Beyond bokeh; ways to tell a story through composition
Hello everyone! I’m Jennifer Thomas (@jennthomasphoto) and I’m so happy to be writing a lesson for P52! I’m a mum to two wonderful girls, ages 6 and 4 years. I live in central London, with my Brit hubby, but I’m originally from the US (Pennsylvania). I am a Hello Pro at Hello Storyteller Creatives and a Click Pro Elite. I started a 365 (daily shooting) project in January 2020 and kept it going for over one and half years. My passion lies in capturing storytelling images of my girls as they discover the world around them.
I was so excited to be asked to write an article on composition for P52. I think that this community is fantastic and I’ve learnt so much from it over the years. I was extra thrilled to be contacted about writing a lesson on composition because it is a subject that I am very passionate about. A good composition can help to strengthen your image and convey your story.
The ground creates a horizontal line, which adds to the peaceful moment.
The ropes in the bridge act as leading lines, which directs the viewer to the subject.
What is composition?
We’re all familiar with dreamy portraits that have buttery bokeh backgrounds, taken with long
lenses and a shallow depth of field. While they are undeniably beautiful, they often leave me
feeling a bit flat. I want more - more of the environment, more of the story, more of the context. By using creative composition, you can find other ways of isolating your subject while retaining the wider context and thereby construct stronger storytelling images.
You now might be wondering, what is composition? Simply put, it means the arrangement of things in your frame. This is not to be confused with framing, which is where you choose to have the borders of your image. Composition is how the things in your frame are laid out for the viewer.
It is a is vast subject consisting of many elements and it would be tough to cover them all in any depth for one article. Instead, I am going to focus on two components to get you started. They are
leading lines and figure to ground ratio. I chose these because both concepts are used to draw
attention to your subject and can help to strengthen your image.
The subject's eye contact with the camera creates a strong implied line.
The lines of the bench and the wooden floor act as leading lines directing the view to the subject.
Lines are all around us and once you start to look for them you can’t stop seeing them. Their
ubiquity is one of their great strengths. A lot of my photos consist of following my kids around on
their various adventures. I want to capture them in their natural environment to tell the story of what they were up to on that occasion, but I don’t want them to get lost in the photo. I can’t easily cart around reflectors, or props or anything else. Instead, this is when I would look to use leading lines to make them stand out. They act as giant arrows which direct the viewer towards the subject. They can be almost anything from a window sill to a railing to a line of cabinets to a street. The only limit is your imagination.
There is one thing to keep in mind when using leading lines. You may need to physically move
around and micro-compose your image so that the lines end at your subject. This is important
because if the lines carry on past your subject, then the viewer will be directed away from your
subject and possibly out of the frame. It’s important to be aware of what’s in your frame and how
the objects in it relate to your subject. It’s difficult to have everything perfectly lined up in your
frame, however it does get easier with practice.
There is an implied line created by the bikes.
There is an implied line created by the books.
Lines can also be implied and work just as effectively as physical ones to pull the viewer’s eye
towards the subject. This happens when you have a row of objects and the viewer ‘connects the
dots’ in their mind, such as between plants in a field, a line of trees, lamp posts and so forth.
Another commonly encountered implied line is visual contact, whether it is with the camera or
within the frame. The viewer will wonder what the subject is looking at and immediately look to see what it is.
The railing in this photo acts as a leading line, which directs the viewer to the subject.
There is an implied line from the row of plant pots, which directs the viewer toward the subject.
The language of lines
Lines have meaning too beyond just directing the viewer. Wavy lines are thought to be peaceful
and serene and they cause the viewer to go more slowly through the frame than straight lines.
Horizontal and vertical lines imply stability and strength respectively. Both types of these provide a sense of harmony and can be used to immediately direct the viewer to the subject. Diagonal lines are energetic and can give a sense of depth to your image. They are fantastic at grabbing the viewer’s attention, however diagonal lines need to be used with caution because they can also convey a sense of instability.
When lines that are normally perceived as straight (e.g. buildings, horizons, etc.) are not fully
straight in your frame, the viewer sees them as being ‘off’ and this puts them on edge. If you are
going for a peaceful beach sunset scene for example, it is best to make sure that your horizon is
straight. Conversely, films often utilize crooked lines and perspectives for impact and to cause a
sense of unease in the viewer, especially during actions scenes. Have a look for them the next
time you are watching a blockbuster. Inception, Mission Impossible, 12 Monkeys and the Avengers are all prime examples where ‘Dutch angles’ are used to make the viewer feel that something is not right in the scene.
