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Composition: Thinking Graphically

Last week I talked about what composition is and the importance of getting in touch with what you want to say in your work. This week I'd like to go into the graphic elements that can be viewed as the basic building blocks of composition. Breaking composition down into graphic elements can be a powerful technique. We all respond to graphic forms in various ways.

Straight Lines

Straight lines are one of the simplest of all graphic elements. They exist in nature to only a limited extent, but are also formed implicitly by connecting any two points.

Horizontal lines neither rise nor fall and are thus calm and relaxed. The horizon forms a horizontal line that we are all familiar with. Something setting on a horizontal surface would be stable. People are horizontal when lying down.

Diagonal LinesVertical lines seem to imply alertness or possible danger. Vertical is the direction of gravity. A person is vertical when standing up. Vertical lines can represent a barrier. They can also represent strength, standing proud like a mighty oak or skyscraper.

Diagonal lines can represent movement and can convey a sense of excitement. Two diagonal lines that converge can convey distance.

Lines can be actual or implied. An animal looking into the frame creates an implied line of sight. A row of similar objects creates the sense of a line connecting them.  A speeding train implies a line in the direction of its movement.

Leading lines are lines that lead the viewer's attention though an image. A leading line could be a road or river, the line of sight of an animal, a row of fence posts or most anything else that creates a "flow" that a viewer can follow when looking at an image.


Nature does not have too many straight lines, but curves are everywhere. Streams, rolling hills, the leaves of many plants, the shore of a lake, clouds in the sky, and t knot hole in a fallen tree are all composed of curves. The earth itself is curved. Curves can be shaped as simple "C" or "S" curves or they can follow more complex paths.

Curves are inherently appealing as they can imply unhuried movement or flow in the natural order of things. Straight lines can appear hard and unyielding while curved lines can be soft and appear elegant or graceful.

Shapes: Squares, Triangles and Circles

Triangle, Square and CircleThe basic shapes are the square (or rectangle), triangle and circle (or oval).

Rectangles are symbols of strength and stability, of timelessness and permanence. The frame of a photograph itself is a rectangle. The horizon divides the frame into two rectangles, but most rectangles are man made — buildings in particular.

Triangles can be solid and steady, like pyramids or mountains. When turned on edge they can be very dynamic and active. Triangles point; they lead our eye. Two parallel lines can converge in the distance to form a triangle.

Ovals and circles can be comforting and relaxed. They provide a resting place for our eye. Circles can be found in rocks or dewdrops or in the shape of the sun itself.

Repetition and Rhythm

Repetition refers to the appearance of a given element in the frame more than once. This might be a literal repetition such as when you photograph a group of similar animals or wildflowers, or it may be more symbolic as when two dissimilar objects have the same shape — a tree in the foreground repeating the shape of a tall mountain in the background perhaps.

Repetition can also occur due to reflection. The mountain mirrored in the alpine lake is the classic example of reflection, but as above this could be more abstract as when the shape of the clouds repeats that of the foreground in reverse.

Mirrored RepetitionWhen dealing with repetition, usually an odd number of objects is more effective than an even number. One "thing" is not a repetition. Two invites a comparison, prompting the view to look back and forth. Three things repeated are enough to establish a rhythm, much as a waltz rhythm consists of one-two-three, one-two-three. Four tends to be less dynamic than three, much as a rectangle is less dynamic than a triangle. The brain tries to group four objects as two pair. Five is a good number for rhythm and tends to work better than six which is again less dynamic and is too easy to see as three pair, Beyond about five or six, the brain tends to not count the objects as readily, choosing instead to view them simply as "many."

Rhythm is a very powerful tool in the photographer's toolbox. Often an object, which may not be very interesting in and of itself can create an much more compelling image when used as part of a repetition or rhythm.

Patterns and Texture

A simple pattern begins to be evident in an image when a repetition of similar objects extends to fill a significant portion of the frame. More complex patterns can be formed with two or more interleaved simple patterns.

PatternPatterns tend to look best when the fill the frame so that they seem to continue on forever. This isn't always possible of course, but to be effective, the pattern should extend to at least two of the frame edges.

A "pure" pattern can be very interesting for a short period of time, but it is often more effective to "break" the pattern with another object, color or shape. A counterpoint, however tiny, can add interest to an image and hold the viewers interest for longer. It can permit the viewer to wander over the image enjoying the pattern, while still providing a place for the eye to rest.

Lots of TrianglesAs a pattern becomes finer and finer still, and often more random, it can turn into a texture. Textures invite the viewer to reach out and touch an image, even if only in their imagination.

"Photo Graphics"

Nature Photographer John Shaw has coined the phrase "Photo Graphics" to describe the idea of seeing your composition purely as graphic elements. This is a powerful idea that can help to make your compositions cleaner, simpler and less cluttered. You'll probably also end up with some original images of subjects you wouldn't normally have even considered shooting. Give it a try and see what you think.

Next week, we'll explore another great way of looking at what we shoot and how a viewer might respond to it: Color!

Date posted: December 14, 2003


Copyright © 2003 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
Permanent link for this article

Previous tip: Composition: What Do You Want To Say? Return to archives menu Next tip: Composition: A Look at Color

Related articles:
Composition: What Do You Want To Say?
Composition: A Look at Color
Composition: Putting Things in Perspective
Composition: Some Thoughts on Subject Matter
Composition: Equipment Notes
Composition: Pre-visualization
Composition: Putting it All Together
Iterative Composition
Your Composition Toolbox
Forget What it Is, What Does it Look Like?

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