Monday, October 11, 2010

Photographic Composition . . . a la' Nude

Feel free to Download the eBook of this post, 2.5M, pdf format for easy reading. Freely re-distributable under the Creative Commons License (Attrib NC ND)

"If you, an artist, the one who cannot manage figures, 

you look like an orator who cannot manage words." 

Leonardo da Vinci

A photograph is a story.  It is intended to impart information . . . experiences . . . emotive feelings.  Nude photography could be generalized into that which is intended to evoke a sexual response (pornography) or that which depicts the nude human body in our everyday natural environment (what I call 'simple nudity' . . . sharing the nudist lifestyle through my photographic journeys).

Like a story . . . a collection of words and sentences strung together in some coherent form . . . a photographic image is a collection of visual elements that convey what your eyes see.  It is the balance and composition of your image that determines the first impression viewers have of your photos.   Good composition draws your viewers eyes (and attention) to certain parts of the image.  Balance assures that the viewer's attention is not drawn away by extraneous details.

Centrally placed subjects tend to focus a viewer's attention on the middle of the image. Unfortunately, once a viewer's attention is on the middle, it usually remains there. As a result, a picture of this type will tend to feel flat and static to the viewer. However, with just a subtle shift of the focal point toward one of the intersections defined by the Rule of Thirds (discussed below), you can strengthen your image and cause the viewer's eye to move more freely around the image.

Good composition places the important elements off-center

"Rules" of composition are based on ratios almost always seen in nature.  Leonardo da Vinci recognized these ratios as did Michelangelo . . . and both applied them in their awe-inspiring works of art.  This same symmetry and ratio is what makes the human form pleasing to the eye (look at the statue of David and ask yourself why it draws you).  Artists and photographers have instinctively applied and extended these ratios to their works with great viewer satisfaction since ancient times.

This short tutorial will focus on a few simple "rules" of composition that, for the most part, become instinctive in your future picture-taking once you recognize how composition affects a viewer's impression.

The Rule of Thirds
"One third is important, one third continues, the last third places"
Banged Up Shins

The objective of the Rule of Thirds is to stop the subject(s) and areas of interest from bisecting the image, by placing them near one of the lines that would divide the image into three equal columns or rows . . . ideally near the intersection of those lines.  The Rule of Thirds is based on the tendency of the viewer's eyes to be initially be drawn about two-thirds of the way up whatever they are viewing (be it a page of type, an oil painting or a photograph.  Our minds will divide and ingest by thirds, initially focusing two-thirds of the way up and then internally scanning the other elements in steps of thirds over the image.  The center of any image is the least important part unless other elements draw attention and focus there (as we'll see later.)

If we mentally cast a grid of thirds over a scene (my camera makes this easy as I can call up a grid in the viewfinder), we want to compose the important parts of our image at the intersections of the grid lines or on the grid lines, themselves.  In the image below, my head is two-thirds of the way up the image at the intersection of two grid lines.  The viewer's focus and attention are automatically going to be drawn to my head and then mentally form a response in relation to all the other elements in the image using that ratio of thirds.

Rule of Thirds
Note that a pleasing depiction of the human body in relation to the background will conform to the ratio of thirds.  Attention is drawn to the head at two-thirds of the way up.  The third above places the subject (myself).  The next third is the torso and the final continues and completes with the legs.  The axis of the body is also on a grid line, reinforcing the importance of the main subject  . . . in this case, I wanted to depict myself nude next to the stump of an old, massive and long-gone tree.

Placement of elements on the horizontal grid lines works well for horizons . . . in this case, the horizon beyond is all in the upper third . . . as is the majority of the tree stump.  The mind's eye is taken on a journey from the main subject and placed it in relation to the other important elements in the image.

So the Rule of Thirds in utter simplicity:  place your main subject off-center!

The Rule of Diagonals

Elements of your image trending diagonal (like a road or river . . . perhaps a line of trees) tend to lend energy to the imagery.  The image becomes more dynamic because the viewer is expecting action of some sort to go on.
Rule of Diagonals

Using the same image as before, the main subject is balanced by the Rule of Thirds.  But this image also contains a number of diagonals that impart a sense of tension in the image.  That tension is the terrain and there is an implied dynamism between nude hiker and steep slope.  Will he fall . . . or will he stay in place (note the set of the trekking poles reinforcing perceptions)?

