I want to use this time to think about how to add more curves, dynamism, and perhaps the legendary ‘fibonacci spiral’ to your photos:
First of all, I am not an expert. I’m writing this for my own benefit, and also for the benefit of a few others.
1. Study compositions after you’ve made a photo
“Any geometrical analysis can be done only after the photograph has been taken, developed, and printed– and then it can be used only for a post-mortem examination of the picture.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
One of the first things I learned from Henri Cartier-Bresson is that you study compositions after you’ve taken the photograph.
For example, if anyone tells you that they can see fibonacci spirals in red before they shoot– I call bullshit. I’ve found in my personal experience, the more I study composition, the more I can internalize it. And then I start to shoot compositions based on my gut and intuition.
Therefore, everything in this article is used as a post-mortem (after you’ve taken the photograph) to learn.
2. Study the fibonacci spiral in nature
What better way to see the fibonacci spiral– than in nature?
See if you can see them without the outlines:
Is this all BS?
To be frank, I have no idea if the fibonacci spiral is some law of nature. But I see it a lot.
I also think we can apply this to our photography to make more harmonious compositions.
3. How to access the fibonacci spiral in Adobe Lightroom
I use Adobe Lightroom, here is the easiest way to access the fibonacci spiral:
- Press “D” to go to ‘Develop’
- Press “R” to go into ‘Crop’ mode
- Press “O” to change the ‘Overlay’ (press this several times)
- Press “Shift+O” to change the direction of the overlay
4. Does it fit?
See if your photos fit the fibonacci spiral, and study your compositions:
For fun, I apply the fibonacci spiral to photos that I like in terms of composition.
The reason I do this is because I want to see whether my compositions fit the ‘rules’ of composition. Often they don’t. Sometimes they do.
I do find the fibonacci spiral is good because it create a harmony of proportions to your photograph. It achieves good balance.
Not only that, but nothing in nature is straight. Everything is slightly bent, or curved.
Curves are more dynamic than horizontal, vertical, or even diagonal lines. So thinking about the fibonacci spiral in the back of my head encourages me to think about curves, to make better compositions.
5. Wait for someone to enter your spiral
One of the practical ways to apply a fibonacci spiral to your photos is this: identify a good scene (with a spiral), then wait for the right people to enter the frame.
For example, this is one of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous ‘bicycle’ photos:
What I guess is this: Henri Cartier-Bresson saw the composition, waited, and a bicycle came into the frame. It fits the fibonacci spiral quite well:
A way I applied this technique: I saw a good curved staircase, and waited for someone to enter the frame:
It fits the fibonacci spiral well, although not perfectly:
What I just think is more important is this: the curve leads the viewer’s eye, and having the dark subject against a white background, gives the image visual harmony:
6. Integrate curves into your photo
When I was in Sapa recently, I tried to get the kids in a curved (spiral)/fibonacci spiral.
I was following these 3 kids, taking a bunch of photos, and when I was shooting, I tried to get one of the kids on the far left of the frame, curving to the center of the frame:
With the fibonacci spiral overlay applied:
It fits pretty well.
Ultimately what I like about the photo is the flow of the kids and the sense of movement. It certainly isn’t a perfect photo, but an example of when I thought about curves and movement while shooting.
Another photograph where I saw a curve in a track, and tried to photograph a man walking:
You can see, even though there is a nice curve, it doesn’t follow the fibonacci spiral overlay:
Regardless, I still like the photo, because it has good movement, and still a curve:
7. Don’t think too much
I think the fibonacci spiral is useful as a post-mortem (or after-the-fact) examination of our photos. Kind of like how you analyze a dead person (after) they die, to figure out what killed them.
In photography, always think about composition, but shoot from the gut. Don’t over-think it.
Study your compositions afterwards — when you go home.
Conclusion: How to improve your composition
Some practical photography composition assignments for you:
- Shoot from your gut or intuition when you’re making photos. Don’t think too much.
- When you go home, then analyze your compositions.
- Figure out how you failed in your compositions, internalize that information, and try to improve your compositions the next time you go out and shoot.
To learn more, check out all my free articles on composition >
Lessons from Henri Cartier-Bresson on composition
One of the best ways to study composition, is to study the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, and buy his books.
Some tips from the master:
1. Create a relationship of form
The first thing he states is that the ‘relationship of form’ is essential in photography:
“If a photograph is to communicate its subject in all its intensity, the relationship of form must be rigorously established. Photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things. What the eye does is to find and focus on the particular subject within the mass of reality; what the camera does is simply to register upon film the decision made by the eye.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
2. A photo doesn’t exist without composition
Also, Henri Cartier-Bresson shares that composition is integral to the image. You don’t just add it afterwards:
“One does not add composition as though it were an afterthought superimposed on the basic subject material, since it is impossible to separate content from form. Composition must have its own inevitability about it.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
3. Follow your gut
You can only shoot good compositions from intuition:
“Composition must be one of our constant preoccupations, but at the moment of shooting it can stem only from our intuition, for we are out to capture the fugitive moment, and all the interrelationships involved are on the move.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
4. Don’t crop
If you want to improve your compositions, don’t crop:
“If you start cutting or cropping a good photograph, it means death to the geometrically correct interplay of proportions. Besides, it very rarely happens that a photograph which was feebly composed can be saved by reconstruction of its composition under the darkroom’s enlarger; the integrity of vision is no longer there. There is a lot of talk about camera angles; but the only valid angles in existence are the angles of the geometry of composition and not the ones fabricated by the photographer who falls flat on his stomach or performs other antics to procure his effects.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
But then Henri Cartier-Bresson is a bit of a hypocrite; one of his most famous photos were cropped:
But I generally do find it is good not to crop photos, to learn how to work hard in the streets to get the best composition.
My rule for myself is I don’t mind a slight crop (less than 5-10%) if it will make a good photo. But very rarely do I crop.
For me, the reason I don’t like to crop is that cropping sometimes makes the photo too perfect. I prefer a little messiness on the edges of the frame (every once in a while). This way, the photograph feels more real and authentic.
For example, in this photo I shot in Tokyo, I could have cropped out that little rectangle in the top-left to make it look ‘cleaner’ — but I found it looked more ‘real’ and interesting without the crop:
If you want to improve your compositions, don’t crop any of your photos for a year. This will force you to hustle on the streets.
If you want another practical photography composition lesson for today, study “Figure to Ground.”