Using Perspective as a Compositional Tool

GreenHeron11

Photography is much like a sentence in that there is “grammar” and a set of rules surrounding it. Emphasizing the subject in a composition is akin to the proper Noun. Keeping the parts of the picture in a common ratio is like avoiding a run on sentence. There are different ways to emphasize the subject. You can make the subject very prominent in the frame, like a portrait. You can also use other elements in the picture to emphasize the subject (someone “holding up” the Tower of Pisa). This creates a pathway for the viewer’s vision to move along inside your picture. Using perspective lines in your photographs creates a visual framework that directs the viewer’s eyes to specific parts of your picture.

Microwave/Radio Tower

The building roof acts as perspective lines that draw the viewer’s eyes towards the center of the picture, then the tower directs the viewer up and out of the frame.  This creates a clean visual pathway for the viewer.

An internal frame in a photograph emphasizes the subject in the same way that a physical frame emphasizes the entire picture. The psychology of framing is the same, whether it’s physical or compositional. It not only reduces the “empty” space around the subject, it also draws the eye towards the subject. In single point perspective, the viewer’s eye runs along the perspective lines in a natural way because humans are predisposed to find patterns in everything they see. A line in a pictures will cause the viewer to unconsciously follow it until it reaches a subject that they can evaluate, or goes off the frame. As a photographer, you should try to understand this psychology and use it to manage the viewer’s vision path. This will make your pictures easier to view and more pleasing to that unspoken desire that everyone has.

2007-07-07_073

The spiral is the subject in this picture.  The twigs extending on either side create a visual pathway for the viewer to enter the frame, evaluate the subject, then exit the frame in a natural way.

The desire to find meaningful lines in nature isn’t unique to humans. Animals will also associate themselves with breaks or lines in their environments. Fish gather at steep drop offs and weed lines, deer follow topographical breaks in their environment until their trails begin to look like lines on a map. Human vision follows the same instinctual lines as deer or fish, it just happens in our field of view instead of the larger world around us. A picture of a chain link fence is very rich in framing, but devoid of any subject. The viewer’s eyes follow the lines instinctively, but don’t find any subject to rest on. Together, framing and subject allow the user to naturally move their vision across the image towards your subject. The frame also redirects their view back to the subject if they stray. If you’ve ever found yourself drawn to one part of a picture over and over again, that’s the effect that framing and perspective have on your vision.

Eiffel Tower 2007-04-19_089

Left: the angle of the search light follows the existing perspective lines created by the street.  Right:  The search light is at an unnatural angle to the perspective lines, and disrupts the viewer’s visual path through the image.

Using perspective in your pictures isn’t just about creating a sense of depth. It’s also about managing the visual pathways in your image to emphasize certain aspects or regions of the picture. Pictures can still be good without using perspective. Sometimes, a chaotic image composition adds to the artistic value of the image. Using perspective is just another tool that allows you to nudge the viewer towards the meaning that you originally envisioned when you took the picture.

One Response to “Using Perspective as a Compositional Tool”

  1. Manuel Says:

    I’ll keep this in mind, thanks!


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