Perfect Your Compositions Using the Principles of Art and Design

Following on from my article about the seven elements of art and how they can perfect your photography, I thought I would share a summary of the principles of art. Knowing how they work can make all the difference to how well your compositions work.

The seven elements I wrote about were line, shape, form, space, color, value, and saturation.

Although well established, I queried whether the point should be included in that list too, as it is the dimensional reduction from a line, as a line is from a shape. One of our readers then made an astute comment, querying why an aspect of composition, symmetry, was missing. The answer to that is that composition falls under the principles of art and design. These are criteria that explain how best those elements are arranged within an image. For photographers, the principles are all about refining compositions, usually in a way to make appealing photographs.

Balance

Symmetry is one way to give an image balance, and balance – the first of the principles – is important in photography. It seems a simple concept, but there is much more to it than one might first suppose. Achieving balance for many will indeed be about symmetry, which is soothing to the human eye. However, it can be a little more than that too.

Equally weighted subjects seen on either side of a centerline don’t have to be symmetrical. Just like the balances we used in junior school lessons, a large object nearer the fulcrum on the left can be balanced by several smaller objects on the right, or by a single smaller object placed at the far side. Empty space can have weight too. A single object on the left of a photo can be balanced by the rest of the frame being filled with sea or sky.

Just as mirror symmetry can work, so too can radial and rotational symmetry.

Balance also works when the image reflects the world as we see it. For example, we expect the sky to be brighter than the ground, and so images that are brighter at the bottom feel imbalanced because they are top-heavy.

Not all images need balance. Imbalance and asymmetry can be used deliberately, adding tension and disharmony to an image.

Harmony and Unity

Although similar concepts, there is a subtle difference between harmony and unity. An image that comprises contiguous colors, or identical subjects has harmony. Harmonious images are visually satisfying.

Unity is similar to harmony. It is used when there is a relationship between the separate elements of the image, but they are not necessarily identical. Still, life images or digital scrapbook layouts will usually have unity, a common theme that makes the elements fit together.

Contrast

The opposite of unity is, of course, contrast. I have written before about contrasts of different types. It doesn’t just refer to the lighting contrast but contrasts created by opposites in properties, eg large/small, tall/short, fast/slow, solid/liquid, transparent/opaque, many/few, etc.

Complementary colors are a type of contrast and, of course, the difference between light and dark is the type of contrast we usually think of in photography.

Patterns

The next important principle of design is that of the pattern. This can be obvious, such as in the following picture of lobster pots. The pattern of the pots and the nets that comprise them create rhythm.

However, patterns can be more subtle. In the following image the banks of cloud and their reflections in the sea form an irregular pattern, but a pattern nonetheless.

Having a pattern broken can add an interesting dimension to a photograph, changing the mundane into something worth considering.

Although it has become a cliché, selective coloring, where a black and white image is interrupted by a single colored subject, works because color interrupts the overriding pattern of the image, which is desaturation.

Variety

The opposite of unity, variety refers to the differing qualities of the elements within the photograph. In many instances, too much variety can confuse and be overbearing. However, it can also be used to break up repetitive areas of a picture. An image can have variety and, at the same time, show unity. For example, an image of a flock of birds of different species can exhibit both unity (birds) and variety (each species), like the seabirds in the following image.

The Emphasis, Dominance, and Hierarchy

Variety can be used to add emphasis to an element within the frame. Yet, we also emphasize subjects in other ways. Typically, we use selective focusing to create separation from the background. We can also use tonal contrast, especially when we exaggerate that in high and low-key images or create a monochrome photo. The other physical contrast mentioned earlier can also be utilized similarly. In photography, the accentuated element is usually the main subject, but it doesn’t have to be so.

Dominance is slightly different. An element with greater dominance gets noticed first. In other words, a more dominant element has more visual weight than the other elements it is overshadowing. That dominance can also delay the eye from noticing other elements in the picture, adding surprise, or the story being told.

Take the above image as an example. It has the old couple dancing slowly in the foreground. They are the dominant subject. Then, a longer study reveals the young woman and the girl dancing with more energy in the background, that contrast tells the story of the difference between age and youth.

The image also demonstrates further visual hierarchy. The older couple is the dominant subject, the younger pair are sub-dominant, and the others just visible in the background that adds context to the picture are subordinate.

Proportion and Scale

Proportion in photography is usually about emphasizing a subject’s importance by its size in relation to the rest of the image. Although it is the obvious approach to have the main subject larger in the frame than other elements, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it must be the biggest thing in the picture.

Making the main subject relatively big or small can show scale, as well as revealing the distance between elements. The main subject in the following image is the distant island with the sunrise starting to glow behind it, but its distance makes it small in the frame.

Movement

Finally, we come to movement. Unless shooting video, what we produce is static. However, we can give the impression of movement within an image. In the following photograph, movement is shown by the use of a long exposure.

Finally, most pictures contain one or more of these principles. It is a exercise to look through your catalog of photos and work out what useful principles apply to different images.

As with the elements of art I wrote about previously, I have only lightly touched upon each of these topics; There’s a lot more to be said about each and those will be covered in more depth in future articles. But I hope you found that food for thought. I will enjoy hearing your comments and seeing your images in the comments that illustrate these principles.

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