The bridge creates a wayy line.
The lines on the roof and shafts of light are diaganol lines that give the image depth.
The stairs create a diagonal line and give energy to the image.
Straightening your lines in post processing
If you don’t want to leave people with a feeling of tension from viewing your image, then I suggest that you ensure that your lines are straight. I often use the transform panel in Lightroom to correct my lines. Make sure that you first check ‘enable profile correction’ and select your lens from the drop-down menu on the lens correction panel, as this will minimise any crooked lines caused by lens distortion. Then select ‘full’ to see how Lightroom perceives the lines in your frame. If this didn’t help you can try the ‘auto’ button or use the sliders to adjust it manually.
This is one of many examples of a bright subject standing out against a dark background.
Figure to ground ratio
Another way to make your subject stand out is to use the concept of ‘figure to ground ratio’. This
goes by a few different names but it means making sure that there is sufficient visual contrast
between your subject and their background.
A way of thinking about this concept is in reading text. It would be very tough to read a book that had black text on black paper or white text on white paper. The usually encountered combination of black text on white paper provides a high level of contrast which makes it easy for the reader to decipher the text.
The visual language of photography works in a similar manner. It is easy to make out the subject if there is a high degree of contrast.
This happens in two scenarios – having a dark subject on a light background (think of
silhouettes and partial silhouettes) or a light subject on a dark background. You can use the inverse square law and harness the fall off of light to darken the background. If you place your subject near to a light source, such as a single window in a room or a spotlight in a
museum, and meter for the highlights, then based on the inverse square law the rest of the room
will fall into the shadows and you will have created a nice separation of your subject from the
These silouhettes are examples of a dark subject on a bright background.
Alternatively, silhouettes make for captivating subjects. The dark figure on a light background stands out nicely. To create a silhouette, get low to the ground and shoot up at your subject to fill the frame with the sky. Keep your aperture narrow (around f/5 or higher) to keep it sharp. Expose for the highlights in the sky with the sun behind your subject (backlight) and you will get a silhouette. One thing to keep in mind for capturing a successful silhouette is to make sure that your subject has separation between their limbs. Otherwise, you run the risk of them appearing amorphous.
Another example of a dark figure on a light background would be a snow-covered area. Dark
clothing would help the subject to stand out against the white ground.
These are extreme examples of figure to ground ratio, where a high contrast is created between the subject and the background. However, just being aware of the need for the subject to stand out from the background can help a lot.
When we shoot, we tend to focus on the subject alone. I would like to encourage you to also think about the background of your subject. Does it provide sufficient contrast to make your subject stand out from it. If not, will your subject soon move to a better location or can you better compose your shot?
Rim light just before golden hour.
Rim light at golden hour.
Another way to increase the figure to ground ratio of your subject is to use rim light. This happens in backlight conditions when the light source highlights the outline of your subject. This type of light often has a magical appearance and greatly helps to separate your subject from the background.
An example of rim light using off camera flash.
In cinematography you will often see mystical creatures portrayed with this type of light; Yoda in Star Wars is a prime example. Beautiful rim light appears when the sun is low in the sky. Golden hour is great for this. Alternatively, you can create it by using off camera flash. To do this, you place the flash a few feet behind the subject.
Editing to enhance figure to ground ratio
Although there is sadly no magic brush that allows you to paint on rim light, you can slightly darken the background by using an editing program such as Lightroom and increase the figure to ground ratio. I find that I get the best result when there is a natural light fall off already present in the image and I use editing to enhance it.
There are several ways to achieve this such as using a brush by select masking – create a new mask – select a brush and on the drop-down menu select burn and brush onto areas that you want to make darker. You can also use a radial filter around your subject, invert it and select burn to darken the area.
The stalks of the sunflowers create horizontal lines and the tops of the flowers create diagonal lines.
There are many ways to help your subject stand out from the background. By incorporating leading lines into your frame, you can draw attention to your subject and strengthen the mood of the image. Figure to ground ratio is another concept that will help your subject to get noticed. Both techniques get easier to use with practice. The more that you use them the more ingrained they will become.
Remember to look for lines in the environment around you and be aware of the background behind your subject. I hope that you enjoyed learning about these concepts. I can’t wait to see what you create!