To be effective, diagonals, when extended to the image edge, should be within 1/6 of the image corners (as shown in the image above.)  The dominant diagonal in this image is the slope of the large block of granite upon which the tree stump (and myself) hold against gravity.  My left knee is also crooked, bringing the thigh into alignment with the main diagonal.  The main subject, myself, is within one-sixth distance of a center diagonal.

Diverging and Leading Diagonals

Diverging Diagonals imply inclusion:  The tilt of the subject along with
 the lines of the boulders  frame the river beyond, including them
with the main subject

Leading Diagonals:  In this image, the subject (set back) is implied to be moving
 across the snowfield by the diagonal line of footprints leading back to the viewer.

To add dynamism to your images, place your subjects along some naturally-occurring diagonal.  Diagonals . . . particularly if they include the main subject . . . work really well if they lead to one of the corners of the image . . . a satisfying arrangement for the viewer's mind. (For another slant, take a look at the construction of the Golden Triangle further down to get an idea of the psychological processes that are operating here with diagonals.)

Lines of Perspective and Converging Diagonals

Diagonals impart action in an image.  Converging diagonals can also imply direction and perspective . . . a go hither implication.

Lines of Perspective

In this image the main subject's head (me, of course) is right at the intersection of two Golden Section lines (described in the next section).  These intersections, derived from the Golden Section ratio, assure attention from the viewer.  There is a slight twist of the torso and shoulders in the direction I am traveling.  I wanted to impart somewhat of a journey on ahead in pleasing surroundings.  Converging diagonals toward the open space of the sky give perspective and an implication of 'that's where I'm going'.  The diagonals come from the lines of the path edges and flow naturally to the far distance.  Tall trees in the upper portion of the image frame the sky of the horizon and the route beyond.

Look for these naturally-occurring lines in your images to reinforce the story you are telling.  Shift camera position slightly if necessary to use converging lines in the terrain to add perspective to your image.

The Golden Section
"A mathematical proportion where the ratio between a small section and a larger section is equal to the ratio between the larger section and both sections put together, approximately 1.6180339887..."

Certain points in a picture's composition automatically attract the viewer's attention.  Similarly, many natural and man-made objects with certain proportions (whether by chance or design) automatically please us.  Leonardo da Vinci investigated the principle that underlies our notions of beauty and harmony and called it the Golden Section.

The Golden Section (or Golden Mean) is the basis of the Rule of Thirds . . . the later being a simplification and easier to implement.  The intersection points for the Golden Section are 3/8s in and 3/8s up and down in the image.  I'll leave it up to you how to figure out the sweet spots when you're out on the field trying to compose an image.  Suffice it to say, the resulting grid looks as it does in the image below.  Points where lines intersect automatically draw attention . . . in this case, directly to the image of myself.

The Golden Section
Composition using the Golden Section ratio is difficult in the field but can be of considerable use after-the-case when cropping to bring the important parts of an image onto an nexus (or intersection point).  In the image above, there is implication of movement forward and to the right (raised foot taking a step).  The shadow line on the grass in the background also forms a diagonal, further reinforcing a perception of movement.  The effect is lost in the original image as objects to the right disrupt the diagonals and take away the dynamism of the image.  Cropping the image to remove extraneous detail moves the subject out of the Rule of Thirds and closer to the center of the image.  However, with a little judicious placement of the subject on a Golden Section nexus, balance is restored to the image.

Addendum:  To emphasize just how powerful the Golden Section intersections are, several readers have noted that their viewing of the above image seemed to unconsciously bring their initial attention to the area of my right hip.  I tried this on a few nudity-accepting acquaintances minus the grid and asked them, in all honesty, what part of my body did they seem to be drawn.  Mind you, these are people who have seen me nude before so there is no snapping of the viewer's attention to the obvious details of my nudity.  Five of five all stated the snap-response was to focus on the area near my right hip for a briefest moment, looking for something prominent there before correcting slightly upwards. The nexus of two Golden Section lines had drawn all five automatically.  Two of my unwitting test subjects also commented on the small log to the left, even though it was insignificant in the scheme of things . . . except that it also sits near an intersection of lines.

