Visual Flow: Mastering the Art of Composition

by Ian Plant | March 1, 2013

© Ian PlantIn my new eBook Visual Flow: Mastering the Art of Composition, I discuss a number of compositional tools and techniques which have been used by the masters of painting and photography for centuries. Composition—the artistic arrangement and placement of visual elements within the picture frame—is the most difficult aspect of the art of photography to master, and also the most important. A snapshot shows the world what your camera sees, but when you create a composition, you show the world what you see. Mastery of the art of composition requires an understanding of a few important fundamental concepts, some of which I’d like to share with you today.

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” –Edgar Degas

Antelope Canyon, USA © Ian Plant

The best photographs use composition to entice the viewer to study the scene, holding interest over time. “Visual Flow”—Antelope Canyon, USA.

Think in terms of creating “visual flow”

Imagine you are standing in the middle of a small river, gazing downstream. As you survey the scene, you notice that the water flows around, beneath, and past you on its journey into the distant landscape beyond. Along its way, the water rushes over rocks and small drops and curves and turns around successive bends, but the flow of the river is irresistible—anything caught in its path is swept along, following every twist and turn, perhaps getting caught for a moment on a rock emerging from the river’s surface, but inevitably transported into the distance.

Zion National Park, USA © Ian Plant

Thinking about looking down a flowing river is a good analogy for visualizing successful compositions. “Kaleidoscope”—Zion National Park, USA.

This effect—this irresistible pull—is what I like to call “visual flow,” and is precisely the effect you wish to accomplish with your photographs. Your goal as a photographer is to engage the viewer’s eye, commanding the viewer’s attention, and leading the viewer deeper and deeper into the scene. By doing so, you transform the viewer from a passive observer of the image into an active participant, giving them a sense of being there. Of course, you don’t need to always photograph a flowing river to achieve this effect; several different composition techniques can allow you to create visual flow with just about any type of subject. For the image below, I used elements in the foreground—in this case, rocks—to encourage the eye to travel deeper into the scene.

Isle of Lewis, Scotland © Ian Plant

Finding ways to lead the viewer’s eye into the scene is an important key to making successful compositions. “Ancient Portal”—Isle of Lewis, Scotland.

Learn to see shapes

Minor White once famously said “One should photograph objects, not only for what they are, but for what else they are.” But what did he mean by this? Simple: try to think of your scene not in terms of waterfalls, mountains, and trees, but rather in terms of the shapes these objects form (such as triangles, curves, lines, circles, and other shapes)—either alone, or in conjunction with other objects. For example, a rock may form a triangle shape by itself, whereas all of the individual branches of a pine tree, when viewed from a distance, form a triangle shape through their close proximity to one another. The image below is a very simple and graphic illustration of this shape-based approach. The interaction of light and shadow forms a simple S-curve shape, which became the basis of the composition.

Death Valley National Park, USA © Ian Plant

A simple shape arises from the interaction of light and shadow. “Shadows and Sand”—Death Valley National Park, USA.

Composition is nothing more than figuring out a way to make all of these abstract components relate to one another. Learning to think about composition in terms of shape is vitally important to improving your composition skills. This is true even for wildlife photography. For example, for the image below, I waited until the surfacing sea turtle created an interesting shape—in this case, a triangle.

Sea turtle at Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve, Belize © Ian Plant

Look for shapes even when photographing wildlife, such as the triangle shape formed by the pose of the sea turtle. “Snorkeling”—Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve, Belize.

Get the viewer’s eye moving using an active progression of visual elements.

The key to any successful composition is to get the eye moving, and to keep it engaged within the image frame. Skillful placement of multiple elements can facilitate visual movement throughout the image, enticing the viewer to study important and relevant aspects of the scene. Essentially, try to lead the viewer through the composition using a progression of elements, tonal transition, and color. For the image below, I used the progression of multiple elements—starting with the rapids in the foreground, moving next to the hillside, leading to the distant peaks, and finally ending with the colorful clouds above—to encourage the viewer to study the entire composition.

Torres del Paine National Park, Chile © Ian Plant

A progression of visual elements helps lead the eye from near to far. “Los Cuernos”—Torres del Paine National Park, Chile.

