Image composition and image design in photography is a very complex subject. Even if you know the basic rules, you never stop learning in this area.
It is extremely important as a photographer to understand how the human eye and visual perception work. Today I would like to give you 10 tips that will help you achieve better results quickly.
How I tested composition with an eye-tracking system
During my studies, I dealt with the user-friendliness of software in my practical semester. This topic is also called usability. For a local business, I tested how often a button in an email newsletter was clicked when it was of different sizes and colors. Part of this test was inviting 15 people into the usability lab, having them read the newsletter and having them click. With the help of an eye-tracking system, I was able to understand the course of the test subjects’ gaze.
At that time I was already taking photos and of course I found it incredibly exciting to know how people perceive my pictures. I have therefore dimensioned the scheduled test period a little longer. After the test subjects had read the newsletter, I showed them five more landscape photos of me. With eye tracking I could see exactly:
- Where do viewers look first?
- How the eye moves across the image
- At which points does the gaze linger?
- Between which points does the gaze jump back and forth
- Where does the viewer drift out of the picture
- How long does the viewer actually look at the picture?
This test made one thing clear that I had read before: With the right image design, you can “steer” a viewer through the image in a targeted manner. If you know and understand these rules of perception, you can consciously design your picture.
Why composition is so important
I was able to draw many conclusions regarding composition from the test and from discussions at exhibitions. As described above, this is a very complex subject. At the same time, for me it is one of the subject areas of photography that provides the greatest leverage for better pictures.
Today I would like to give you 10 tips on how to improve your photos with a targeted composition:
1. Do not place the main motif in the middle
This is probably the first rule you’ll ever read if you’ve ever dealt with image composition. Superficially, I thought at the time: Artists only do this so that their pictures look “different”. But of course that’s not the reason. If you place your subject in the middle, the picture can quickly become boring. It is better to consciously place your motif off-center and thereby give the viewer a starting point for his visual journey through the picture.
Where else can I place my motif? Two good ground rules are the rule of thirds and the golden ratio.
2. Keep the picture simple and consciously fill it out
Many aspiring photographers make the mistake of including too many things in the picture. Just recently my mother showed me some holiday pictures. The pictures had good basic requirements: beautiful landscapes, beautiful motifs and beautiful light.
The problem was: there was too much on each picture.
The first thing to do is to ban things from the picture that bother the viewer by means of targeted picture composition. Some examples:
- A hedge that “happened” to be in the picture
- A blade of grass protruding into the picture
- Trash lying around that draws attention
Those are the obviously disturbing things. The next step is to design your picture in such a way that it doesn’t contain too much.
How do you know when there’s “too much” in a picture?
When nothing can be taken away from the elements in the picture, because otherwise the picture would no longer work.
It is extremely important to consciously design your image. Make sure that only the elements that you want in the picture are in the picture.
View your picture like a white canvas that you fill with elements in a targeted manner.
Adding too many elements will distract the viewer. Therefore, try to build your picture with as few elements as possible.
My landscape paintings are often made up of three or at most four elements.
Another tip: With long exposures , for example with an ND filter , you can smooth out the water and sky so that your image composition is simplified again in pieces.
3. Limit yourself to 2-3 main colors
Colors deliberately direct our attention. Advertising posters use this control in a targeted manner. For example, red catches the eye.
Colors create certain associations. Green stands for hope and nature, blue for calm and cold, red for danger and energy.
With the variety of colors that surround us in everyday life, we are overloaded to a certain extent. It is often suggested: colorful = good. In photography, it helps to only use colors in your pictures in a very targeted manner. There are some black and white photographers who don’t shoot in color because there is too much information hidden in it. Like an extra level to think on.
As a basic rule you can remember: Reduce your picture to two or three main colors. You can take this into account when recording. In post-processing, you can also specifically enhance 2 main colors while not enhancing the rest.
Here, of course, it is extremely helpful to learn color theory. So you can not only work more consciously with colors, but also specifically with complementary colors to create color contrasts. This, in turn, controls the attention of the viewer.
4. Use more wide angle for more depth in the picture
In photography we have a fundamental problem.
We photograph something three-dimensional: reality. With this we create something two-dimensional: the photo.
However, in order for the viewer to perceive the image intensively and vividly, we have to suggest three-dimensionality. Then he feels drawn into the picture: “As if I was there”.
