Photographic Composition: A Visual Guide

Photographic Composition: A Visual Guide

by Richard D. Zakia, David Page

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However amazing the subject or technically excellent the photography, the single biggest factor in deciding whether a photograph is good or bad is how well it is composed.

Photographic Composition Visualized offers a unique take on this fundamental issue by offering instruction in a visual format - the book is laid out in a unique spread format of a beautiful

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However amazing the subject or technically excellent the photography, the single biggest factor in deciding whether a photograph is good or bad is how well it is composed.

Photographic Composition Visualized offers a unique take on this fundamental issue by offering instruction in a visual format - the book is laid out in a unique spread format of a beautiful image on one page, with an in-depth break down of why the rule of composition works in the image, but also how a photographer can apply it to their own photography.

Inspirational, instructive, and, most importantly, visually stunning and beautiful, photography master Richard Zakia teaches the lessons he has learned from over 40 years as a photographer. This is the book every photographer needs to own in order to create the outstanding images they always wanted to - but didn't know how.

*Learn the rules of photographic composition direct from a master photographer

*Unique format SHOWS the reader specific rules of composition with inspirational images and then TELLS them exactly how to apply it to their own photography

*Covers the full range of compositional considerations, from pre-capture to post-processing

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Those of you who follow this blog know that Dr. Richard Zakia, former RIT professor, is one of my all time favorite photo gurus. We send each other pictures. We talk about looking into pictures - and not just looking at them. Big difference.. Dr. Richard Zakia, a.k.a. Dick, is the co-author, along with David Page, of Photographic Composition: A Visual Guide. These two dudes are also two of my favorite people."—-Rick Sammon's blog

"Covers all the tips needed to help photographers construct their own unique, outstanding images and is an outstanding 'must' for any collection."—CA Bookwatch

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Photographic Composition

A Visual Guide
By Richard D. Zakia David A. Page

Focal Press

Copyright © 2011 Richard D. Zakia and David A. Page
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-240-81508-4

Chapter One

Before Capture

It is helpful to give some thought to what you want to photograph before going out to do so. Both physical and mental planning are important when preparing to photograph.

Physical Preparation: Besides preparing the needed equipment such as cameras, lenses, filters, and the like, thought must be given to what you intend to photograph: nonaction (landscapes, flowers, portraits, antique cars) or action (sports, kids at play, motion). For example, in photographing a person, many a fine portrait has been diminished because the person to be photographed got bored waiting for the photographer to get ready, which includes such things as selecting the background, type of lighting, camera lens, and filter. All preparation should be taken care of before the person is positioned to ensure the desired result. The first few seconds of a portrait session are golden. Relax your subject. Some photographers play music in the background to help relax the person.

Rick Sammon, author of many books on photography, has his own method for relaxing people before photographing them. He spends time with them before photographing, engaging them in conversation, telling jokes, and performing some magic tricks to entertain. It has worked well for him.

When Vicki Wilson decided to do a Vermeer-like photograph (subject bathed in soft window light), she planned well ahead by first reviewing the many Vermeer paintings on the internet. She and missy discussed the location, props, wardrobe, and what missy would be doing (implied action) while being photographed. (See page 197) A two-hour block of time was reserved for completing the assignment.

When photographing a landscape, time of day becomes important, because it will determine the direction and quality of light available (bright sun, cloudy, hazy). Realize that even with planning, atmospheric conditions might change. Don't overlook the opportunity to capture the unexpected. It is amazing how photographing in a mist or during and after a rain can add mood and substance to the image. When Ansel Adams photographed landscapes, he always attended to the sky to make sure no birds were in flight, as they would be recorded as white specs of dust on the negative and black specs on the print.

Roy Stryker, who headed up the important photographic operation of the Farm security Administration (FSA) in 1939, would make specific assignments for his photographers. In his "General Notes for Pictures Needed for Files" he would list such things as small towns, signs, farms, industry, people, and so on. Photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and others would carry out their assignments but would also keep an eye open for unassigned opportunities.

There are times, however, when it is fun and most enjoyable and relaxing to just go out to a new location and photograph whatever interests you at the moment and then study it later. Although new locations can be stimulating so can familiar ones. Some years back, when Bea nettles was teaching at the Rochester institute of technology (RIT) while pregnant, she was not able to do any traveling. She decided to stay around the house and take photographs of her flowers and other things—with great success.

Mental Preparation: In addition to physical preparation, some photographers spend time getting into the right frame of mind before setting out to photograph. Edward Weston, for example, spent time listening to the music of Bach. He attests to this in his diaries (edited by Nancy Newhall). He mentions that when he hears Bach, he is deeply moved and feels his influence. Music and photography were closely linked for Weston, as they were for other photographers—some of whom happened also to be musicians, such as Ansel Adams, Paul Caponigro, Carl Chiarenza, and George DeWolfe. Weston's remark that when he hears Bach in his photo he knows that he has succeeded, suggests that he may have had a synesthetic (the ability of one sense to trigger another) experience.

