How to add more drama, sex, and dynamism to your photographs:
The manual you hold in your hand (or device) is your key to unlocking the secrets of DYNAMIC COMPOSITION. The principles in this book will empower your visual artistry — not just in photography, but in architecture, painting, graphic design, or any form of visual art.
Above all, we want to give you a spirit of play, fun, and experimentation. You will never grow as a visual artist if you never take risks, or push your visual artistry outside of your comfort zone.
Composition: The art of putting together visual elements.
You can apply principles of “composition” to writing, to music, and all forms of art.
Why is composition important?
Without composition, your pictures would have no visual coherence or meaning.
In writing, the meaning of words don’t come from the words themselves — the meaning comes from the arrangement of the words.
In photography the same principle applies. The meaning of your pictures is created from the arrangement of the visual objects in your picture. In your picture, you decide where to place your subject(s), how to frame your scene, what to include and exclude from the frame, who or what to place in the foreground, middle ground, or background.
Composition applies to almost everything in photography, from the colors you use, what kind of light you use (natural light, time of day, color of light, flash), how you decide to process your pictures in black and white or color.
Ultimately, the importance of composition as a visual artist:
You show the viewer what is important in your picture.
Is there such thing as a “good” or “bad” composition?
As a visual artist, you must be opinionated. A picture without a message is useless.
As a visual artist, you are trying to COMMUNICATE with your viewer. You use your camera or pen as a tool —to tell your viewer, “This is what I find beautiful or interesting in the world. I will use composition as a visual framework to direct your eyeballs, to look at what I think is important. Just follow the leading lines, and visual forms.”
Personally, I don’t think there is such a thing as “good” or “bad” composition. However, I do see certain compositions as DYNAMIC and EDGY, while I find other compositions boring, stale, and static.
If you’re reading this book, you have a hunger and thirst to make powerful pictures. You want to make pictures that excite your viewer, and gives your viewer a re-invigorated zest for life. As a visual artist, you are affirming the beauty and joy of life.
Real life is dynamic, complex, and energetic. So why not have your pictures reflect your personal philosophy how you see real life?
Asymmetry is the key to DYNAMIC COMPOSITION
Symmetry is boring. A lot of photographers compose their scenes according to the “rule of thirds” where the frame is perfectly sectioned off into clean, and evenly divided sectors of space.
But this is boring — because real life isn’t perfectly symmetrical. Anyone who doesn’t have rough edges are generally boring. What makes a unique or interesting personality? Dynamic edges.
Therefore, to make a dynamic composition, think BEYOND simple horizontal and vertical lines. Think about OFF-BALANCE and OFF-KILTER compositions. Think DIAGONALS, CURVES, and triangles.
The difficulty of creating a strong dynamic composition: keeping it simple.
DYNAMIC + SIMPLE Compositions
How do you make a dynamic yet simple composition?
DYNAMIC: Making a composition with a wide-angle lens (28mm-35mm), shooting head-on (not from the side), embracing unique and dynamic perspectives (very low angles looking up, or very high angles looking down), and pictures with dynamic contrast and dynamic emotions.
SIMPLE: Coherence, strength, a strong foundation, clear separation between subject and background (“figure-to-ground”/contrast), clean edges of the frame, and unity in the frame.
You are always trying to balance dynamism and simplicity while you’re shooting. To be honest, much of discovering what your best pictures are during the “editing” phase—when you’re at home, choosing your best pictures after the fact.
How to shoot dynamic compositions “in real life”
When you’re shooting on the streets, what I recommend to look for or think:
1. SIMPLE BACKGROUND
First look for simple backgrounds, then look around for interesting subjects to add afterwards. You will be more successful making simple and dynamic pictures by first starting with a SIMPLE BACKGROUND. Start with a simple background, then try to get a DYNAMIC SUBJECT.
2. DYNAMIC SUBJECT
A dynamic subject is someone who has unique fashion, who is in motion (try to photograph them walking, with their legs in a “V” shape), someone with hand gestures (avoid photographing people with their hands just hanging by their side).
It is impossible to think of complex red grids when you’re out shooting in the real world. An easier way to think: THINK DIAGONALS. Look for diagonal lines in the streets as graphical lines and visual elements, look for diagonals in the arms of people, or their legs.
4. DUTCH ANGLE
If you don’t see diagonal lines on the streets, tilt your camera to FORCE a diagonal composition. A lot of classic film noir and German films utilize this technique, to add more drama, danger, and sex to certain high-tension scenes.
5. DYNAMIC EMOTIONS
Interact with your subjects. Ask them for their life story, or ask them what their dream in life is. Or, when you’re shooting without permission, look for people who look lost, or a little depressed. Or look for happy, joyful people. Look for emotions in their faces, their body language, or their eyes.
Dynamic Composition Lexicon
Also as a practical tip, the words you want to add to your vocabulary, and to keep in the back of your head include:
Write down these words, and store them in your visual memory, and add them to your visual toolbox / lexicon.
One of the principles of dynamic composition to follow is the GOLDEN TRIANGLE. The Golden Triangle is just a framework we can use to analyze our pictures after we have made them.
The general principle: imagine your frame as a rectangle. Then draw diagonals connecting the EDGES of the frame, then drawing more diagonal lines which run PERPENDICULAR to one another.
The points in which the diagonals intersect are DYNAMIC POINTS. Dynamic points draw the eye of the viewer.
Therefore, if you want stronger structure in your pictures, try to make your pictures have lots of dynamic diagonals, and have points of interest in the DYNAMIC POINTS.
Use a separate piece of paper and draw the Golden Triangle in a notebook.
