Composition that leads the eye and stirs the soul

Updated: Jul 17, 2018

Composition is one of the cornerstones of photography. It has the power to draw the eye, to create harmony (or disharmony, depending on what you're going for), strength and balance. Composition can be a powerful tool in creating a visually captivating image, but it can also play into hardwired instincts that humans have for reading aesthetics.

As a child I was drawn to patterns, and as an adult I still look for the patterns in everyday objects. When I find them I initially feel joy, and then a sense of calm and balance. For example, the other day I dropped a punnet of blueberries on the kitchen floor, and when I looked down I noticed they had fallen in a zigzag formation. I have a series of moles on my arm that looks for all the world like the Big Dipper constellation. When I arrange objects I do so with intention, and always with symmetry and pattern at the forefront. I'm the person who has to correct a wonky picture frame on the wall.

Why is any of this important?

As humans, we are all innately drawn to pattern. It's why composition rules like the golden section and the rule of thirds exist. These are patterns found in nature, and when we commandeer these rules in photography we create strong, visually pleasing images that can lead the eye and create balance in our photographs.

Recently I saw Ingrid Fetell Lee's TEDtalk on joy in aesthetics in which she proposes that joy - a momentary feeling of euphoria - can be found in circles, colour, symmetry, pattern and abundance. I've linked to a particular part of the talk - 4:01 to 5:37. It's an enjoyable talk, so do watch start to end if you're so inclined! What I took away from this talk was that aesthetics can impact our mood in a very real way, and we can absolutely use those ideas in photographic composition to strengthen our images and draw viewers in.

Of course, not all images are meant to spark joy. Composition can be antagonistic, peaceful, joyful, energetic, or calming, but these aesthetic elements of composition are the key to creating captivating photographs that hold the viewer's eye and asks them to study the detail in an image.

Capturing compelling images in a fast paced environment

When we start out, good compositions happen sporadically as a lucky by-product of the moment we hit the shutter release, but with time, you start to create those compositions consciously and intentionally. It's a really great feeling when a photograph needs no cropping in the edit, because you nailed the composition in camera. For a long time now my camera has felt like an extension of myself, and that's something that comes with familiarity and practice.

Last week I decided to photograph a protest in London. I don't often delve into street photography or photojournalism, but protest photography is something I take great joy in. In the days preceding, the number of people expected to show up to the protest was 70,000, but the actual turnout is estimated between 100,000 and 250,000. That huge weight of humanity flowing down the streets of Central London was not something I wanted to miss.

I've been planning to write about composition for some time, and the series of photographs I made at the protest happened to be the perfect example. With any kind of reportage or documentary photography (and this includes your candid family photos!) you often only have a few seconds to capture the perfect composition. That means keeping your eyes open and your senses sharp, thinking on your feet, perhaps quickly moving yourself to a better angle. You do all this while simultaneously working with the changing light levels, which can be drastic outdoors on a sunny day, and adjusting your cameras settings accordingly.

Side note: I have a separate post in the works for next week with tips on working with your camera settings in a fast paced environment so you don't miss out on capturing the perfect shot.

I can't recommend reportage photography enough as a way to seriously hone your in-camera composition skills. I've put together a breakdown of composition guidelines to keep in mind as you work. Of course, if there's any single mantra of photography, it's that rules are made to be broken! Learn the rules, play with them, and then smash them if that's what it takes to make a great image!

Leading Lines

This composition struck me like a 10 tonne truck when I saw it. The red jacket, the hands stained with newsprint, the intimacy of a newspaper seller amid the hundreds of thousands of protestors... it all came together for me.

The arm of the newspaper seller comes in from the top right, bringing your eye straight to his hands, blackened by newsprint. From there the stack of newspapers pulls you down to the front page of the paper, of President Trump pointing out, the motif of hands providing repetition and juxtaposition between the hands of power and the hands of a newspaper seller. The composition makes it a confrontational image, and one that provides a huge amount of story and context for the demonstration.

Leading lines can of course be much more traditional, such as following a street to its vanishing point.

