By F.M. Kearney
In this third and final installment of my series on compositions (see Part 1 and Part 2), I will discuss methods that are occasionally used, as well as some of the most unusual and obscure techniques. That being said, it’s highly likely that you’ve used at least some of these techniques without even realizing it.
Repetitive Shapes and Designs
They say the sincerest form of flattery is imitation. In photography, imitation translates into repetition. Composing a photograph where an object or shape repeats itself is a surefire way to capture a dynamic and eye-catching image. The image above is the underside of a fishing pier in Florida. I positioned myself directly in the center so that the pilings formed a repetitive design as they faded away into the distance. I used a neutral density filter to lengthen the exposure to 30 seconds. This minimized the ripples in the water and allowed the shadows to become more defined – adding to the repetition of shapes. An image like this requires exact camera placement. Had I been standing a few feet (or even inches) to the left or right, the repetition of the pilings would not have been as evident. Other great subjects for repetitive patterns can be the petals of a flower or a row of trees. You can even create abstractions or optical illusions if you come in extremely tight on some subjects, and completely disguise their true identities.
Symmetry and Balance
Sometimes, the lines between different compositional techniques can become blurred. Symmetry can be found in a repetitive design (as in the pier photo), but that isn’t always the case. The meticulously-designed, triangular-shaped Rose Garden in The New York Botanical Garden exudes symmetry wherever you look. I stood atop of the stairs leading into the Garden to shoot the image above. The symmetry becomes more obvious at higher elevations, but you can still clearly see it even at this height.
Symmetry goes hand-in-hand with balance. If you folded the photo of the Garden in half, the left side would almost perfectly match the right. But balance doesn’t always have to be that literal. A balanced composition is merely one that isn’t “heavily-weighted” to one side. I shot the seascape below on a rock jetty in Antigua. I was initially attracted to the dramatic cloud formations. But, as I was setting up, they began to part on either side of the jetty – resulting in a more balanced scene. To add to the balance, I included the tiny island on the left and the sailboat on the right.
Balance in a photo composition can be very obvious or extremely vague – so vague, that you might not initially see it as a balanced photo, but rather as a photo that simply looks good. I shot the sunset photo above later that same day, not far from the rock jetty (note the same tiny island in the distance). At the time of the shoot, I was just trying to compose a pleasing-looking sunset image with an interesting foreground. It wasn’t until after I processed it that I realized just how well-balanced (or counter-balanced) it was. The protruding land mass and the large, dramatic clouds on the left are perfectly counter-balanced with the sun-kissed grass and rocky shoreline on the right. Had all of those elements been on just one side of the frame the composition would have been heavily-weighted to that side, with not much happening on the opposite side. Would it have ruined the shot? Probably not. But, I’m pretty sure that image wouldn’t be anywhere near as visually-engaging as this one.
Contrasts in Light and/or Color
One technique that’s immediately recognizable is the use of contrast. Whether it be a contrast in light or color, photos composed with this method will certainly stand out. The strongest contrasts in light are most likely going to be captured at the “bookends” of the day – when the sun is low on the horizon during dawn or dusk. Unlike other techniques that can be employed at any time, strong contrasts in light may only last for a few minutes. If they’re extremely stark, they might even cause the viewer to take a second (or third) look. I shot the above photo late in the evening in October of 2008 with a film camera. Some people have trouble seeing exactly what’s going on in the photo. One person thought it was the sideways shadow of the Empire State Building! This is actually a photo I shot in the Delaware Water Gap – located on the border between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where the Delaware River cuts through a large ridge of the Appalachian Mountains. As the sun was setting behind the mountain on the far right, it rendered it mostly in silhouette, and cast a heavy shadow over parts of the mountain on the left and the Delaware River below. The shoreline from which I shot the photo is in complete silhouette. It’s the sliver of the mountain’s reflection on the river that throws most people off.
I shot this next photo on Fuji Velvia film – known for its high saturation and high contrast. Today’s digital cameras are capable of capturing far more shadow detail. However, in this case, I don’t think I would have utilized those features. It’s the strong contrast and graphic shapes that give this photo its impact.
The photo above is an example of how to compose an image to take advantage of color contrasts. A wider view of this tulip garden would have shown a smattering of yellow tulips amongst the red. By zooming in and isolating these two yellow ones, I was able to create a much more powerful composition as opposed to shooting the entire garden.
In a way, a juxtaposition is another type of contrast. The dictionary describes it as a side-by-side placement of objects for the purposes of comparison or contrast. When it comes to photo compositions, however, I think objects that are in direct contrast with one another are far more noticeable. I often write about combining our natural and man-made worlds in photographs. It’s always interesting to see objects in a photo that you wouldn’t normally expect to see together. In the image above, I placed the natural cherry blossoms against the man-made, glass and steel skyscrapers of Manhattan – not the typical backdrop you’d expect for such delicate blooms.
Filling the Void
I’m not sure if this is an actual technique, but it’s something that I sometimes do to fill empty space. I say “sometimes” because empty space can sometimes be used as a very creative compositional component. I actually wrote an article about it last year. But in many cases, it’s usually nothing more than a dull void – aching to be filled with something of interest. In the photo above on the left, I definitely wanted to include the overhanging tree in the top center of the frame. It added a lot more interest than the blank, white sky above the fog-shrouded mountain.
Of course, the tree was already there, so aside from simply taking the photo, not much else was required on my part. The backlit leaf was another matter entirely. The tree was bathed in warm, shafts of light from the late-afternoon sun. I shot a series of close-ups of the backlit, multicolored maple leaves. As beautiful as they were on their own, I wanted something other than a dark, shadowy background. Taking advantage of the dappled light, I maneuvered around the tree and composed a series of photos to include bokeh highlights in strategic areas of the background.
To close out this series, I’d like to end with another (probably) unofficial technique. Composing a scene at an unusual angle is nothing new. But, composing a scene at such an unusual angle that causes the viewer to question reality is quite a novel technique. So novel. in fact, that I think it’s less of a technique and more of a “lucky accident.” These are generally unplanned photos that were captured at just the right moment – like a person appearing to have three arms, due to the position of another person standing directly behind them.
The equivalent in nature photography isn’t quite that spontaneous, but it does involve being in the right place at the right time and under the right light. Much like my contrast in light photo, the fall foliage image above is another visual puzzle that may cause some viewers to scratch their heads. Of all the people to whom I’ve shown this photo, very few were able to immediately identify exactly what they were looking at. For those of you who still can’t figure it out… it’s actually an image of fall foliage reflecting in water. I was standing on the rocky shoreline of a lake underneath two overhanging branches. A lone rock sat a few feet offshore just above the surface. On the other side of the lake is the bottom portion of a mountain with a long, white cliff at its base. Its reflection is seen in the lake below. This is probably the main source of confusion in this image. The fact that the top of the mountain is only seen in the reflection (and not in reality) eliminates the typical mirror-image effect usually seen in most images of reflections. Also, the glasslike stillness of the water adds to the illusion. For some viewers, it’s not immediately evident that a lake is even there! I hope this series has given you a lot more ideas for creatively composing your photographs. Clearly, compositional techniques go far beyond the inclusion of a foreground and a background. In some cases, multiple techniques can be used in the same image. Whether you choose to use one, or a combination of several, these techniques are guaranteed to add more interest to your photographs.
F.M. Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for a variety of local New York City newspapers. It was an exciting profession, which allowed him to cover everything from famous celebrities to ride-alongs with NYPD and FDNY. He now specializes in nature and urban landscapes. To view more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or followed on Facebook (@fmkearneyphotos) and/or Twitter (@fmkearneyphoto).