A PBS program on "music and science" broadcast in June 2009 pointed out how music stimulates our imagination, that it has certain emotional characteristics, and that music can change our state of mind.

There are many ways to prepare the mind prior to photographing. Some prefer listening to music, some playing music, some reading poetry, some praying and meditating. Minor white, for example, practiced Zen; Duane Michals and Paul Caponigro followed Buddhism. Sometimes things can work in reverse. Prayer can help in preparing to photograph and photography itself can also be a form of prayer. A friend who is a Jesuit priest and a prominent photographer once told me that for him photography was a form of prayer.

Some photographers have found "mindfulness" helpful. George Dewolfe, in a personal note, wrote, "I use mindfulness because it puts me here, right now, with a calm and aware mind.... It doesn't so much guarantee you a great photograph, but it puts you in a place where you can see one.... Above all, I think the main motivation is the love of photography itself—the passion. It is the power that propels us to picture the world we see."

Chapter Two



Rule of Thirds


Off Center

Lead Line


C-Shape Curve

Reverse C-Shape




Horizon Line





Rule of Thirds: imagine the photograph you are about to take as having superimposed upon it four imaginary lines spaced equally apart. Two are horizontal and two are vertical. If you are photographing only one subject and place it at any one of the four intersecting lines, you will, in most cases, have a balanced photograph. If the subjects are sitting or are small children standing, the lower intersecting points could be used. When considering where to place a horizon line, the top or bottom horizon line would work well, depending upon the subject matter. The rule of thirds is a popular and practical compositional consideration device. Rules such as this were in use by painters in the nineteenth century.

The navy planes performing their air show in Louisville, Kentucky, presented an interesting compositional challenge. Normally, one would want to have more distance in front of the planes than behind. Here, it was decided to include the smoke trails to suggest speed. The puffs of clouds just below the planes provide interest and balance. All of these quick visual decisions were made as the Blue Angles zipped by at over 200 mph. The dark blue color of the airplanes with a yellow trim helps them stand out against the lighter blue sky. The diagonal formation of the planes provides a dynamic arrangement that plays well against the horizontal smoke trails. Their first exhibition flight was in June 1946 at their home base, naval Air station, in Jacksonville, Florida.

Many of today's digital cameras come with a rule of thirds pattern that displays on the viewing screen on the back of the camera. This can be helpful in framing your photographs. Here, the capture of the subject is well placed in a position at the upper-left intersection of the grid. It could have also been placed at the upper-right intersection, but this would not have given room for the boat to move speedily within the frame of the photograph. Consider how the speeding boat might have looked at the lower intersecting points. A fast shutter speed and panning the camera with the boat was necessary to avoid blur and capture a sharp image.

A typical teenager with a cell phone is crouched in a soft, comfortable chair and is unaware that she is being photographed. Her head is nicely positioned so that it falls in the upper-left intersection of the rule of thirds. The color of her green blouse is given emphasis by the dark reddish chair in which she sits. The diamond-shaped patterns in the chair work well against the plain grayish background of the wall. Had there been a plant or some other object in the background, it might have drawn attention away from the main subject.

Think of the intersecting points of the rule of thirds grid, not as a point but rather as a target area. Although Lauren and Molly are not positioned at the exact grid intersection, they are on target, providing a well-balanced photograph. Being overly concerned with placing your subjects at the exact intersection or vertical lines can impede your photographic efforts and take the fun out of photography. Insisting on a perfect positioning could cause the girls to get anxious and a bit frustrated, which could destroy some of the spontaneity of the pose.

The twin sisters sit quietly and attentively for this Halloween photograph taken by their mother. The two girls are at ease and seem to enjoy having their picture taken. They each chose their own costume, which reflects two distinct personalities.

This scene is a typical one: a food court in a mall and two teenagers at lunch, playfully using their cell phones to chat. Their two faces follow the rule of thirds in the horizontal direction but not in the vertical direction. The distance between them seems to be one with which they are both comfortable. Had they been asked to move so that their heads would fall along the vertical intersection of the grid, the photograph would be less intimate and the spontaneity of the moment lost. From the looks on their faces, they are not just posing but are actually carrying on a conversation. The photo can be read as a parody of our over-dependence on cell phones.

Centering: sometimes centering an object, such as this lighthouse, is the right thing to do. Its strongly centered vertical lines are counterbalanced by horizontal lines of grass and sea and a beautiful blue sky.

Centering a photograph can be quite acceptable, depending upon the subject matter. If the penguins were a bit off to the right or to the left, the photo would appear unbalanced.

