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© Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos. France, 1932.

All photos in this article are copyrighted by their respective photographers.

For today’s compositional lesson– I want to talk about curves.

To start off, why curves? Well– curves are some of the most dynamic lines that exist.

Have you ever seen a river that is completely straight? No-- they are all curved.
Have you ever seen a river that is completely straight? No– they are all curved.

With composition, everything starts at nature. What curves can you think of that occur in nature? Some things that come to mind:

  • Rivers
  • A woman’s body
  • Solar systems
  • Sand at the beach
  • Seashells
  • Hills
  • Leaves

As my friend Adam Marelli (a much more knowledgeable teacher on composition) has taught me– very few lines exist in nature which are straight lines.

As we discussed, curves are natural — and when I think of curves, they are elegant, have energy, movement, and force.

Curved roads give a sense of energy--movement, and motion.
Curved roads give a sense of energy–movement, and motion.

Let us think of some other curves that are man-made. Some things that come to mind:

  • Highways (and speedways)
  • Stairwells
  • Graphs
  • Arches
  • Snakes
  • Much much more…

Before we had a compositional lesson on diagonal lines. Diagonal lines are very dynamic– but curves even more dynamic. Here is a hierarchy of “dynamic-ness” we can make in terms of lines:

  1. Horizontal line (least dynamic)
  2. Vertical line (more dynamic)
  3. Diagonal line (very dynamic)
  4. Curve (most dynamic)

Curves are everywhere (natural or man-made) — and you can see them if you look close enough.

So how can we better apply curves to make our images more dynamic, elegant, and flow-well? Let us look at some examples from the masters — one of them being Abbas from Magnum.

Abbas / GREAT BRITAIN. Belfast. A wall crumbles down after having been set on fire, presumably by the IRA.

abbas
© Abbas / Magnum Photos. GREAT BRITAIN. Belfast. A wall crumbles down after having been set on fire, presumably by the IRA.

In this incredible photo by Abbas– he captures a wall crumbling down as a firefighter shoots the burning building with a water cannon. The feeling of the image is incredible suspense. You see the building falling before your eyes, and there is the tension that perhaps it will fall upon the firefighter who is heroically fighting to save it. The sky is full of drama— with dark, looming, and ominous clouds that suggest some impending doom.

The photograph feels alive. But where do we get this sensation from? That’s right you guessed it– the curves. Can you see all the curves in the shot? If not, let me illustrate some of the curves I see:

Figure 1: The first two curves that I see.
Figure 1: The first two curves that I see.

So the first main curves I see are is the falling building bouncing off against the curve of the firefighter’s stream of water. The two curves “kiss” at the point in the center– which creates a feeling of tension between them. If you look closer in the image, there are even more curves in the image that add drama.

I highlight some more of the curves I see in the image:

Figure 2: Note all of the curves in the image
Figure 2: Note all of the curves in the image

So no wonder we feel all this action in the image. The image is full of curves all over. From the falling building, to the water stream of the firefighter’s hose, to the actual hose itself– snaking around the bottom of the frame.

Let us bring another great example from history– this famous image by Henri Cartier-Bresson:

Henri Cartier-Bresson / France, 1932. 

Henri Cartier-Bresson / France, 1932.
© Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos. France, 1932.

In one of HCB’s most famous images– we see a symphony of beautiful curving lines — with a bicyclist speeding by in the frame. The energy of the photograph is incredible– and it looks as if the man is going about a hundred miles per hour.

I suspect that HCB first saw the beautiful composition of the lines– and waited for the right person to enter the scene in the top left quadrant. He might have saw an empty scene like this:

Figure 1: How HCB perhaps saw the scene and framed it before waiting for the bicyclist to enter
Figure 1: How HCB perhaps saw the scene and framed it before waiting for the bicyclist to enter.

I am not 100% certain that HCB saw the background, framed it, and waited for the right person to enter. Who knows– it could have all happened spontaneously. But considering that HCB was a patient photographer– and was also into hunting– I am sure he waited all day for the scene for the right person to enter. Either that, or he paid the guy on the bicycle $5 to loop around a few times (just kidding).

But if we analyze this empty scene– you can see all the curves that were apparent in the scene– from the curve on the top, to the railing leading from the bottom left to the center, and the stairway. All of them add energy and motion to the shot. And of course the missing ingredient is having the slightly blurred bicycle (which suggest motion) in the shot.

Figure 2: See how all the curving lines add motion to the photograph.
Figure 2: See how all the curving lines add motion to the photograph.

Based on what my eyes see– all of these curving lines seem to all point towards the direction of the bicyclist– which is left. This makes the bicyclist look as if he is moving 100 miles per hour.

Takeaway point? If you see a great scenes with a lot of curves just waiting for you– wait for the right person to complete the composition and click.

Another great example of curves comes from Martine Franck (the wife of HCB) — who utilized many great compositional elements in her photo:

Martine Franck / CZECH REPUBLIC. 2004.

Martine Franck CZECH REPUBLIC. 2004.
© Martine Franck / Magnum Photos. CZECH REPUBLIC. 2004.

In this image by Martine — she captures an artist at work — I think he is letting his art-pieces soak in the water for some reason.

When it comes to composition, a lot of these compositional elements combine to make a great photograph. In this photo, the curve of the pieces of paper in the water create a nice leading line to the main subject in the frame– who is the man in the top left corner:

Figure 1: The main curve of the leading line taking you straight to the subject.
Figure 1: The main curve of the leading line taking you straight to the subject.