What you want to do is get the eye moving between multiple points of interest within the composition. What you don’t want is to give the eye only one place to focus all attention; if you do so, you will likely get only fleeting, short term interest in your photos. For example, for the image below of a Lake Superior sea cave, a number of leading lines radiate from the image’s corners to its center, where I placed a hole in the cave looking into another chamber. I waited for an incoming wave to fill the space in the foreground, thus creating an area of additional compositional interest. The interaction of the two areas of interest holds the eye over time.

The Devil's Eye - Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, USA © Ian Plant

All visual energy leads to the middle, so I used the incoming wave to create a separate area of interest in order to balance the composition. “The Devil’s Eye”—Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, USA.

Create energy through dynamic visual relationships.

When you take a photograph, you squish our vibrant, energetic three dimensional world into a two-dimensional static rectangle. When you create dynamic visual relationships between multiple elements, you essentially breathe energy, movement, and vitality back into your photographs, bringing them to life. Personally, I like to juxtapose elements which are opposing one another to create this visual energy. The subsequent visual tug-of-war traps the viewer, engaging more than just short-term interest. For example, with the image below, the relative positioning of the sun in the upper left of the composition and the shadowed dune in the lower right creates a dynamic relationship, one that is further underscored by the line of blowing sand connecting the two elements.

Great Sand Dunes National Park, USA © Ian Plant

Opposite placement of visual elements helps create a dynamic composition. “Sand Star”—Great Sand Dunes National Park, USA.

Here’s another example of this concept of visual opposition. For the image below, I placed the two primary elements—the rising sun and the ocotillo plant in the foreground—in an opposing diagonal relationship. Diagonals encourage the eye to travel to more parts of an image than vertical or horizontal relationships (as a diagonal line cuts across not only the left-right axis, but also the bottom-top axis), and as a result has the potential to increase viewer interest in the composition.

Kofa Mountains, USA © Ian Plant

Diagonal opposition can often be more energetic than vertical or horizontal relationships. “Sunrise Garden”—Kofa Mountains, USA.

Find ways to simplify your subjects.

I’ve never believed that compositions should always be boiled down to something very simple. Personally, I think that the best compositions are the ones which manage to successfully tie together multiple, chaotic, and complex subjects. In doing so, however, you must find a way to extract order from chaos, and to create meaningful relationships between elements. Look for graphic shapes formed by a single element (or “meta-shapes” formed by the interaction of multiple elements) to tame the chaos and present a unified vision to your audience. Also, find ways to give your main subject some extra visual attention. For the image below, the chaos of this unruly rain forest environment was quelled by the simplified shapes emerging from the fern in the lower right and the radiating moss-covered branches in the upper left. By getting close to the foreground ferns with a wide angle lens, I was able to make them appear larger in the scene, thus making them more visually prominent.

Olympic National Park, USA © Ian Plant

Chaos is tamed by the use of several prominent shapes and lines. “Land of the Lost”—Olympic National Park, USA.

Framing is also an effective tool for emphasizing a primary subject, simplifying a composition and focusing attention on important elements of the scene. Examples of commonly used frames include trees, natural arches, and old barn windows. For the image below, I used one natural arch to frame another. By doing so, I placed emphasis on the more distant arch, even though it appears smaller in the composition than the close arch.

Arches National Park, USA © Ian Plant

The use of a frame helps give the distant arch more visual emphasis. “Desert Window”—Arches National Park, USA.

Remember, composition is your way of telling your subject’s story—but even more than that, it is your way of sharing your artistic vision with others. Achieving full proficiency in composition might take some time, but that’s no reason to delay—thinking critically about your composition choices is an important first step to making better photographs. There’s no better way to invite viewers into your personal vision of the world than by mastering the art of composition.

Visual Flow: Mastering the Art of Composition is now available for purchase in the NatureScapes online store.

About the Author

Ian Plant is a full time professional nature photographer, writer, and adventurer. His work has appeared in numerous magazines, books and calendars, and he is a regular contributor to Popular Photography and Outdoor Photographer magazines, among others. He is also the author of a number of nature photography instructional print books, eBooks, and digital processing video tutorials. You may see more of his work on his website

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