Creating three-dimensionality in images is much easier with a wide-angle lens than with a telephoto lens. I notice this every time I shoot with focal lengths longer than 80mm. The images then appear “flat”. In many cases, the picture then only consists of surfaces without conveying depth.
Every now and then I get a request from someone who wants to photograph people in street scenes, which lens they should buy for it. A telephoto or 85mm lens is often suggested in the inquiry. With such lenses it is difficult for the viewer of the picture to empathize with the scene. The best street photography shots were taken with film cameras and a 35mm lens.
Use more wide angle.
When I say wide-angle lens, I don’t mean super wide-angle. It is perfectly sufficient if you take your 18-55mm standard zoom and shoot more with 18mm.
5. Get closer for more three-dimensionality
Which is very closely related to point 4: Get closer to the subject. This is again a measure to create more depth in the picture.
The classic: You buy a super wide angle and photograph everything from the same height as before with your standard zoom. Namely from a standing position. The thing is: if you zoom out further, things are of course smaller. This means that less of your main subject is visible. So you have to get closer. If you are closer to the subject, the viewer of your pictures will also feel closer.
A positive side effect: If you get closer, you also reduce the number of elements in the picture (tip #2).
6. Use repetition for gaze guidance
By using repetitive elements in the image, you can control perception, create patterns and also generate more depth.
If an element is repeated in the picture, then the viewer is already familiar with it. His eye has seen and looked at it before. If that element is then basically the same as the first, the eye can move along that repetition. If the element is a different size than the first element, it can be used to create depth in the image. It all sounds a bit theoretical, hmm?
The repetition here in the picture are the rounded roofs. In the foreground, the roof is closer and therefore larger. The depth is created here on the one hand by the lines, on the other hand by the repetition with different sizes.
7. Add depth with tapered lines
This is another point to create more depth in the image. With more depth, the image appears more vivid to the viewer. A very simple but very effective measure is the use of tapered lines.
I first encountered it 11 years ago when I was photographing the rails at a level crossing. The rails appear to converge ever closer as the distance increases. Of course, this is only related to the optics. This effect is stronger the wider the lens used is. The same can be observed with a road.
In principle, this effect can be used with all parallel lines. You just have to get close enough.
The viewer is drawn into the picture by tapering lines. The eye likes to move along the tapering lines.
8. Consciously use portrait and landscape format
We make the most fundamental compositional decision when we choose portrait or landscape format. Of course there are motifs where there is a reason why they are photographed more in one of the two formats. They are made for it by nature. Which format you use is actually one of the first topics for conscious image design.
It is not for nothing that upright format is also called portrait format and landscape format as well as landscape format.
But what does the viewer associate with the formats? A landscape format radiates more stability due to its shape. A low-rise building seems more stable to us than a high-rise building. Thus, a portrait format image looks more dynamic. The selection of the two formats can therefore support the main motif or stand in contrast to it.
9. Use opposite shapes for contrast
Contrasts can be created in many different ways. Certain patterns of perception come from a time when people lived in very simple dwellings in nature. In the forest, a rectangular dwelling immediately catches our eye. That was important at the time to spot enemies earlier.
Shapes are perceived very specifically by the viewer. The basic forms:
These forms often appear unconsciously in our pictures. Similar to the formats, these shapes create different associations. An upside down triangle looks more unstable than one with the top pointing up.
A circle looks very harmonious, while a rectangle standing on the long side can radiate immobility or security.
At the beginning of the viewing of a picture, the eye perceives all elements only as surfaces. It only recognizes details afterwards.
10. Use contrasts as a starting point
Point number 10 is experienced even more consciously in black-and-white photography than in color photography. Because there you have no way of controlling attention with colors. All you have are different brightnesses. This means that black and white photography is a bit more of a challenge. However, the perception of brightness can also be observed in color images.
Did you know that the first thing the viewer looks at in an image is where there is the greatest contrast ?
Knowing this, this perception can be used incredibly effectively as a starting point for image viewing. In many cases, the difference in brightness means the contrast. As described above, however, color or shape contrasts can also attract the first attention.
Landscape photographers like to use a subject in the foreground that is relatively bright and contrasts with the background. This is used deliberately to work with a strong contrast. At this point the viewer can enter the picture. The visual journey through the photo can start from this point.