with practice and patience. When absorbed correctly, it becomes an inherent talent, which will make your photographs consistently better and much more interesting.
Composition is the art of arranging the elements in the scene in order to lead the viewer’s attention to what is most meaningful. There are several composition techniques and a complete discussion on the subject would take much more than a single article. Nevertheless, I would like to give you a brief introduction to the 5 most common techniques and how you can use them to improve your street photographs.
I. Rule of Odds
This composition technique suggests that a photograph is more balanced if it shows an odd number of subjects. What is interesting about this technique is that not all subjects have to be main. In the above photograph, you could notice that there are two main subjects at the centre of the frame and a secondary subject in the middle-ground. Nevertheless, the total number of subjects is 3, which should result in a more pleasing photograph.
To me this technique is incredibly powerful, as long as the number of subjects does not exceed 5. As it reaches 7 or more, the photograph becomes too chaotic and busy, which results a loss of the viewer’s attention.
2. Leading Lines
Leading lines are that lines that lead the viewer’s attention to the subject that we find most meaningful within the frame. They can be implicit or explicit.
In the above photograph, leading lines are quite explicit. Indeed, they are incisions in the left-hand side wall, which lead the attention directly to the main subject in the photograph. Surely, the light in conjunction with he use of leading lines helps to separate the subject from the background even more.
You can use more implicit leading lines very successfully as well. Indeed, you could arrange the shades, streaks of light, patterns in the foreground, etc. to help leading the viewer’s attention towards the main subject of your photograph.
3. Figure to Ground
This technique is based on creating a strong contrast between the main subject of your photograph and its background. This should allow the main subject to stand out and become even more prominent within the frame.
For obvious chromatic reasons, it is quite more simple to achieve the ‘figure to ground’ effect when you photograph in black and white. Indeed, the use of monochrome will help you creating even clearer and stronger contrasts.
In the above photograph, you may notice how easy it is to distinguish the main subject within the frame. Indeed, the silhouette of a man emerges from an incredibly bright background. The pose of the subject helps making the photograph more intriguing and enhances the strength of the ‘figure to ground’ technique.
Silhouetting is a great option to achieve a strong contrast between a subject and its background but you could experiment with different approaches as well. I would advice to look at Josef Koudelka’s work for inspiration.
4. Rule of Thirds
San Felice Circeo, 2015
This is probably the most well-known composition technique and widely used among landscape photographers especially. Indeed, you can even set your camera to display a grid through your viewfinder in order to compose following the rule of thirds more easily .
This technique consists in dividing the frame by using a grid. You can align the horizon to the lower of upper horizontal third in order to give more or less importance to the foreground of the photograph. Moreover, it would be optimal to compose the shot so that the main subject within the frame either lies on one of the thirds or is placed at one of the intersections. Indeed, the viewer’s attention is naturally led to that intersections points.
You might notice that in the above photograph both the horizon and the foreground have been aligned to the respective horizontal thirds. Moreover, the main subject lies on one of the vertical thirds.
5. Frame Within the Frame
This composition technique consists in creating an additional frame within the main frame in order to help the viewer to focus on the main subject of the photograph. Indeed, by adding an additional frame, you are implicitly restricting the space of interest within the photograph in order to get rid of several components, which might be distracting.
In the above photograph, you might notice how the bridge has been used to create an additional frame within the frame. This should help the viewer to focus on the background, which pictures a famous bridge in Rome and dome of the Saint Peter Basilica.