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Depth and the Illusion of Reality

Depth and illusion are two of the larger considerations in photographic composition. Photographs are two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional ideas. Our eyes are stereoscopic, giving us the perception of depth in our three-dimensional world. Photography is monocular vision that produces a two-dimensional
image. You need to rely on shadow and perspective to create the illusion of depth.

The illusion of a 3D world in a 2D photo

Visual effects create a connection between the elements of composition and our understanding of what is happening in the image. Although a photograph is two-dimensional and static, it can convey meaning that translates to height, width, depth, and time. In other words, a two-dimensional image conveys four dimensions of information through visual effects.

The space of a visual presentation is defined by the furthest and the closest points that we can see in that scene. A photograph against a plain background can be confined to the model herself. Compare that to a vast landscape where we can see elements that are very close, as well as the horizon. An interior environment can define the space of an image by showing the floor, walls, and ceiling. Where you fit your subject into that three-dimensional space is a crucial element of composition. A subject close to the camera will typically appear larger.

The angle of the body and reflections give us clues to the 3D space

 

 

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Harmony and Variety in Photographic Composition

Harmony and variety are vital compositional concepts. Harmony is when the elements work together. Harmony and discord can exist within various elements, such as color, shape, and tone. Within a single image, there can be harmony in one element and discord in another. For example, you may have color harmony, but a discord in the contrast of shapes.

Colors that lie close to each other harmonize. Harmonious images are more relaxing. They are calming
and easier on the eye. Bold colors can excite. Contrasting colors stand out and can create discord when used in roughly equal amounts. Shapes that are well placed also can achieve harmony.

Lines of force and points of interest can help achieve harmony in a composition. Shapes that complement each other help to create harmony. For example, interlocking shapes or shapes of varying sizes that echo each other appear harmonious.

Considering color harmony
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The Visual Pathway (Photo Composition)

Every successful image has a visual pathway, whether it is intentional or not. Without a visual pathway, the eye wanders aimlessly through unrelated elements. The visual pathway is the sequence of points of interest that the viewer notices. The pathway forms a structure, and the viewer’s gaze should flow through this structure. Scientists would be quick to tell you that the eye darts around the image and does not move in a fluid pathway, but the visual pathway is about the order of visual dominance of elements.

Although your eye may momentarily hunt for each element, the mind latches onto each point of interest. The exact pathway will vary with each viewer, but we are all similarly programmed with regard to what we notice first.

 

How to Identify the Visual Pathway

  1. Identify points of interest.
  2. Identify lines of force (a.k.a. guiding lines or leading lines).
  3. Determine which point of interest is the entry point.
  4. Determine the sequence of the remaining lines and points.

Learn composition from the book Exquisite Curves

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Emphasis in Photographic Composition

Emphasis is achieved through various devices, most notably via points of interest. A point of interest is any
meaningful part of the image that attracts a viewer’s attention for a span of time. Points of interest are
sometimes called focal points, but I will refrain from using that term to avoid confusion with optical focus.

Points of interest are created by:

  • Contrast in colors (vivid among dull, hot among cool, etc.)
  • Contrasts tones (bright spot or dark spot)
  • Contrast in shapes
  • Meaningful elements (e.g. a face, hand, etc.)

Dissimilar shapes, especially large objects, will gain attention. Objects in the foreground garner attention, especially if they are in the sharpest plane of focus. Finally, a sense of action will grab attention, such as something thrown or falling.

Emphasis is important to understanding the visual pathway.

The face, hips, breast, pool balls, and hand all create points of interest.
The face, hips, breast, pool balls, and hand all create points of interest.
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15 Quick Design Concepts

Here are more than a dozen terms that you should become acquainted with to learn photographic design and composition:

  1. Compositional elements: lines, dimension, value (brightness), color, mass/weight, depth, the illusion of reality, time and motion
  2. Balance: A balanced composition has masses that are distributed across the image.
  3. Harmony
  4. Emphasis
  5. Rhythm
  6. Figure/ground (positive/negative space)
  7. Unity
  8. Variety
  9. Armature: a framework on which a photograph can be composed. (examples: golden mean, rule of thirds, diagonal method)
  10. Golden mean
  11. Rule of thirds
  12. Diagonal method
  13. Diagonal placement
  14. Gestalt
  15. Visual pathway

So what are the dominant design practices? Is the golden mean better than the rule of thirds? Does a simple framework or complex framework engender the better composition? There is no decisively superior design process. Although the golden mean may be more precise and less symmetrical than the rule of thirds, this does not automatically result in better compositions. The fact that forty-five degree diagonals are easy to apply to most designs does not suggest that there is nothing to learn from armatures that are more complex.

Each design method has something to offer and strict adherence to any of them is not required to learn the fundamentals. Based on those assumptions, there is nothing magical about any given one, and you can combine and deviate quite a bit and still be successful.

Leading Lines, Design in Photography

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Basic Compositional Elements

The basic compositional elements that go into a photograph are line, dimension, value (brightness), color, mass/weight, depth, and the illusions of reality, time, and motion.

Discovering how to analyze the formal aspects of a work of art begins with a basic discussion of the visual elements. Lines, depth, colors, and anything else that guides the eye through a photograph are part of its composition. Mastering composition is one of the more difficult and most powerful aspects of producing meaningful nude photographs. To get there, you must first understand these most basic elements.

Dimension is the concept of defining the height, width, and depth of an object. Most dimensional elements in figure photography are straight lines and curves.

The use of lines is an effective way to add structure to an image. Lines are apparent in the distinction between light and dark, especially at the edge of the subject seen against the background and in the limbs.

After lines, two-dimensional shapes are the next dimensional element. Similar to lines, shapes, such as circles and triangles, can be definite or implied.

A rectangle is implied by the shape of the legs.
A rectangle is implied by the shape of the legs.
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Qualities that make a Beautiful Nude Photograph

Someone recently asked me, “What makes a figure photograph appealing?” I didn’t answer that it was the model’s face, body, or any particular part. My job is not to document an exceptional specimen of humanity. I collaborate with the model on creative expression. Here is a list of qualities that I feel make a beautiful photograph of the body. A particular photograph may have only one of these qualities and some are mutually exclusive.

Unity. All the elements of the image seem to belong together through color, shape, repetition, and balance of visual weight.
Unity. All the elements of the image seem to belong together through color, shape, repetition, and balance of visual weight.

 

Pattern and variation. The repetition of shapes has inspired artists for centuries. In this image, the clouds, oyster shells, and cloth all contain patterns of undulating curves.
Pattern and variation. The repetition of shapes has inspired artists for centuries. In this image, the clouds, oyster shells, and cloth all contain patterns of undulating curves.

 

 

Simplicity. Sometimes just a few visual elements is all it takes.
Simplicity. Sometimes just a few visual elements is all it takes.
Energy. Nothing quite captures the imagination like high energy.
Energy. Nothing quite captures the imagination like high energy.
Symmetry. Although static composition can lack dynamism, perfect symmetry is captivating. Beautiful faces often feel perfectly mirrored.
Symmetry. Although static composition can lack dynamism, perfect symmetry is captivating. Beautiful faces often feel perfectly mirrored.

 

Transformation. The feeling of change, either happening, impending, or recently transpired is a powerful concept.
Transformation. The feeling of change, either happening, impending, or recently transpired is a powerful concept. Dance is a prime example of transformation.