The eyes are drawn away  from the subject to the specks of light to the left
in the darkness  . . . a Golden Section intersection.   Though unintentional
 at the time, one wonders if those specks are some wild animal waiting
for dinner . . . an uneasy prospect!
The image above has the supposedly main subject (me) right in the center of the image . . . right where I just told you not to place your main subject.  So what's happening here?  Why do I include it?

Actually, the compositional elements of this image are complex.  Common sense tells us the nude hiker in the center must be the main subject (and that was the intention when I took the picture).  Serendipity at work.  There are some diagonals (the footpath and the darkness-bracketing line of the small tree) that enclose and direct attention.  There is also the stark contrast between flash-lit foreground and absolute darkness that further tell us who (or what) the main subject should be.  Yet our attention is not fully on the nude hiker.  It strays somewhat uneasily to the darkness.  Why?  Spend a little time just looking at the image.  Where do your eyes unconsciously go?  I'm willing to bet it's that lone tall plant sticking up into the darkness on the left.  And then your eyes search for meaning and latch onto the unusual . . . the set of what looks likes eyes out there.

This is a good example of the power of the Golden Section rule to grab and hold our attention.  The plant is right smack dab on the intersection of two of those lines.  Anything at those nexus points is going to grab the viewer's attention and this is what is happening here.

The Golden Triangle

The Golden Triangle adds an element of dynamism to the Golden Section rule by running diagonals to the intersecting points.  An offshoot of the Golden Section, the nexus points primarily attract the viewer's attention while the diagonals from those points extend attention along them.

The image below of me skinny-dipping in the Skykomish River is complicated by a lot of things taking place . . . cluttered.  My face (as well as my left hand) are right on the intersections of Golden Section Lines and thus, automatically attract attention.  But look at where the diagonals of a Golden Triangle flow . . . down my arms, framing my water-treading body in the lower triangle.  Attention is focused.  The final diagonal brings the foaming water to the right into harmony with the rest of the image.

The Golden Triangle

Constructing the Golden Triangle
.... from the Golden Section

Composition in the Field

It's obvious I take most of the images of myself using a self-timer.  This gives me time to frame the image and consider where I want to be for best composition.  I look through that viewfinder for lines and symmetry and mentally place myself where I think the Rule of Thirds will emphasize how I fit into the surroundings.

One of the things I try to do when composing an image, is to try to provide scale for the viewer to get an idea from the limited field of view in a photographic image . . . what the eyes are seeing.  An image is two-dimensional, yet what is being experienced is a three-dimensional panorama.  We must provide cues to the majestic scale of the forests and mountains to truly capture them.  The best way is to include yourself in the image not only to vet that participation but to also to give the viewer scale and enhance a 3D effect.

My presence gives scale and depth to the trees
on this low knoll overlooking Deception Creek

Another way to give the viewer an idea of the scale of the scenery is to use atmospheric cues such as fog.

The viewer's mind is always intrigued with figuring out what lays just beyond perception.  In the image above the fog does a remarkable amount of obscuring the trees in the upper left.  Our minds are going to be trying to pierce that veil trying to see through the fog . . . what does lay beyond?  Try it.  I challenge any reader to not honestly admit that they did not spend any time at all trying to pick out details in the background.

There is also an interplay of hard and soft contrasts in this image with the delineating line a diagonal crossing the image behind the main subject . . . the lone leafless tree in the center.  My presence provides the necessary scale and a contrast in color to make this image a keeper.

Try to avoid thinking of it as portrait photography because it isn't.  You are participating in nature and your images should show that participation.  You are, after all, trying to tell a story.

Final Thoughts 

  • There should be a center of interest or focus in the work, to prevent it becoming a pattern in itself;
  • The direction followed by the viewer's eye should lead the viewer's gaze around all elements in the work before leading out of the picture;
  • The subject should not be facing out of the image;
  • A moving subject should have space in front;
  • Exact bisections of the picture space should be avoided;
  • Small, high contrast, elements have as much impact as larger, duller elements;
  • The prominent subject should be off-center, unless a symmetrical or formal composition is desired, and can be balanced by smaller satellite elements
  • The horizon line should not divide the image in two equal parts but be positioned to emphasize either the sky or ground; showing more sky if it is of clouds, sun rise/set, and more ground if a landscape

Download the eBook of this post, 2.5M, pdf format for easy reading. Freely re-distributable under the Creative Commons License (Attrib NC ND)

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