Another beautiful touch is how much great figure-to-ground (or contrast) there is between the man and the swans against the black background. Another technique I learned from Adam Marelli — if we blur out the subjects in the top of the frame– you can still clearly see how much great contrast they have against the background (white on black):

Martine2
Figure 2: See the great figure-to-ground contrast between the subjects on top of the frame (even if we blurred the image).

To top it all off, Martine created a nice triangle composition between the man in the top left and the two swans. Also remember as a rule of thumb– subjects best work in odd numbers– and best in 3’s:

Martine3
Figure 3: We see a lovely triangle composition in the top of the frame

Overall what I love about the image is the surrealism. I have no idea what is going on in the photo– why are there all these rectangular pieces of paper in the water, what is the man doing in the water, and the swans swimming in the top of the frame feel a bit out-of-place. Yet the image feels elegant. The strong geometric shapes in the image give it a strong composition, and swans are a symbol of peace and grace.

Let us show another example of curves from Martine– because she is a master at composition:

Martine Franck / FRANCE. 1965. Clamart. Library for children.

Martine Franck / FRANCE. 1965. Clamart. Library for children.
© Martine Franck / Magnum Photos. FRANCE. 1965. Clamart. Library for children.

Let us look at this photograph by Martine– it instantly pops out at you as being surreal. But before we analyze it– what shape does that spiral remind us of? You guessed it– a seashell:

The inside of a seashell-- notice all the elegant curves.
The inside of a seashell– notice all the elegant curves.

If we outline the curves we see in Martine’s photo– you can see all the curves that take your eyes to the center– as if the curves would never end:

Figure 1: All the curves taking you more and more inwards.
Figure 1: All the curves taking you more and more inwards.

What I love most about this shot of Martine is that it brings out the whimsicalness and curiosity of children. It is also quite surreal to see all of these children’s heads lined up so perfectly next to one another– continuing all the way into the center of the image.

Curves can also be used in more subtle ways. Take for instance this shot by Garry Winogrand

Garry Winogrand / Texas State Fair, Dallas / 1974

Winogrand
© Garry Winogrand / Texas State Fair, Dallas / 1974

Winogrand was able to capture the “decisive moment” — at the moment he cow’s tongue mimicked the curve of the cowboy’s hat:

Figure 1: Notice how the cow's tongue and cowboy's hat mimic one another.
Figure 1: Notice how the cow’s tongue and cowboy’s hat mimic one another.

Now did Winogrand intend to get the curves in the photo? I doubt it. He probably saw the moment happen and clicked instinctively. However at the end of the day, it does create a nice visual juxtaposition — and two curves that kiss perfectly in-between one another.

Curves can also be created by the direction of movement in a shot. For example, consider this masterpiece by Henri Cartier-Bresson:

Henri Cartier-Bresson / JAPAN. 1965. Tokyo. A farewell service for the late actor Danjuro at the Aoyama Funeral Hall.

Henri Cartier-Bresson. JAPAN. Tokyo. A farewell service for the late actor Danjuro held on November 13th 1965 at the Aoyama Funeral Hall (according to Shinto rites). 1965.
© Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos. JAPAN. Tokyo. A farewell service for the late actor Danjuro held on November 13th 1965 at the Aoyama Funeral Hall (according to Shinto rites). 1965.

Take a look at the image above. Can you draw curves in terms of what direction everyone seems to be moving and flowing? I have illustrated it below:

Figure 1: Note the direction all of these people are moving-- the curve in a circle.
Figure 1: Note the direction all of these people are moving– the curve in a circle.

If you track the direction where everyone is looking as well as the placement of the hands and arms– they all make an infinity loop. It looks as if they are weeping forever– in eternity.

Let me also showcase one of my images where I incorporated curves to my image:

Eric Kim / Santa Monica, 2011

Santa Monica, 2011
Eric Kim / Santa Monica, 2011

For this photograph, I was on my lunch break and walking around the local mall trying to find some street shots. I was going up an escalator– and I saw a man coming from the right. I thought to myself: it would be perfect if I framed him in-between the escalators the moment he stepped in-between. So I waited for him to enter the scene, then I clicked.

What I first love about the shot is how the escalators curves which perfectly frame the man in-between them:

Figure 1: Note how the curving lines of the escalator frame the man.
Figure 1: Note how the curving lines of the escalator frame the man.

Another detail I love about the shot is the “V” shape between the man’s legs (which make a triangle) — as well as the shadows that lead to his feet:

Figure 2: Note the "V" shape of the man in mid-step and the leading lines to his feet.
Figure 2: Note the “V” shape of the man in mid-step and the leading lines to his feet.

And of course the final detail which makes me love the shot is the reflection of the man on the left and right side of the frame– which was actually luck:

eric3
Figure 3: The reflection of the man in the left and right of the frame.

Conclusion

You can see that curves are the most dynamic forms of lines out there. They add energy, suspense, elegance, movement, power, motion, and direction to a photograph.

Curves are a little more difficult to spot when out shooting than horizontal, vertical, or diagonal lines. However if you look closely enough and are attentive enough– you can capture them to create stunning images.

Learn more about Composition

If you want to learn more about composition — catch up on these lessons you might have missed: