I've been scouring the web, and there're lots of pieces and parts on the wonderful world of composition. Every time I find something that looks promising, it ends abruptly. I'm not just blabbering on about basic composition and helpful hints to try, there's plenty of that around, and some of the resources quite good, but they never hold the depth that you wish (well, that I wish). I'm going to try to explain and bring together as much as I can about the organizing of the mess inside the frame.
Thanks to Damien, I'd like to explain a few things that I've heard/experienced throughout my photography and research. I'll intersperse these throughout the text as I think of them.
First one to come is of directionality of light and how your brain perceives it. In this case, Damien took a picture of a bang-bang device on the ground. It kept drawing my eye for some reason and I'd scroll up to look at something else, and find myself puzzling over it again and again. The light was different. Let's see if you can pick up on it:
As you may have noticed, the light's coming from the bottom of the photo. This plays on our brain in a curious way. This may be unsettling because in everything around us. light illuminates from on high. The sun, streetlights, stars, lights indoors in the ceilings... see? Most photography uses lights that are directed down on the subject, you'll see many that use reflectors below, providing ambient reflection that the ground might in bright sunlight, but the main source is from above. It's a curious fact of light, our brain likes light from above. If you want to unsettle your audience, light from below.
The flashlight pointed up at a face during a campfire horror story may even push the envelop further, conditioning our brain to perceive that angle as 'fright-inspiring'. Look at horror films, when there;s something off about the character, or if they just look sinister, take a closer look; you just may find that the lighting is from below.
Understanding composition is to understand how the mind reacts to an image.
The eye is attracted to bright objects.
The eye is attracted to sharp and clear objects.
If the eye follows a line out of the frame, the interest is generally lost as the mind continues on to something else.
Dark edges 'frame' an image and work to keep the eye from wandering out. (Vignetting is effective in this respect)
The eye is attracted to something dissimilar to surrounding objects.
Color combinations can either please or displease the eye.
Multiple objects/points of interest in the frame can keep the eyes contained and from bouncing around between them (effectively keeping their gaze within the frame).
Patterns tend to hold the eye in either confusion or wonder, it doesn't matter which.
You can guide the eye within the frame by using leading lines that require the eye to simply be lead. Path of least resistance promotes the desire to be guided. TV promotes this inherent laziness, and is easier to zone out to than, say, reading a book.
By having an out of focus object in the large foreground of a picture, you can force the eye to the sharp, but smaller object in the corner of the photograph. In the same manner, you can push the eyes from a dark area to a brighter one. I use the former example quite often in my work. I enjoy the pleasing effect and simpleness of bokeh (the out of focusness/blurriness) surrounding a clear, and in focus, subject. Perhaps I overuse it, but it's a clear and concise way to entrap the eye within the photo.
All of these are fantastic foundations for organizing the elements within an image, but probably the most important part is that the message needs to be clear, purposefully obscure, or be interesting in either subject matter or structure.
Probably the greatest exercise in understanding composition is to practice it. Either practice creating structure, i.e. taking photos, or examining it (such as on a website like 500px and figuring out why the impressive photos are so impressive).
The more you begin to notice what's effective, you begin to understand why. There's much that we don't know, but grasping the little bits and pieces aids in your understanding of how to organize the parts in a photograph. I like to think that I have a lot of great ideas (Sure you do Thomas!) If you know me personally, you'll know that I can't explain most of them very clearly. Regardless of whether or not I'm right, take what I do, or what you do, and expand on it. It can't hurt, and in either failing or succeeding, you learn.
One of the most common rules is the famous Rule of Thirds. Divide a photograph in threes, horizontally and vertically, and placing a subject on any of the intersections, or allowing areas to be placed along those lines, will typically result in an effective photograph. Much of this is due to the gold ratio. Read more about it here:
Combining that 'rule' with others generally builds on the effectiveness of a photograph.
Another thing the eye doesn't quite like is distracting elements... rather, the eye likes them so much that it's distracted easily by them. Simplify the frame. If something doesn't add to the photo, try removing it by either, changing perspective, angle, the time (letting a pesky cloud pass), cropping, or a number of other ways. One of th emost useful guidelines I use is this one. I love simplifying my frame. I tend to have one clear subject that stands pronounced against a background. I really like it, it gives an isolating feel, as well as a clear subject that I want the viewer to look at. I personally need to work on generating complex scenes that have a clear message. I've taken away in a lot of my photos, and now I need to start introducing small but important elements. One of the best examples is this photo:
I love it, it may not be the best, but I've added that light in the background. I positioned it several times before getting that particular position. It's a small detail that isn't the focus of the photograph, but it adds a great deal to the environment of the photo.
Give your directional subject some leading/breathing room. If your subject is either moving, or looking the right, the viewer's eyes want to follow, give them space in the frame to do so.
Have you ever seen mob mentality? If not, you've certainly heard of it... similar to 'monkey see, monkey do'. If you have a subject that is looking somewhere in the frame, and the viewer sees the subject's eyes, they will want to see what the subject sees.
Another aside, eyes are important to humans. In a photograph, the rim of eyeglasses or the hollow under the eyebrow, even if the eye itself isn't seen, will act as an extension of the subject's eye. It's more effective to see an eye and the slight bit of the other, than to just see one from the side profile. Keep an eye out for it when you see photographs of people looking out somewhere, do you see just one eye, or no eyes? Do you see the hint of the one or both eyes? Stare intently at something when others are around, do they glance back to see what you're looking at? Use that effect to your advantage in photographs.
Another matter I've touched on a little is the use of lines or curves in a photograph. You've all seen a photograph that has a long windy road that stretches on and on. Your eyes are attracted to that road like moths are to light. You follow it through the frame effortlessly. You lazy bugger you. Lines lead. Also known as Leading Lines, any sort of edge can take the eye on a magical journey. Converging lines are shown here:
Very effective at directing your gaze to the subject, or preventing you from leaving the frame, the model helps too... again, interesting subject.
C and S curves are also effective in composition, they're basically dynamic leading lines. They provide flow and movement that attracts the eye. S curves can be more than a road stretching into the distance. Used extensively in modeling, the human form is cast or caught in a shape that makes the eyes flow from one part of the body to another. Clouds and shadows can also provide the curve as I've tried to use it here:
C curves generally add a wide, gentle, sweeping motion to a picture. Whereas an S curve in the mountain, or in a road will be the subject, C curves have more of a secondary, background, and complimentary nature to them. They'll lead the eye to a subject as opposed to being the subject themselves. Very graceful, C curves can enhance an image in a subtle way.
"Gestures" It's come to mind now, and though a bit more advanced of a topic, I think it'll fit in here as well as any other spot (as if this article has any organization whatsoever). Steve Pelton first put the name to it on my journey to the Antarctic. I'd like him to write a bit about it himself, as I'm sure he'll talk about it in a different way, or add details that he's found, but I'll explain it as I've seen it and used it. Gestures in photography are the little details that add the life to th photo. A water droplet off a bird's beak in a minimalist photograph will add that little bit of oompf that would be lost without it. A small detail that goes mostly unnoticed, a gesture adds a feel to the photograph. Perhaps a small face in the window of a large, seemingly abandoned, house could be the same, or even a small chipmunk, barely distinguishable from the surrounding leaves on a forest floor.
I don't use it often. Sure, I have tiny details that make some of my photos better, but I don't design a photograph around them. I'll have to do this in the future because it adds that little extra which may possibly take my photography in a direction that I want.
Up next, and in no particular order, is telling a story. Another friend, Samuel Morse, is a fantastic photojournalist that produces textbook quality scenes that I'm just in awe of. His first bit of advice that I never seem to remember is to take three shots; an environmental shot, a story shot, and a detail shot. Set the place, tell a story, and support the story. If you look at the majority of his work, it's of people doing something. You see something happening, and you see a story being told in the proverbial "thousand words". He's probably the one who also told me about keeping the eyes visible in a story. He always gets the angle (I hope he takes a lot of crap shots before getting there, otherwise it's just not fair) that captures the story with the human element being present so the viewer can relate. If I can pry the information out of him, I'll get him to say a little something on this in his own words. Composition is great to tell a story, but who says you're limited to one photograph to do it?
Geometry in composition is another big, but subtle, player in effective composition. Again, it's another topic that I was aware of, but just haven't put into deliberate use in my photographs. My eyes see them and organize them in the frame, but only because they're complying with other rules that give me my feel for composing. Circles, very soothing and natural, again, there's flow to them and... well THIS ARTICLE goes on much better than I can.
And you can see that the article has covered squares, reculartangles, and tryandjingles (I celebrate Christmas, and it's coming soon as I write this).
Triangles are a huge part that I'd like to touch on a bit more. If you ever read old portrait manuals, they always stress putting heads in triangles. It allows the eye to weigh on each member equally and keeps the eyes around the organized and pleasing geometry of their faces.
A note: I've read somewhere that old magazine editors would never accept photographs of people (i.e. two) where the lines of their eyes weren't parallel to each other's. I don't know much about this, but it makes sense in the continuity of direction.
If you look at a great deal of photographs, you can see tryandjingles and diagonals play a major part in successful images. If you look, they're everywhere. THIS ARTICLE demonstrates just how important a role they do play.
For me, they always seem to appear magically in my shots. Most of the time, it's because I'm looking at general balance in my composing, and the tryandjingles are a side effect of good composition. You could work the other way too though, organize by the three-sided-devils and the other compositional rules will align themselves properly in the photograph.
I need a rest. What else could there possibly be for composition? i think I've included more for composing so far than many others. I hope, the reader, finds that this is quality information.
I like breaking the rules. I try different ideas to shake things up. It doesn't always work but you learn, and you keep trying. Some of the failures I really enjoy because I have an emotional connection to the photograph. I don't know about you guys, but I'm shooting for me. One of my photos that I enjoy on a personal level is this one:
I'd like to think that it's effective at what I was aiming for. I was trying to create a different image from a subject that's widely photographed. This is Bahrain's Tree of Life. I wanted the viewer to try to make an effort to see it. The picture is exposed correctly (I made the exposure how I saw fit, and in that, I did it correctly) albeit darker than many would like, and too dark to catch the viewer's eye from a distance, I wanted a very personal image that took the effort and desire of the viewer to enjoy the photograph. I think it still holds some compositional merits, but the underexposure by normal standards drives the viewer from it initially. I think it was a great idea. It pleases me because I see the beauty in it, that's the number one objective in my photography.
I'm in the process of creating another image that plays on the dark and is intended to surprise and reward the persistent viewer...
All in all, breaking the rules is fun. I learned quite a bit on my trip to Antarctica about photographing birds. And here's an image that I love because I was lucky enough to get the damn bird, but was unlucky enough to not catch its beak. A general rule for objects that are able to be completely framed, is that you don't want to clip any parts of it. You want to have the animal doing something interesting, something besides just sitting there. Show the subject about to do something, create anticipation, create visual potential energy, or capture the actual action.
Sometimes the anticipation of something is better than the action. I know we were talking about birds a second ago, but nude portraits are a wonderful example of this. I'm a huge fan of leaving something to the imagination. Your mind will desire to complete the image, and with nude portraiture, it's easy to show all, harder to show all in an attractive way, and harder yet to show nothing whilst making the mind imagine what's missing in order to achieve that same subtle sexiness. The mind creates better images than any photograph.
Back to beasts: Say there's this large amnimal that's too close to fit in the frame. "There's this large amnimal that's too close to fit in the frame." Good. Now, when you leave much of the amnimal out of the frame, it tends to force the mind into creating the rest of the image. There's an art to this however, you've hopefully seen optical illusions such as this:
What happens when you have an animal with lines that converge until they hit the edge of the frame? Your mind completes it; you give it a finite value. If the lines do not converge, you're left with an unknown mass that your mind may exaggerate better than the picture can. Think of a buffalo head with the shoulders leaving the frame. However, when you have a bird's wing (finally we get back to the birds), and it's tip is just outside of the frame, the converging lines... converge, and you're left feeling incomplete because that little bit could've most definitely fit in the frame. You're left with a missing piece instead of a mass that couldn't have fit.
Birds and wildlife in photos can be treated very much the same way as humans. Something interesting happening is going to be interesting to look at. If they're sitting there like a bump on a log, human or critter, they're going to be boring.
It seems that my points are getting more and more muddled... excuse me, I'm going to pause until I get some rest and regain my energy.
And here are some additional useful links: