Photographic composition by numbers

Composition By Numbers

Discussions about photographic composition are often based on the idea of placement – that is, where you should place the main subject or focal point of the photo in the frame. But there are times when you may have two, three or even more focal points, especially in more complex compositions. These give you the opportunity to create interesting and dynamic photos. Let’s take a look at how it works.

Groups of three and photographic composition

Including three focal points in a photo lets you employ two common compositional devices – creating triangles and establishing a pattern.

Triangles in composition

Triangles add a dynamic aspect to the composition. The viewer’s eye moves between the points, following the sides of the triangle, taking in different parts of the frame.

The photo below is a good example. I came across this scene in a seaside town in southern Chile. I liked the bright colors and the way the fisherman was painting the boat.

Photographic composition

Did you see the triangle? I have to admit that I didn’t see it when I made the photo, but it’s clear when I look at it now.

Photographic composition

In the next example the group of three is made by the statue in the center of the frame and the flowerpots either side. They create a symmetrical triangle that takes the eye from one side of the frame to the other.

Photographic composition

Photographic composition

I made the photo below while walking through a town in north-west Argentina. There were three girls playing in the street. I asked if I could take a photo and they said yes. The three faces make a dynamic triangle that encourages the eye to move around the frame from face to face.

Photographic composition

Photographic composition

Groups of three and pattern

Sometimes the group of three may be arranged in a row rather than a triangle. This photo is a good example. The group of three becomes a pattern of repeating shapes and forms.

Photographic composition

As the eye moves between the objects in a group it creates a kind of rhythm. The arrows below show the way the eye moves along the group of three.

Photographic composition

In this photo the three red flowers make another pattern. It’s echoed by the smaller green flower in the left of the frame, which has the same shape.

Photographic composition

Pairs and photographic composition

Groups of two focal points or subjects are also interesting in composition.

Pairs and symmetry

The three photos below show how pairs can make interesting symmetrical compositions. Each photo has two identical or similar subjects.

Photographic composition

Photographic composition

Photographic composition

Symmetry is interesting when it is broken. When I made the photo of the two Baoding balls I framed it to place the balls at an angle, creating a diagonal line that moves across the frame from the bottom left to the top right. This adds a dynamic element to the composition.

In the photo of the two buddha heads, one is blue, and the other is red. This also breaks the symmetry and makes the composition more interesting. It encourages the viewer to look from one to the other to compare them and note the differences.

Pairs and counterpoints

A pair forms a counterpoint when it gives you two distinct focal points to look at. There is an element of counterpoint in any photo with a pair, because it’s natural for the eye to move between them. But you can use it deliberately to help the eye move across the frame.

In this landscape photo the two lighthouses form a counterpoint. The eye moves from one to the other. It helps create a sense of depth because the viewer can see from the difference in size that the second lighthouse is further away.

Photographic composition

This street photo, made in Beijing, shows another counterpoint. The two women didn’t know each other and were acting independently. But they are linked by the similarities in their actions and stances.

Photographic composition

Larger groups and photographic composition

You may have come across something in composition called the rule of odds – the idea that including a group containing an odd number of subjects is better than one containing an even number. I know some photographers like rules as they provide easy guidelines to follow, but as a concept this one doesn’t have much merit.

Let’s look at an example. How many tools can you see in this photo?

Photographic composition

If you count them accurately you’ll see that there are 16. Would it make any difference if there were 15 or 17? I don’t think it would. All that matters is that there is a group of tools, arranged in a row that makes an interesting pattern.

It doesn’t matter much whether there’s an odd or even number in the group. But it helps create a stronger composition if you can make use of shape, pattern and rhythm.

I made the photo below in a street market in Uruguay. There are five halves of a squash on the market stall.

Photographic composition

The three in the center make a group of three, with a triangular composition. If there were no other halved squashes in the photo it would make a strong composition.

Photographic composition

Taken as a whole, the five halved squashes make a spiral that takes the eye through the frame.

Photographic composition

The last photo, another street photo I made in Beijing, shows a group of four people. They were posing for another photographer, but the amusing thing is that while three of them are looking at the photographer, the girl just wanted to play with her toy. The four people are grouped together, and there’s a rhythm in their spacing. But it also shows the dynamic interaction that happens when you get groups of people together. The contrast between the girl’s actions and the other people makes the photo more interesting.

Photographic composition

Conclusion

Groups of objects or people present all sorts of interesting possibilities when it comes to photographic composition. It gives you an opportunity to explore the patterns, shapes, symmetries and relationships between the subjects. It also helps you create a more interesting composition by arranging the photo in a way that encourages the eye to move around the frame.

Further reading

Learn more about photographic composition with these articles.

Composition and Filling the Frame

Framing, Placement and Composition

Debunking the Rule of Thirds

Mastering Composition Book Two

This article has been adapted from Mastering Composition Book Two. I wrote this ebook for photographers who want to move beyond the so called rules and learn the deeper principles of composition. Please click the link to learn more or buy.

Mastering Composition Book Two

About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, publisher, traveler, workshop leader and photographer based in the UK. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He currently writes for The Creative Photographer and Digital Photography School. He is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences.

Comments

  1. Nice article. Another theme to the article is that of contrasts: contrasts in a photo give the picture interest. The eye looks at the similar but non-identical objects to compare them. Thanks once again!

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