There are 2 main types of compositions: Symmetric and Asymmetric.
Symmetric composition are balanced by even spacing of the focal points or subjects and are placed in the photo so that there is a balance of negative and positive space. Symmetric compositions will often have repeating shapes or lines placed at equal intervals on both sides of the image. If you were to split the image on it's symmetrical axis it will be matched on the opposite side. This photo by Ferdinand Choffray is a stunning example of symmetrical composition. Go check out his tumblr, it's lovely.
Asymmetric compositions will have more positive space on one side or the other, generally with a larger amount of negative space. However this doesn't mean the image is unbalanced. An asymmetric composition is balanced when the "weight" of the negative space matches the "weight" of the positive space.
Let's do a thought experiment to illustrate.
Imagine a scale, the kind used to balance weight. On one side of the scale is a heavy weight and the other side of the scale is empty. The side with the weight on it will sink down toward the ground. That is an unbalanced composition.
Now imagine that we add another heavy weight of exactly the same size to the empty side of the scale. The scale would then balance out and both sides would be the same distance from the ground. The composition is now balanced and symmetrical.
Finally imagine that we took one heavy weight off and replaced it with 12 smaller lighter weights. While the smaller weights are lighter individually, together they equal the weight of the single heavy weight. Now the composition is balanced and asymmetric.
One of the most well known techniques of composition, especially in photography, is the "Rule of Thirds." This rule states that if you divide an image into thirds both vertically and horizontally, the most pleasing areas toward which you want to direct the viewers eye are placed along those lines and where those lines meet. This image by Prem Anandh, shared in a lovely article about the Rule of Thirds by Photography Mad, is a perfect example both of the rule of thirds and of asymmetric composition.
Notice how the butterfly is placed right along the lines, but also how the composition still feels balanced because the "weight" of the butterfly is equaled by the "weight" of the negative space.
It developed from a philosophical view that had to do with finding the perfect balance in life. In art it lays out what a pleasing (and also mathematical) proportion is.
You can see it in nature (such as the shell of a Nautilus) and often in classical artwork like renaissance paintings.
There is a fantastic article on Uni Watch.com that illustrates the Golden Ratio (as well as some other compositional techniques) using the famous sports photo "The Catch."
The balance of positive space (the areas in a photo that have a subject) and negative or empty space is also a very important component of composition. Negative space helps to define shape, and the ratio of negative to positive space can also impart either a sense of tranquility and peacefulness if the ratio is balanced, or a feeling of tension and unease if the ratio is unbalanced.
Do a search of negative space photography on Google and look at the way the use of negative space affects the composition and also the feeling you have when viewing the photo. Is there a sense of peace, of loneliness, danger or unease?
There are only 2 other aspects I'm going to cover about composition in this post:
Leading lines and Framing.
Leading lines are compositional elements that help to draw the viewers eye into the photo. It is a very popular technique, as evidenced by every photo of a person standing on train tracks. Leading lines can be found almost anywhere if you are observant enough; the rail on a staircase, a stream, a sidewalk, the shape of shadows cast by the sun. If you place those leading lines in your composition in a way that causes the viewers eye to be led toward your focal point (your subject) then you have used them successfully.
Framing is a compositional technique that is used to isolate the main subject. This can be done by including objects from your landscape into your shot in order to effectively place a frame around your subject. This can be done with almost anything available from leaves in a bush, a tree, buildings, doorways, tunnels, natural rock formations, or even other people.
Composition is a huge subject to cover and one that authors and artists have devoted whole books to; much more information than we can cover here.
Color, movement, contrast, balance, negative and positive space, rhythm and lines are all aspects of the huge subject that is composition. We've only covered a few of those things here but my hope is that this crash course will give you a new understanding for how you want to approach shooting and that you will take your time and use these techniques to create strong compositions in your photographs.
Do more research on you own! Composition is the biggest thing that will take your photos from looking like snapshots to looking like professional images that tell a story.
First, take 20 minutes out of your day and watch this great tutorial. The accent might take a bit of getting used to, but the information is spot on and very useful.
Academy Photography: Photography Composition Basics - the truth about the rule of thirds, symmetry, repetition and rhythm.
This week I want you to shoot 5 different compositions using the following techniques: symmetry, asymmetry, the rule of thirds, leading lines, and framing. Extra points for including several compositional elements in 1 photo!
We will critique and cover how effective you were next week!
If you have any questions please feel free to leave them in the comments! I would love to know how you are finding these lessons and how you're benefiting from them. I hope to have some updates from Sarah to share with you soon!