What makes a good photograph?
Is it the light, exposure or the subject?
National Geographic photographer Frans Lanting explains the six secrets to create a compelling image in his class “The Art of Seeing” (link). He described these being: subject, unique perspective, strong composition, great light, perfect moment and meaning.
You only need to have one of the six to boost your chance of creating a more remarkable piece of work. Although, the more the merrier.
But if you were to pick only one, which would you choose?
For me, image composition trumps all.
Let me explain.
What Is Image Composition?
Firstly, how do you define it?
Image composition is the arrangement of visual elements and how they interact with each other.
And how are these supposed to be placed to make a composition interesting?
I’m sure you’ve heard of the rule of thirds or the golden ratio. To see what is new, I did a quick search and I found there are as many as 20 ways to compose an image.
20 is a lot to remember, right?
Studies have shown that our working memory can only remember up to seven items. So how the heck are you going to know all the composition rule?
One System To Rule Them All
I was recently introduced to a principle of image composition called the LCU framework. The educational video was delivered by Robert Rodriguez Jr. In his video, he describes how you can direct viewer’s attention to your main subject by using the LCU framwork and visual design.
I watched the video in one go until the end.
Personally, I thought the LCU framework summarizes all the rules of image composition you can find out there. You might disagree with me after you've watched it and thats' ok. But the chances are, you'll agree that it’s intuitive, easy to remember and it makes you analyze the scene to search for a better composition.
Before I carry on, I just want to clarify that I’m merely sharing what Robert has shared, injected with some of my views on the subject.
The LCU Framework
LCU stands for Lead, Center and Unify.
Let's break it down:
Lead The Viewer
Where do you want the viewer to look?
We take an image because something in the scene attracted our attention. When you show that image to someone, you hope they will see what you’re trying to deliver. If your image doesn’t have a visual path to lead the eye, your viewer may get lost wandering within the composition and feeling confused.
When composing, try to place lines in a strategic way that greet the viewer the moment they land their sight on the image. This means placing it on the edges of the composition and it should run towards to subject.
What does it mean by lines?
Ridges of the mountains, natural line form by how rocks are arranged naturally in a beach, streaks of clouds in the sky, foot path, etc.
These lines don’t have to be straight. A curving or winding line can take the viewer on a journey exploring other elements in the composition before arriving at the subject.
I took one of my images to see if I could apply the LCU framework. I know what I did was retrospective, but I helped me to understand my actions and find ways to improve it.
In the image above, the main subject is Mount Toubkal (in orange square), the highest peak in the Atlas Mountains. I used the mountains ridge and the stream to draw viewers into the center of the image.
Center of Interest
After taking the viewer on a journey, they should be able to rest their eyes on something. This means having a subject to look at and fix their vision on.
I took this a few years ago and I think it helps to illustrate the point. Look at the image above. Can you identify a main subject? Does your eye hurt searching every corner for an interesting spot to look at?
The center of interest is what attracts us to take the photo in the first place. As a photographer, your job is to help the viewer see what you saw. Sometimes, the center of interest can be the mood or emotion itself.
You can argue the main subject in the image above is the sun and the footprints are there to direct attention to the main subject. To be honest, that didn't cross my mind when I took this image. What attracted my attention was the openness of the desert and the beautiful sand dunes.
Unify The Composition
Lastly, do you think each element in the composition complement each other?
Do the elements belong together? Do they all fit into a common theme?
Basic Elements of Visual Design
The next half of the video is about how to use the basic elements of visual design to tie in with the LCU framework.
Visual design in photography refers to the strategic implementation of shapes, colors and other elements within the frame to improve the aesthetic appeal of the image. This means utilizing lines, shapes, color, texture and pattern in the scene to create leading lines, emphasize the center of interest and unify the elements in the composition.
Visual design is very closely related to the LCU framework in which the former can be viewed as the building blocks of the LCU framework.
The concept of visual design can be explain in video more easily. So, I’m going to direct you to his video that begins at 16:56.
Tell A Story With Your Composition
The LCU framework helped me understand image composition better. As Daniel mentioned, there are no rules in composition and everything is relative.
What you have to do after watching the video is to take this new found knowledge into practice. This means go out, apply what you’ve learn and experiment by taking a lot of images!