Back to basics, part III: the composition of design with photography

Now that we’ve learned the elements and principles it takes to create great artwork, let’s apply them! These compositional techniques utilize the artistic elements and principles to make an artwork, photograph or design more captivating.

This is the third in a three part series:

Composition of design with photography

Though not as old as some of the other art forms we’ve discussed, photography has had no less of an impact on the way we visualize the art and design world. Many techniques used to create a brilliant photo can also be utilized to create engaging design. We’ve selected six of the most important techniques, but there are tons more out there!

Six compositional techniques of design are:

  • Framing
  • Dominance
  • Foreground, Middle ground, Background
  • Lead Room
  • Rule of Thirds
  • Rule of Odds

Framing

Framing is the designer and artist’s way of positioning secondary objects around the subject in order to focus attention on the subject.

“Portrait of Billie Holiday, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Feb. 1947″ by William Gottlieb in 1947

Singer Billie Holiday is undoubtedly the subject of this portrait by William Gottlieb. The singer’s face is dominant in the picture, well-lit and framed by dark space and minor patterns in the background. The image is bold and fascinating, not only due to the subject itself, but due to the way its framing makes it seem important.

Dominance

Dominance is when the artist takes a particular object in the painting and forces it to stand out to the viewer’s eye – creating the subject of the piece. This can be done by size, color, texture and almost any other element of design.

“Blinky Palermo portrayed by Lothar Wolleh”  by Lothar Wolleh in 1970

German portrait photographer Lothar Wolleh creates a clear and dominant subject in his portrait of artist Blinky Palermo by isolating the figure against a simple background, and using light to make the figure of the man stand out from the background. It’s certainly clear where the reader is supposed to be looking – and allows them to connect with the figure.

Foreground, Middle Ground, Background

An image can also be divided on the picture plane – or a flat imaginary surface along which the objects of an image are laid.
This plane can be split into three parts – the front (foreground), the middle (middle ground) and the back (background). Typically, the background is represented at the top of an image, the middle ground in the middle, and the foreground on the bottom of an image. This adds depth to a two-dimensional image.
“Distant view of mountains, desert, shrubs highlighted in foreground, “Near Death Valley National Monument,” California.” by Ansel Adams, dated sometime between 1933 and 1942
We look to the work of Ansel Adams to show off this key element of composition. In this work, he divides the photograph into three spaces – the foreground, which is the plane dotted with grass; the middle ground, which depicts the mountains; and the background – the wide open sky.
The result is the illusion of a huge, empty open space. The viewer feels like they could step out of the photograph, straight into the desert.

Lead Room

An artist uses lead room in order to create a sense of movement. To do this, they create more space in front of the object, rather than behind it. This gives the impression that the object could shift somewhere within the design or artwork.

“Aerial view of pedestrians walking along Wall Street in strong sunlight and building in background with large recesses”  by Paul Strand in 1916.

To create a compelling image, Strand uses lead room in his depiction of a series of figures walking down the street . The work has both active and static figures: the figure on the leftmost side of the page is just a still image – someone with nowhere to go.

The rest of the figures in the image seem to be walking through the image, they have lead space in front of them, enhanced by the long shadow behind each figure. Combined, the figures give the sense of flowing street traffic against the stable and monumental building behind them.

Rule of Thirds

This is a set of imaginary grid lines layed over the top of a photo to determine the best placement of the subjects in an image. The image is divided into thirds both horizontally and vertically, creating a grid. The rule goes, the best placement for the objects in a work are along those lines – and particularly where they intersect. It helps keep the eye moving and creates an aesethetically pleasing effect.
“Church, Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, 1941″ by Ansel Adams in 1941
image the same as above but with a visible grid
Ansel Adams makes use of the rule of thirds in this photograph, lining up the points of interest along the lines represented. There are three major points along the intersections – one cross, a dark shadow featured in a doorway and the location of a bell tower.
This, along with the points being connected by diagonal lines, forces the user’s eye to move around the photograph and to notice all of the little but significant details the photographer was able to capture.
(Side note: this is also a great example of Adam’s use of the zone system - another (non-compositional) photographic technique that he developed with fellow photographer Fred Archer to determine the ideal way light and dark are captured in a photograph.)

Rule of Odds

This simple rule states that objects in a work should be grouped in odd numbers, as this tends to be more pleasing to the eye.

“Salvador Dali A” or “Dali atomicus” by Philippe Halsman in 1948

Halsman uses a series of threes in his iconic portrait of artist Salvador Dali. Three cats, a chair with three visible legs, the trio of long dark objects – the chair the easel, and the artist himself. All of these odd numbered objects combined make the viewer see a more balanced yet still visually striking image.

Translating to Graphic Design

Two t-shirt designs from user bathi show off all of these techniques of composition.

Fell’s Point Preservation Society and Caribbean Trading Company t-shirt designs

Bathi uses framing as a tool to create the basic shape of both of these images. The ship is framed within a border of waves and banners, and the reclining figure is surrounded by the trees and moons of a caribbean island. It’s a great technique to bring attention to the main subject as well as create a space to work within for a T-shirt design.

Fell’s point is dominated by the image of the ship – achieved in the creation of a large subject depicted in contrasting colors, enhanced but not distracted by the sea in the foreground and sky in the background of the image. The rule of odds comes into play with this design as well, with the three largest sails of the ship standing out to the viewer as a trio.

The rule of thirds is put into play in the Caribbean Trading Company design, with the positioning of the two trees stretching vertically and the hammock horizontally along the lines created by an imaginary grid dividing the design into thirds. There’s also a fore, middle and background in the title, image of the island, trees, hammock and the moon. So despite the unrealistic proportions of the elements within the design, there is still a clear sense of space.

In addition, the figure in this design is given plenty of lead room to gaze off at the moon in the distance – giving the impression of a wistful gaze at the huge moon in the background and the potential for movement within the space depicted.

What essential compositional techniques do you use? Please share.

Related articles:
Back to basics, part I: elements of design with printmaking
Back to basics, part II: principles of design with painting
Teach yo’self! A guide to online graphic design education
15 descriptive design words you should know

Kaitlyn is part of the Community Team at 99designs.com. She grew up in Boulder, CO and went to school at Northwestern University in Chicago. When she's not blogging, she spends her time having adventures and being generally creative. She's all about having new experiences as often as possible!
Kaitlyn Ellison

3 Comments

  1. Jurgen

    Great article Kaitlyn, very interesting :) Looking forward to the next

    Reply May 25, 2012 at 11:37 am
    • Allison Stuart

      Yes – great article Kaitlyn! :)

      Reply May 25, 2012 at 11:45 am
  2. wind_dam

    hmm…

    Reply May 25, 2012 at 11:56 am

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