Case-Study: Boy in flowers // Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa
Note how Akira Kurosawa utilizes the Golden Triangle composition in this scene:
Golden Triangle Assignment
Assignment: Look at your favorite pictures, where you think the composition is strong and dynamic. Print out your picture, and use a red pen or marker to draw the compositional lines on your picture.
Do you see dynamic diagonals?
Do any of your pictures follow the Golden Triangle?
How can you apply the principles of the Golden Triangle when you’re out making pictures?
Pro-Tip: When you’re using Adobe Lightroom on a computer, access the Golden Triangle Grid by:
- Selecting a picture,
- going to the “Develop” module (hotkey “D”),
- access the Crop tool (hotkey “R”)
- press “O” to change the compositional “overlay” grid
- Keep pressing “O” until you access the Golden Triangle grid
- Press “Shift+O” to change the orientation of the Golden Triangle grid, or any other compositional grid
Once you’ve mastered the fundamentals of the Golden Triangle, let us continue to work on the Fibonacci spiral —the next step to advance your dynamic composition.
Whereas the Golden Triangle focuses on dynamic diagonals, the Fibonacci spiral focuses on DYNAMIC CURVES.
There are no straight lines in nature. When is the last time you saw a straight tree, river, or human being?
Modernity has cursed us with straight Euclidean lines. Most modern architecture is all (boring) straight lines. More dynamic, and innovative architects like Zaha Hadid have embraced more fluid, dynamic, organic, curved and aggressive lines and spaces.
To make a Fibonacci spiral, follow the same beginning steps of the Golden Triangle. Then, start to divide the box into smaller sub-boxes. Then, draw a curved spiral, to connect the points.
Using the Fibonacci spiral in “real life”
I seriously doubt that anyone can see the Fibonacci spiral in real life, when they’re actually making pictures. I think the Fibonacci spiral is more useful as a tool to analyze our pictures as a post-Mortem, after-the-fact.
Above all, the concept of the Fibonacci spiral is useful because it makes us to start thinking about DYNAMIC CURVES.
We want to add more curves to our compositions and pictures.
How to add curves to your compositions or pictures
Practical tips how to add curves to your pictures:
1. Look for curves and spirals
Look for spiral staircases, seashells, circles, or things which already have curves. Therefore as a photography assignment, go out with the INTENTION of looking for, hunting for, and analyzing curves. Make it a game: see how many curves you can spot and identify.
2. Study nature
There is a concept of “fractals”— a self-sustaining and self-directed form of growth in nature. Study the growth patterns of trees, veins, rivers, and bodies of water. Look for the curves. Draw the curves in a notebook or your iPad, or phone. Think curves.
3. Study the human body:
Where do you see curves in the human body? Think about the hourglass curves in a woman’s hips. Study classic statues and renaissance art— and note how classic conceptions of beauty showed women as quite plump and curvaceous.
Think about how our hair grows, how our nails grow (curved), or the subtle curves in our bones which make them stronger. Consider the human spine — we think it is straight, but in fact, it is curved.
4. Look for curved architecture or roads
Look for curves in pottery or sculpture.
5. Start with the edges of your frame
To accentuate curves in your pictures, start with the EDGES of your frame. Try to get the start of your curve to start from one of the edges of your frame. Then give the curve enough space in the frame to spiral around. Imagine giving a snake the opportunity to spiral around the frame.
6. Photograph details
When photographing the human body, be very specific— get close to the curves of people (their hips, their elbows), or have them bend, and contort their bodies to CREATE CURVES with their body.
Curve composition photography assignments
Assignment: Get a piece of paper, or open a drawing app on your phone or tablet. For fun, draw curves. See how many curves, spirals, you can fit on a piece of paper. Let your hand go wild.
Assignment 2: Figure out how many different ways you can contort your body to make spirals and curves (think Yoga poses). By creating curves with your own body, you can better understand the curves in the bodies of other people.
FIGURE TO GROUND
To create a dynamic composition, you need dynamic contrast between your subject and the background.
FIGURE TO GROUND is a compositional concept of having your figure (subject) pop out, or have contrast with the ground (background).
– Dark subject against white background
– White subject against dark background
Why is Figure to ground important?
Without a strong figure to ground between your subject and background, your viewer will struggle to know who or what the subject is. By creating a strong figure to ground in the picture, you can help direct your viewer’s eye to focus on the subject.
You want to create a “visual anchor” for your viewer— giving them a strong subject, with a strong contrast to focus their eyes on.
Also, pictures with strong figure to ground are more aesthetically pleasing to look at.
You can also see through these diagrams, our eyes look through a picture or a frame according to the degrees of the intensity of light or contrast. Or to the strength of the “figure to ground” contrast in the picture.
Generally, I recommend starting with a black background or canvas — to practice figure to ground. Of course, the inverse works — if you see dark subjects against a white background:
Figure to ground assignments
Assignment: Find a simple white background in your home, and photograph different subjects or objects against it. Photograph your hand, different colored objects, and experiment shooting some pictures with a flash, and some pictures without a flash.
Pro-tip: To create stronger pictures and figure to ground, AVOID OVERLAPPING FIGURES. Add some white space between the different subjects and elements in the frame.
To create a visual hierarchy of multiple subjects in a frame, there are different strategies:
1. Variety of head height
Studying Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa:
2. Sitting vs standing / direction of body
When composing a scene, add depth by compressing the scene with having certain figures closer to your lens, and others further away:
4. Clustering of subjects
Have some of your subjects in the forefront/foreground, and other subjects to be crouched and clustered together:
5. Strong diagonal lines