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Image Composition

Updated on October 9, 2010

Before pressing the shutter release button, photographers should always think about the desired image frame and composition. Of course, it is possible to make changes with digital image processing software or in the darkroom, but for a good picture the foundation is laid with the initial exposure. Photographers must contemplate how the synthesis of objects, shapes, edges, and proportions can be turned into a unified, well-thought-out whole. Ideally, viewers will be captivated by an interesting composition, and the structure of the image will follow the lines of the desired visual message. While it is quite possible to show drastic contradictions without interfering with the harmonious overall composition, poor distribution of elements can make even the most impressive buildings appear dull. In the worst case, the negative appearance of an image becomes identified with the architecture itself.

There is no recipe for a perfect composition. In general terms, it can be said that a centered placement of the subject almost always brings forth an even, but static composition. This is the kind of presentation preferred by documentary architectural photographers. When a building’s symmetry needs emphasis, central staging is usually an absolute necessity. However, as in other kinds of photography, the traditional central placement is often forsaken for a more dynamic and suspenseful arrangement of the photograph.

Once the main subject is removed from the image center, new possibilities open up. Principles of composition like the golden ratio or the rule of thirds offer recopies for successfully arranged photographs. Structuring a picture according to these rules creates a visual harmony, while at the same time the photograph appears more dynamic and filled with tension than a centered composition.

In some cases, pictures may be more powerful if they break all the rules of photography, aesthetics, and proportion. However, such a composition must be done deliberately. Beginners should proceed with caution, since there is a thin line between brilliant execution and miserable failure. Architecture needs plenty of space, both in reality and in a picture. Too much architectural density on one side can throw off the balance and seemingly tip the entire image over.

A building does not always have to be shown in its entirety. Parts of the structure that are not essential for the intended message can be placed outside the frame. The facade can be only partially visible and still transmit enough information about the building as a whole. In many instances, the photographs chosen angels can be more interesting than an overview. About such cases, Robert Capa said, ”If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”.

The importance of showing emptiness is often neglected in compositions. Empty space plays an important role in architecture, so each photographed building also needs space to breathe. If a photograph is cropped too tightly, the resulting impression is often confined and compressed. It is therefore essential to regard empty space as a vital compositional element.


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