Composition Guide - Photographing Subjects with Visual Impact and Interest

Composition | How to Find Subjects with Strong Visual Impact and Interest

In this tutorial, we will examine the subject(s) of our photographs themselves. What adds interest to a photograph? What adds visual impact?

Add Visual Impact with Diagonals and Triangles

I already mentioned in the section on “golden triangles” in a previous tutorial that triangles and diagonals are said to add add “dynamic tension” to a photo. My mother in law also does an excellent job of adding tension to any scene.

Horizontal lines and vertical lines suggest stability. If you see a person standing on a level horizontal surface, he will appear to be pretty stable unless he’s stumbling out of a pub at 2am. Put this same man on a sloping surface and he’ll seem even less stable. This creates a certain level of visual tension. We are not so used to diagonals in our every day life. They subconsciously suggest instability.

Incorporating triangles and diagonals into our photos can help create this sense of ‘dynamic tension’ and visual impact as a result. Take a look at the following examples of photos containing triangular shapes and strong diagonal lines in the composition.

Add Visual Impact with Diagonals and Triangles - Samuel Beckett Bridge Dublin
Samuel Beckett Bridge, Dublin

This photo of the Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin incorporates plenty of triangles and diagonals into the scene. The bridge itself is an actual triangle (It’s actually supposed to represent a Celtic Harp on its side). There are also several ‘implied’ triangles in the frame Notice how the leading lines on the right of the frame are all diagonal and form triangles that all meet at the same point on the right hand side of the bridge.

Add Visual Impact with Diagonals and Triangles - Hotel de Ville, Paris
Hotel de Ville, Paris

In this photo of the Hotel de Ville in Paris, the implied triangles and diagonals create sense of dynamic tension. We are not used to seeing buildings leaning at such angles in our everyday life. It is slightly jarring to our sense of balance. This is what creates the visual tension. We also saw these “implied” lines in the section on golden triangles in the first composition tutorial. A wide angle lens in the shot above has exaggerated the angles and diagonals.

Add Visual Impact with Patterns and Repetition

Human beings seem to be naturally attracted to patterns. They are visually attractive and suggest harmony. Patterns can be man made like a series of arches or natural like the petals on a flower. Incorporating patterns into your photographs is always a good way to create a pleasing composition. Patterns can often be used as leading lines.

Add Visual Impact with Patterns and Repetition - Monastir, Tunisia
Monastir, Tunisia

This photo was taken in the city of Monastir in Tunisia. I’ve used the pattern in the paving stones to lead the eye to the domed building. The building itself incorporates a pattern in the form of a series of arches. The domed roof also complements the rounded arches below. High contrast black and white conversions of your photo can really help emphasise any patterns or textures in the frame.

Add Visual Interest by Breaking the Pattern

Another interesting composition idea is to break the pattern. Take a look at the example below.

Add Visual Impact by Braking the Pattern in the Photograph
Odd One Out | Adobe Stock

Rules are made to be broken and so are patterns! By making one candle a different colour and height, the photographer has created an interesting composition. This is a technique that can be used to make one particular element in the frame stand out. In this case, the eye immediately focuses on the red candle.

Add Visual Impact with Particular Colour Combinations

The use of colour itself is an often overlooked compositional tool. Colour theory is something that graphic designers, fashion designers and interior designers are all very familiar with. Certain colour combinations can add real visual impact to a photograph.

 Use the colour wheel to find interesting colour combinations in the scenes you photograph
The Colour Wheel | Adobe Stock

Take a look at the colour wheel. You can see that the colours are arranged logically in the segments of a circle. Colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel are said to be “complementary colours”. These colours when used together can be visually very striking.

As photographers, we can look for scenes that incorporate complementary colours as a way of creating attractive and striking compositions. Have you ever noticed how many movie posters have blue and yellow/orange colour schemes? This is done quite deliberately to create eye catching adverts. Blue and yellow or orange are particularly impactful when used together.

Add Visual Impact with Particular Colour Combinations - Purple and Yellow
Pont des Arts and Institut de France, Paris

Take a look at this next photograph which was taken in Paris. For some reason, the early night sky in Paris often gives off a purple hue. This actually contrasts very well with the incandescent yellow hued lighting on the buildings that line the River Seine, in this case the Institut de France. This is because purple and yellow sit roughly opposite each other on the colour wheel.

