Using Lines of Movement for Photography Composition

In pictorial composition it is a truism that diagonal lines appear more "lively," or dynamic, than horizontal or vertical lines. It is also generally agreed that objects seen as moving into a space are visually more "positive," or "stronger," than those seen as departing. By looking at pictures and by experimentation, you can quickly determine that rapidly moving subjects can be made to appear very static and dull if the lines of movement are vertical or horizontal. Thus, a picture of an airplane is rarely exciting to the eye in such a position, but looks very dynamic if a wing is lifted and the fuselage runs diagonally across the picture. Conversely, motionless subjects frequently can be made to look more interesting if their main axes are run diagonally through the composition.


In profiles or three-quarter views, the person (or the head, if it is a portrait) is usually placed in the picture so that there is more space in front than behind and more space below the head than above. A person with less space in front than behind will be seen as moving out of the picture, even if at rest. A subject placed low may be seen as "falling out of the picture."


But you should not try to base all of your compositions on the rules of arrangement so far described, because there are many circumstances that can make mockery of them. A subject seen as moving or falling out of the picture space can be perceived as dynamic, if other things within the composition contribute meaningfully to that idea. And a foreboding presence in a picture can be made to loom menacingly over the viewer when placed vertically and centrally, while some diagonally placed subjects may appear to be simply reclining. Many seeming violations of compositional rules work if the circumstances are right.


One of the better compositional devices is the use of an S-curve, or of a spiraling arrangement, to draw the viewer's eye into the picture and lead it to the places and things that you want it to notice. We have all seen pictures of country dwellings, churches, castles, and so on, with a road or pathway proceeding from the bottom of the picture space, curving one way and another as it diminishes in perspective, eventually leading directly to the building. This is a particularly obvious use of the idea, but it is possible to do the same thing much more subtly in all kinds of pictures. Whether obvious or subtle, however, the device is very effective.


The fact that S-curves are much praised by some camera club judges and by other rather conventional people in the camera world does not nullify their visual effectiveness. Just as arbitrary rules should not be your sole guide in composing pictures, they should also not be automatically reversed or deliberately avoided without good reason. S-curves and spirals are very useful visual leaders, in both literal photography and in the more abstract or ambiguous modes.
 

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