Here the eye is drawn down the sea of people making their way down Haymarket on the approach to Trafalgar Square, the end point for the march.

Rule of Thirds

This image also highlights another classic composition technique: the rule of thirds. The upper third marks the end of the street, and the sky, buildings and crowd appear to be contained within the grid.

Meanwhile, the leading lines intersect with the third divisions to amplify the effect.

I was incredibly fortunate to have this vantage point over the protest, and this image is one of my favourites of the series.

It's easy to let rules like this totally govern your compositions, and it's certainly a great starting point, but I find that it's most effective when combined with other composition techniques to create a more complex composition.

In the following photo I've combined thirds with another technique informed by the magic of number three: the triangle.

Harness the Power of the Triangle

Like most of these photographs, I took two versions of this one. The first is the one I like to call the 'safety' shot - sometimes you have to grab a shot while it's there just in case the moment passes and you're left with nothing.

After the safety shot, I quickly reposition and compose the photo to pack a heftier punch. The second shot, the one that I've designed rather than the lucky one, is almost always the shot I'll select.

The two elements in the photo above that draw the eye are the 'Nope' banner and the peace flag draped over a woman's shoulders, both of which are placed on the boundaries of the central zone on the grid. Making the composition more powerful is the triangle that is drawn between the banner, the man on the left and the woman on the right, passing squarely over the message of "Peace".

For me, the span of demographics represented at the protest was something to celebrate, and I found myself placing diversity of demographics, from old white man to young brown girl, at the centre of the story. Composition helps to drive this home in many images in the photo story.

Keeping with triangles, the next image uses a much more symmetrical approach.

The young girl is raised up on her daddy's shoulders right in the dead centre of the image. Her position is reinforced by the triangle drawn between her mother in the bottom right quadrant, and the line her arm draws as she reaches down.


We're sticking with threes again in this next image, which employs a combination of an inverse triangle and the rule of three (not to be confused with the rule of thirds!).

The rule of three is based in pattern and symmetry (two things which Ingrid's TEDtalk identifies as aesthetic elements that spark joy), with the middle of the three centred and two others flanking either side. In this case, the three are made up of young women, placed beneath the inverse triangle of the banner and its owner.

As somebody who is probably bordering on OCD when it comes to pattern and symmetry, this photograph makes me probably happier than most, but regardless of your feelings towards these kinds of things, the use of symmetry and order found in an otherwise chaotic place can definitely make for a soothing composition.

Fibonacci and the Golden Section

The last two examples are both featuring a combination of the golden section and the triangle.

To define the golden section we have to get a little mathematical. Also known as the golden spiral, the golden section is a spiral drawn using the Fibonacci sequence, in which each subsequent number is the sum of the two that preceded it, and where dividing a number by the number before it gets closer to phi the higher up the sequence you climb.

When visualised, this creates a spiral that describes all manner of dimensions that naturally occur in nature, from the nautilus shell to spiral galaxies. There are some great examples here.

It appears to be a universal number that humans inherently find beautiful. When used in composition, it can create pleasing and balanced images.

The first is a triangle drawn between the woman on the right and her perceived gaze towards the flag, then down to the child in the pushchair below. The second is a woman holding a banner, with the triangle drawn between the pop of colour in the balloon, her right hand, and following her arms down to her body.

In both cases, Fibonacci's golden section intersects perfectly with the image. In the case of the left hand image, the flag is contained within the arc, which takes in the back of the banner on the right side. The balloon in the other image resides within the centre of the spiral, and the arc spans the top of the image, containing the banner within it, and closely following the line of the woman's arm.

When you're in the field composing your images, the last thing you'll be doing is consciously using these techniques, but with time and practice, you'll intuitively start framing your shots in camera. A composition will suddenly feel 'right' to you, and nine times out of ten you'll realise that you've employed these classic techniques.

All that being said, the most important thing is being there, capturing the moment, and practicing your craft. Imperfect composition isn't a deal breaker and it certainly doesn't ruin an image with heart that tells the story of a moment.

What to read next: Matching your photograph to what your eyes see can be something of a dark art, but here are seven tips to help you on your way.

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