Compositional Strategies

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Emily Clark
Composition is the start of the photographic process on the creative side. As the photographer, you are a designer; you make decisions about what to include in your photographs. On the technical side, you start with light which is the raw material for your image and work with the exposure controls.

Composition is the placement of elements within the restriction of the frame of the photo. On a 35mm camera this is a rectangle. The trick is to decide at what to point the camera.

A photo has two main parts. First is the subject; what we decide to photograph. Second is the treatment or how that subject is arranged within the frame.


Perhaps the most important guide for composition is called the RULE OF THIRDS. When the frame is divided into three parts horizontally and vertically we get the arrangement shown below.

The lines of intersection are ideal placement points for the dominant element in our photo; the part of the photo that attracts our attention. We call that the center of interest or subject. Each photo should have such a point....if there is nothing that attracts your attention then the photo does not communicate as well.

Subject placement can also be placed along one of the thirds to be effective. The horizon line should be placed on the thirds line and never in the center if it is visible.
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This is a photo example of Thirds. Notice that the dot represents the part of the photo our eye comes to rest on...this part of the photo is in contrast in color and shape to the rest of the photo and thus attracts more attention.


Pay attention to lines in your photo:
• Lines can be actual lines from a road or fence, or from an arrangement of objects such as these cars.
• Lines that are horizontal or flat tend to be peaceful and reduce the excitement of a photo.
• Diagonal lines make a photo have a feeling of action or excitement.
• Many times a movie producer will tilt the reality of the scene by tilting the camera to throw the balance off and make a viewer feel the tension or action.

Below, the larger truck placed on the DIAGONAL LINES to attract attention. Notice how it was placed on the thirds.

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Lauren Wrobleski


CURVED LINES also are important. ANY line in the photo adds to the composition feel, here we see curved lines made by the arms of the swimmer add to the feeling of peacefulness. Notice how the face is placed in the thirds line.

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Molly Dugas
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Another example of LINES is LEADING LINES. The lines made by the freeway overpass draw our eye INTO the photo and off toward the ending point where the white dot was placed.

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Lauren Wrobleski
To really understand composition a new photographer should look at good photographs from well-known photographers or in magazines like those found in National Geographic and examine and analyze how the composition was accomplished.


Another strategy, is the use of FRAMING. Look around for natural and man-made frames that help lead the viewers eye into the photographer.

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Lauren Wrobleski


REPETITION OF ELEMENTS is a strategy that adds interest to the photo by looking for patterns that repeat. Point of view/perspective is essential in creating a successful photographs with repetition.
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Emma Tureff
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Emma Tureff


The MOTION of our subject is where the composition meets the technical. Here we find the shutter controls motion on our photo. If the shutter is fast (like 500 or 1000) the motion is frozen and if it is slow like 60 or less the motion becomes a blur. Each has its effect on the final photo. The important part is that the photographer has decided in advance how the photo will look.

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Emma Tureff
Motion Frozen

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Molly Dugas
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Motion Blurred

When the shutter is set to a fast speed like 250 - 500 - 1000 the camera is not getting much light - the aperture will then need to be set to a wider setting letting in more light in order to get an exposure. The result....less depth of field and a background that becomes less clear.


The final technical concern in composition is in the BACKGROUND. Is there an object that is right behind our subject that might look like it is MERGING or growing out of our subject? Is the background needed or not. Here we see two ways to do it - include it or simplify it.

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Lindsey Purpura

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Lindsey Purpura
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Alex Craig
Background Included

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Lauren Wrobleski

The APERTURE controls the background, although most cameras will only show you the simplified view when you focus. NOW the aperture works with the shutter to control light and exposure.

Background is simplified or made less sharp by a wide open aperture like f 2, f4 or f 5.6. Close pictures or a telephoto lens make the effect more dramatic. By setting our shutter to a high number the aperture is forced to a LOW number and depth is reduced. By putting our shutter to a LOW number the aperture is forced HIGH and depth is increased. The two controls work together.