Creating Dynamic Compositions
It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what makes an image grab your attention—and not let go. There are many factors that come together to create a photo that pops off the screen (or wall, or page), and having a dynamic composition is one of the most important. This article is not a checklist of ingredients every photo must have, just some suggestions to get you started.
The most obvious way to create a dynamic composition might be to create a sense of motion. Perhaps something in the image is actually moving—a ball in mid-air, a child running. However, you can create a sense of motion even if everything in the image is perfectly still.
Think about the leading lines that guide your eyes around an image. Do they hold your gaze—and do they keep your eyes moving? Are they too predictable? Balance and stability are important, but too much can begin to feel uninteresting. In general, diagonals feel more dynamic than straight vertical and horizontal lines. If you’re feeling bold, you might even try tilting the horizon, which destabilizes the frame and creates the feeling that the camera itself is in motion.
In this photograph, the milk carton is perfectly still, but strong diagonals and a tilted frame creates the sense that the milk is about to fall.
Consider adding depth to your image to draw the viewer in. One way is to use framing techniques. Invite the viewer into your image and add dimension by layering elements.
Speaking of framing, the frame (the edges or boundaries) of the photograph plays an important role in its composition. Consider the following:
- How do the edges of a photograph behave? What do they include or exclude? Done well, cropping something out of the frame can create a sense of intrigue, leading the viewer to wonder what exists outside of the photograph. You can entice the viewer by creating a window into a world beyond what they can see in the photograph itself.
- How does your subject fill the frame? The more space the subject takes up in the frame, the closer it feels to the viewer and the more they engage with it. Using an extreme tight crop can make the subject feel in-your-face and even intrusive. This can be a bold and daring move, but be careful—too much of this in your portfolio can make your work feel flat and repetitive. A bit of distance can add allure and make the viewer want to take a step closer to your photograph.
- How do shapes and objects interact within the frame?
- How does your negative space interact with your positive space? Treat your negative space as a shape.
Finally, having contrast in your photograph is perhaps the most important part of a dynamic composition. Contrast is what makes elements stand out from each other and “pop.”
There are many ways you can create contrast, including:
- Consider how your lights and shadows interact, as well as the quality of light. Hard light creates sharper, sometimes harsher edges and shadows and is, by nature, high in contrast.
- Color and value.
- Depth of field. Depth of field affects what is in focus and what is out of focus. Using a shallow depth of field is great for separating one subject from the rest of the image and creating a soft, dreamy, and sometimes mysterious separation, but beware of flattening your image with too much out of focus. Similarly, using a large depth of field can yield crisp details throughout your image, but having everything in focus can also make your image feel flat.
Most importantly, experiment! Adding life and drama to your photographs is about pushing boundaries. Rules exist for a reason, but breaking them often leads to exciting rewards. If you’re feeling daunted, loosen up by shooting blindly, without worrying about composition at all, and then going back through your images and seeing what jumps out at you—and identifying the reasons why.
Many of my best photographs have been accidents. In fact, the photograph above was more successful than the ones I staged carefully that day. I was lucky enough to get a shot with dramatic diagonals leading into the picture, with strong shadows, bold highlights, contrasting textures, and a sliver of someone’s arm for added mystery and motion. With practice, you can get a sense of what makes an image pop!