I’ll admit I didn’t truly understand composition until I got into filmmaking. Even when I studied comic book art as a kid with my older brothers I still did not grasp its true concept. The reason being is because composition is the underling subtext to visual communication that we often don’t see, especially when done correctly. It isn’t till it is done incorrectly that it tends stands out. Visual art is an expressive language that communicates emotions. And like any language there are rules and guidelines that make it function. Similar to how we use the rules of grammar to compose a sentence before writing, the same applies to visual art when composing an image.
The concept of composition is rooted in nature when an Italian mathematician named Fibonacci observed a pattern of numbers known as the Fibonacci sequence. Based on the set of numbers discovered, he determined that objects in nature when measured have a ratio where two quantities have the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities. This ratio can also be called the “golden ratio”.
Look at any great photography or pause any scene of a great film and you will see the golden ratio at work. The proportion of objects to this ratio are believed to be aesthetically pleasing and have the perfect balance. And this pattern of numbers appears in many places, including writing, architecture, dance and music. Another name for this ratio is also called the Rule of Thirds.
Rule of Thirds
Lets discuss the rule of thirds as it relates to film and cinematography. When looking through any lens the subject can be broken up into a grid. And subjects placed on the intersecting lines of this grid is where the important subject should be positioned within the frame. Though this is a general rule, many variations of this rule of positioning apply. And then you can begin placing elements within a frame to communicate desired effects as they relate to each other.
One of the tools used within composition is framing. Framing is when you use an element within the frame to contrast, divide or emphasize other elements. It can be used to draw our attention to what’s important or separate the differences of objects. It can also be used to show their relation to each other. I love this tool because you can really be creative with the number of ways to apply it. Just be sure not to over use it.
Lines & Shapes
Another important tool that can be used are shapes. Shapes are the building blocks of good composition. In fact everything we see naturally can be broken down into basic forms and shapes. So when you begin constructing your image, you want to recognize and create interesting patterns and forms. Shapes are also important to easily recognize objects and can be important for contrast and balance. Another form that is used are lines. However, lines don’t really exist in nature. In fact when you examine a line closely, they’re really just another type of shape. But lines are interesting in that they can be created by objects or be implied through an imaginary way when objects are put together. This can create interesting results when showing relationships of characters, movement or when creating a behavior or mood of a subject.
Rhythm & Repetition
Rhythm can be described in terms of the overall flow of a composition. Similar to how there is rhythm and pulses in music, the same can be applied to a visual image. Rhythm exist in all compositions, however some rhythms can be complex or simple. Whenever you break up patterns against the general flow of elements this creates interest. But patterns can also be organized in a way to create unity and repetition. Arranging similar elements within a pattern creates formality and structure while arranging elements against the flow of symmetry creates chaos and disorder.
All good composition needs some sort of focal point. However, when there are too many focal points you can loose an audience. One simple method of creating this is through size and proportion. When elements are next to each other, size can be used to attract and show what’s important. Size can be used to organize or show relationships between elements like lining characters next to each other by size in a procession. Size can also be used to show a sense of scale and impact like an establishing shot in a scene or in a room when making objects that are bigger appear closer than smaller ones that are farther away. Just be sure to keep proportions varied for contrast and balanced.
So these are some of the basic fundamentals of composition as it relates to visual storytelling. These tools work most effectively when not overused and when appropriate to the story. Because in the end, it’s all about the story and communicating emotions to your audience, sometimes without them even knowing it. So begin studying great film and photography to develop your visual vocabulary to improve your compositions. Similar to the way my brothers and I did before even knowing what visual vocabulary was. Other principles to explore are colors, spacing and point of view. What do you guys think are some other great examples of composition. For more references see below.
Aaron Blaise – Methods of Finding Pleasing Composition
Drawing & Composition for Visual Storytelling
Framed Ink – Book