Add Visual Impact with Particular Colour Combinations - Blue and Red
Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre – Dublin

This photograph was taken at the Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre in Dublin. The building was lit up red for Christmas. This was very striking against the deep blue of the early night sky. I love photographing cities during blue hour. In the section on “Light” we will look at the possibilities of blue hour in more detail.

Add Visual Impact with Particular Colour Combinations - Blue and Yellow
Customs House, Dublin

The early morning deep blue sky and yellow hued lights on the Customs House in Dublin also make for a very eye-catching combination.

Add Visual Interest with Juxtaposition

Juxtaposition is very powerful composition tool in photography. Juxtaposition refers to the inclusion of two or more elements in a scene that can either contrast with each other or complement each other. Both approaches can be very effective and play an important part in enabling the photograph to tell a story.

Add Visual Interest with Juxtaposition - Shabby and Splendid
Paris Book Sellers and Notre Dame Cathedral

Take a look at this photo taken in Paris. In the bottom half of the frame, we have the slightly rough and ready book stands full of clutter with posters hanging from the coverings. Rising above all of this however is the magnificent medieval Notre Dame Cathedral. This architectural gem is the epitome of order and structure unlike the unsophisticated but attractive book stalls below. They seem to be in direct contrast with each other yet they work well together. Both represent the city of Paris in different ways. They tell a story about two different elements of the French capital.

Add Visual Interest with Juxtaposition - Old and New
The Mauritshuis – The Hague

Contrasting the old with the new is another interesting use of juxtaposition as a composition tool. In the next photograph, we can see some of the beautiful old buildings around the Hofvijver area in The Hague. These include the superb Mauritshuis Museum in the centre of the frame. Rising above them however, are the modern skyscrapers of The Hague’s business district.

Add Visual Interest with Juxtaposition - Nature and Built Environment
Dealul Mitropoliei – Bucharest

I also like to contrast the natural environment with the built environment from time to time. I took this photograph at the monastery in Bucharest from earlier. In this case I contrasted the natural flowers with the man-made church. I used the pink roses as my main foreground subject. I then set a wide aperture to slightly blur the church in the background while still keeping it recognisable.

Add Visual Interest with Juxtaposition - Citroen 2CV by a French Café
Meyssac – France (Sepia)

Juxtaposition isn’t only about portraying two contrasting elements. The photo above was taken in the picturesque little village of Meyssac in the Correze region of France. In this shot, the old Citroen 2CV car looks perfectly at home in front of the typical French bar/café in the background.

The two elements complement each other perfectly. The man with his back to us in the cafe is the owner of the 2CV and he seemed surprised when I asked if it was ok to take a picture of his car. He asked why I’d ever want to take a photo of “that old thing”. He didn’t seem to realise that he had unwittingly set up a quintessentially French scene by parking in front of that particular café.

Add Visual Interest with Juxtaposition - Citroen 2CV by a French Café - Textured Photo
Meyssac – France (Textured)

Here is another shot I took in the same location. In this case I blended the photograph with a picture of some old paper in post-processing. This gives the image a vintage or even painting like feeling. Adding an old texture to a photograph like this can lead to very interesting results.

Add Human Interest to your Photographs

As a mostly urban and landscape photographer, I sometimes forget how adding some human interest to the frame can make a photograph far more interesting as well as giving a sense of scale.

Add Human Interest to your Photographs - Cyclist Crossing a Bridge in Bruges
Cyclist in Bruges

This photograph taken on a misty morning in Bruges would not be nearly as interesting without the man crossing the bridge on his bicycle. This is actually one of my personal favourite photographs of the many I’ve taken over the years.

Add Human Interest to your Photographs - Figure on a Bridge at Night
Lone Figure on the Ponte Romana, Tavira Portugal

Including a person or people in the scene you are photographing also gives a sense of scale to the surroundings. The person at the end of the bridge in this photo occupies a tiny part of the frame but completely transforms the image in my opinion. Including people in your composition often requires patience and luck. For both of the previous photographs, I had to wait for the right people to enter the frame. I discuss this idea of waiting for the “decisive moment” in another tutorial.

In our next tutorial, I will look at using particular compositions to create a sense of depth in a photograph.

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I am a travel photographer from Dublin, Ireland. I specialise in urban, street, architecture and landscape photography. One of my favourite activities is wandering around a new and unfamiliar location with my camera at the ready. In the blog section, I share photography tutorials and tips as well as some of the stories behind my photographs and travels.

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