The Hidden Art of Composition

Posted February 4, 2017, under Vocabularama

Unless they’re in “the business,” most people probably don’t think about the arrangement of an image or shot. But consciously or not, we all appreciate well-composed scenes. They draw the eye, engage the mind. Composition is one of the most vital, yet oddly kind of invisible elements to good art.

Composition applies to every art form. In the graphic arts, this can extend all the way down to relative positions of letter pairs. We’ll be focusing on image composition here – photos and films.

We are only going to discuss a few of the many approaches to composition here. The point is to give an idea of how this works, and how it relates to everything from vacation snapshots to multi-million dollar films.

Due Credit

Our examples come from a few sources:

Composition Cam, which is the Instagram for a camera app that gives you overlays to aid in improving the composition of your photos.

Dublin photographer Barry O Carroll, who kindly gave permission to reuse examples from his terrific tutorial on various composition gambits.

If you have a little more time, Every Frame a Painting is a fascinating resource, with videos that dissect various ways and types of composition. From sound design to use of chairs, to how a filmmaker can use a simple quadrant structure in every shot to subvert expectations and add visual weight.


As ably demonstrated by Composition Cam – as well as various smartphone camera apps – grids are the greatest tool in the composition arsenal. Pages in magazines, on websites, etc. almost always depend on a grid to keep content arranged in a manner that is engaging and pleasing to the eye.

Photographically, this is most commonly expressed as the Rule of Thirds. Breaking up a frame into nine equal rectangles (three across, three down) creates a grid. Then you get the elements of your shot on or near the places where the grid lines intersect.

This may look counter-intuitive. Seems logical to have the subject of a photo centered in the frame, right? Well, it turns out that’s usually kind of boring. Following the Rule of Thirds delivers a more visually interesting and engaging result.

Zack Snyder’s filmmaking is problematic in many ways, but composition is not one of them.

You can even just do horizontal or vertical thirds.

These two frames illustrate how composing in thirds can evoke both emotional distance between characters, or antagonistic proximity.

Thirds aren’t the only game in town, however. Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 neo-noir film, Drive, relies heavily on quadrants. This approach makes the film magnetic to the eye, while greatly enhancing the film’s tone and message.

Click through to watch Every Frame a Painting‘s video breaking this down.

Halves / Symmetry

This composition style often carries its power because of the visual balance or symmetry. Reflections lend themselves well to this.

But you can also have the subject only take up half of the frame, with the rest being “empty.” This can evoke different moods or sensations, is visually interesting, and can even imply movement by showing where the subject is going.

Diagonals and Guide Lines

Diagonal lines in your composition can do a lot for your image. Whether it is leading the eye to a focal point, invoking a mood, or just creating a dynamic visual, angled lines spice up a picture.


We’ve barely scraped the surface of a rather large subject. There are many other ways to approach composition, including shapes, color, framing, depth, and a lot more. But while there are many options, it’s not impossible complexity. If you’re interested in learning more, we encourage you to start with the sources given above. Or bring your promotional materials to us, and let us help you out with them.

Rigney Graphics is a Pasadena graphic arts company that can help you create an impact with design and marketing solutions for print and web.