Elements of Design and Composition in Photography
Tips for Better Composition

by Dr. Robert Berdan
April 13, 2017

A simple guide is to place your subject an unequal distance from all sides of the frame. There are many places where the eagle will work, but the center of the pictures is usually not one of them as it is too symmetrical.

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
                                                                                                              Leonardo DaVinci

Many photographers purchasing a new camera are preoccupied with learning its many various features and controls. While this is undoubtedly important, mastering the basic operation should always go hand-in-hand with directing one’s attention on seeing and composing effective images. Capturing a “feeling” and your viewers’ attention is a demanding task that requires practice, experimentation and study. While studying the basic elements of visual design and understanding how they work will help new photographers improve their composition, just following suggested guidelines does not guarantee success. In many ways, the audience’s response to a given image will often depend on their past experiences (memory), interests, and personal taste and preferences. This is why one single picture often evokes a broad variety of responses from different viewers. To create effective images, a photographer must understand the way people respond to various kinds of visual organization and colour. This involves learning the vocabulary of design, viewing examples of artwork that utilize effective design elements, and actively implementing the critical components of design into the process of photography.

Aurora borealis over Prelude Lake outside Yellowknife  by Robert Berdan ©

Aurora borealis over Prelude Lake outside Yellowknife with the silhouette of my wife standing in the lake.



A Point

The simplest element of design is a point, which can be large or small. The point can be represented by a selected element or the main subject in a picture — a bird, person, animal, tree, a building and so on. The placement of the element greatly affects how we view and feel about it within the frame. Generally speaking, key points or elements will be most effective when they are positioned so that there is an unequal distance from each side of the frame. If you have more than one point or elements, the same principal applies: try to place the key elements so they all have unequal distances between them and the surrounding frame. The nice thing about this simple guide of unequal placement is that it there are many places within the frame that work. Placement of a key element or point in the center often is ineffective because we generally tend to find this central positioning boring. While some famous artists have indeed placed their subjects in the center of the frame, most of the times they did it deliberately rather than intuitively.

Goldfinch - unequal distance from the frame also located near the one third position.

Rules and guidelines are essentially helpful suggestions as to what works most of the time, but not each and every time. Also, avoid placing the main subject too close to the frame edge, without giving it some suitable “breathing” space. In my picture of an eagle in a snowstorm (top of page), for instance, you can imagine many locations where the bird could be placed to compose an effective image, and for the most part the center of the frame is not one of them. Keep this principle in mind when you compose your own images.

Line Diagram of line shapes by Robert Berdan
Representing a “path” between two points, a line can be straight, curved, vertical, horizontal, diagonal, or zigzag.  A line can imply motion and suggest direction or orientation, lines can also be implied – filled in by the mind when several points are positioned geometrically within a frame. Placing four dots on a page in the shape of a square can imply the points are linked, as the mind searches for recognizable patterns, and the direction and orientation of a line can also imply certain feelings and emotions. Whereas horizontal lines imply tranquility and rest, vertical lines tend to project the sense of power and strength. Oblique lines imply movement, action and change; curved lines or S-shaped lines imply quiet, calm and sensual feelings; converging lines imply depth, scale and distance. A fence or roadway converging into the distance provides the illusion that a flat two-dimensional image has three-dimensional depth. Lines are an effective element of design because they lead the viewer’s eye. To create more effective photographs, look for lines and try arranging them within your viewfinder to invoke specific feelings and provide the illusion of depth.

McDougall Church between Cochrane and Exshaw along Highway 1A by Robert Berdan

McDougall Church between Cochrane and Exshaw along Highway 1A - note how the lines that form the fence and path lead your eye toward the church.

Lines outlining the Bow River form a ziz zag and lead the viewers eyes to the Rocky Mountains in the background.

Aurora over Tundra by Robert Berdan ©

This bright aurora is on an angle suggesting movement and in fact it was moving quickly.