Off Center: the blue-feathered body of the peacock is not centered and is off to one side, close to the left vertical line of the rule of thirds. This is more interesting than having the bird placed dead center. Fan-like feathers of the bird completely fill the frame, providing an uninterrupted colorful background. The iridescent blue and green colors are a result of optical interference similar to what we see in an oil slick on water. It is the male peacock that displays such brilliantly colored tail feathers. The female has a mixture of dull green, brown, and gray. The yellow feathers that surround his blue body provide a strong color contrast.

Lead Line: the serpentine lead line meandering through the brownish foreground brings the eye to the snow-capped peaks of Mount Mckinley, the highest mountain in north America, with a height of approximately 20,320 feet (nearly 4 miles). Its Indian name is Denali (the great one) and it is the centerpiece of Denali national Park in Alaska. The narrowing lead line provides a dimension of depth, as do the black mountain peaks in the foreground that contrast against the white peaks in the distance. The warm, dark colors in the foreground complement the blue sky and white snow peaks at the end of the trail, which is central to the photograph. Had the photographer chosen a longer focal length lens, the white-capped mountain peaks in the distance would appear larger, but at the expense of a loss in the lovely meandering lead line.

S-Curve: the curved lead line directs the viewer's attention from the bottom right of the photograph to the tall buildings of downtown Vancouver. The diminishing width of the line as it curves its way downtown creates a sense of depth. The straight bicycle path at the far left side of the photograph balances the dominant s-shape curve. It is important to the composition that when a photographer incorporates a lead line; it serves a purpose, in this case inviting someone to visually "travel down the path" and be rewarded by an interesting subject at the end of the path. In this photograph, the reward is the majestic buildings and skyline of a great city. To the far left, one notices a building under construction and a very tall crane against a blue powdery sky—a sign of a growth.

A 600mm lens was used to capture the colorful racecars on turns five and six at the Virginia international raceway. This increased the shape of the s-curve by compressing the field of view, which is a useful attribute of a long focal length lens. The colorful arrangement of the racecars provides added interest to the sinuous s-shaped track. The time of the exposure was based on capturing the orange car as the first car, which required considerable planning and patience.

"By reviewing the old we learn the new": we see here the use of the s-curve in this 500-year-old decorated painting. Joseph is being sold by his brothers and is the center of interest as the elders discuss the exchange. Illuminated manuscripts are the most common specimen of medieval painting to survive.

C-Shape Curve: this photograph, taken at the Richmond Virginia racetrack, reflects the use of a compositional c-shape curve, which plays well against the straight seat arrangement in the stadium. The action is caught just at the turn when one of the cars begins to spin out, leaving a cloud of white smoke. Additional interest is generated by the dark blue color of the evening sky in the background and the normal colors of the brightly illuminated track.

Reverse C-Shape: The reverse C-shape curve of the wooden split-rail fence in this snow-covered field on the Blue ridge Parkway near Floyd, Virginia, leads the viewer's eyes into the muted background. As the fence diminishes in size, it provides an added sense of depth. The curved shape of the fence can be seen as both concave and convex. The concave side embraces the field of snow at the left while the convex side pushes against the snow on the right—much as a sail on a sailboat gathers wind and pushes the boat forward. The bare trees to the left and the grouping of snow-muted trees in the distance add to the feeling of a cold, wintry day.

L-shape: A little girl in a white dress and yellow hat is seen feeding four young ducks at the edge of a pond. Her vertical position is slightly off to the left and her hand is outstretched. It is an interesting composition and photograph. The position of the girl and four ducks suggests an l-shape. The lone mother duck standing protective guard at the edge of the blue pond extends the l. The diagonal shoreline of the pond is greatly preferable over a static horizontal shoreline.

V-Shape: In creating this classic view of the mountains in the English lake district, the photographer framed his photograph so that the mountain in the background occupied the center position. On either side, there are two sloping mountains. The line that forms the left slope together with the one that forms the right slope make the letter V. A feeling of depth is provided by the formation of rocks in the foreground, the lake in the middle ground, the two mountains in the far middle ground, and the great gable mountain in the background. Mountains are earth's undecaying monuments. Nathaniel Hawthorne

Triangles: Thayer's arrangement of the three figures, the tall goddess in the middle with two small girls on either side, forms a strong triangle. The goddess's outstretched hanging arms form a narrower triangle that gives added strength to the composition. Behind, and on either side of her, is a cloud formation that takes on the appearance of a pair of wings.

Abbot Thayer was an American artist who at the age of 18 moved to Brooklyn, new York. The central figure in his painting of 1892/3 originally was meant to represent Flora, the Greek goddess of flowers. As she is shown here, however, she represents the heroic Greek goddess Victory.


Excerpted from Photographic Composition by Richard D. Zakia David A. Page Copyright © 2011 by Richard D. Zakia and David A. Page. Excerpted by permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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