Shapes are the result of closed lines. However shapes can be visible without lines when an artist establishes a colour area or an arrangement of objects within the camera’s viewfinder. Some primary shapes include circles, squares, triangles, and hexagons – all of which appear in nature in some form or another.

Volvox aureus colony ( primative organism), 400X Phase contrast microscopy. These balls are made of up 1000-3000 cells and are common in fresh water ponds.

Mountain Ash Leaf outline  by Robert Berdan ©

Mountain Ash Leaf outline

Morants Curve along Highway 1 A in Banff National Park by Robert Berdan ©

Morants Curve along Highway 1 A in Banff National Park - the tracks form a gentle curve that leads your eye into the pictures and gives it "depth".

For its part, space is defined and determined by shapes and forms whereby positive space is created by existing shapes and forms, while negative space is the empty space around shapes and forms. For images to have a sense of balance, positive and negative space can be used to counter balance each other. In the East, this concept is referred to as “Notan”, which is a Japanese word translated as "lightness-darkness". The Italian word is Chiaroscuro, which applies to the works of art distinguished by strong contrasts between light and dark. Simple elements of light and dark can be very effective tools of expression, as the edges between the light and dark areas catch our attention and prompt us to follow them subconsciously with our eyes. Whereas a gently curving edge is followed by our eyes slowly, a sharply curved edge is passed over quickly, generating a subconscious sense of movement.

A photograph can show either balance or imbalance (tension) through the distribution of light and dark space. You can sometimes visualize these light and dark areas in a scene before you by squinting with your eyes. You can also visualize these areas of contrast in a photograph by converting the image into a high contrast lithographic. If using Photoshop open your image and follow the  Select > Image adjustments > Threshold sequence to convert the image so that it shows only areas in black or white to view positive and negative space more easily.

Image of a wolf that that has been reduced to black and white tones only using Photoshop's threshold feature.

Examples of line, shape and form by Robert Berdan ©



3D shapes showing form by Robert Berdan ©

Form refers to the three-dimensional quality of an object, which is due in part to light, and dark areas. When light from a single direction (e.g. our sun) hits an object, part of the object falls under a shadow. Light and dark areas within an image provide contrast that can suggest volume. Factors that can affect our feelings towards an image include the direction of the light source, from above or below, and the gentleness or abruptness of the half-tones.

Light coming from behind a subject can form a silhouette – resulting in object that is completely black against a lighter coloured background. Silhouettes appear as two-dimensional shapes lacking form. The absence of colour often enhances our perception of form in black-and-white photographs, or in outdoor photography taken during winter.

Silhouette of a photographer in front of Spirit Island before sunrise on Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park by Robert Berdan ©

Silhouette of a photographer in front of Spirit Island before sunrise on Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park

Winter scene Horse creek canyon road by Robert Berdan ©

Winter scene - Horsecreek Canyon Road north of Cochrane, Alberta

Light emitted from above and to the side when applied to portraits creates what is often referred to as “Rembrandt lighting”, which emphasizes edges and depth. Effective use of oblique lighting in landscape photography – best captured early or late in the day –greatly enhances the natural texture of the landscape, especially when accompanied by warm or cool colour casts.

   Red Rock Coulee in South East Alberta by Robert Berdan ©

Red Rock Coulee in South East Alberta - note how the light coming from the side creates strong shadows and gives the large rock form.

Waxing Gibbous Moon by Robert Berdan ©

Lighting from the side even gives the moon a three dimenional appearance.

Hopefully I have shown you a few things to think about before you press the shutter on your camera. In my next article on composition I will discuss proportion, rule of thirds, the Golden Mean and Chaos and how they can be used to create better pictures. RB

Also see - Understanding Colour for Photographers


Authors Biography & Contact Information

Portrait of Robert Berdan

Robert Berdan is a professional nature photographer living in Calgary, AB specializing in nature, wildlife and science photography. Robert offers photo guiding and private instruction in all aspects of nature photography and Adobe Photoshop training.

Email at: rberdan@scienceandart.org
Web site: www.canadiannaturephotographer.com
Phone: MST 9am -7 pm (403) 247-2457.

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