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Vertical lines and movement

Some thoughts on photographic composition

Photographic composition is a topic that is quite difficult to explain in detail.

During some of Keith Cooper's photography training and teaching, he covers many of the principles, although in a more general manner.

This is the first of our articles by Keith, looking at specific aspects of composition as they affect representations of different scenes and objects.

Please do feel free to disagree with what you read - but hopefully it helps build an understanding of what works for you.

Looking at verticals

When I took the photograph above, of the viaduct at John O'Gaunt in Leicestershire, I wanted go give it a place in the landscape and suggest a more dynamic feel to the picture.

A 20"x30" print of this image hangs at the landowner's property, up on the hill behind the bridge.

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As a commercial photographer I cover quite a range of types of work, particularly architecture.

For a typical architectural client, the classic view emphasises vertical lines in a building or structure.

Seattle street scene - the Mariners' shopThe example to the right shows the typical combination of strong verticals and powerful sense of perspective from the receding horizontals.

The shot was taken with a 24mm shift lens on a Canon 1Ds. [Opposite the Mariners' shop in Seattle]

You could 'fix' the verticals in Photoshop if you've not got a shift lens, although this generally makes the precise final framing somewhat less predictable.

In this short piece I'm just considering some aspects of how vertical lines contribute to the 'feel' of a picture.

The tree

Let's consider a very simple scene of a tree standing on its own.

Unbent and straight, the tree emphasises a static scene, where forces acting are balanced and the tree is at rest.

Gently bend the tree. There is the implication of a force acting on the tree (wind?). The stronger the bend, the more tension there is, but there is still a feeling that movement is smooth.

Lean the tree at an angle and immediately there is a sense of imbalance, of change. The tree is either falling or about to.

It's important to remember that any elements of composition in a photograph interact and that there are no hard and fast rules.

Indeed, it's the essential vagueness of any discussion about composition that is likely to put off those like myself who come from a predominantly science/engineering background.

If you put yourself in that category, then I can only say 'stick with it' and try and relate to some of this annoyingly imprecise arty stuff - it really is worth it ;-)

Let's go on to some example photographs that I took one day at a much larger viaduct. I've included several different variations, that you might get a feel for the changes.

Yes, they are very obvious, but only when you look...

The viaduct at Harringworth

The viaduct at Harringworth, in Northamptonshire in the UK, carries a pair of railway tracks across the wide Welland valley. It's also known as the Welland Viaduct or the Seaton Viaduct. It is 1,275 yards (1.166 km) long and has 82 arches, each of which has a 40 feet (12 m) span. It was completed in around 1878, and is the longest masonry viaduct across a valley in Britain.

View Larger Map

This first shot was taken with a 17mm shift lens on a Canon 1Ds Mk3.

  • Why black and white? - I often find that B/W often makes it easier to represent form and structure.

It feels like a wall across the valley - the vertical lines give a solidity to the bridge.

The powerful diagonal line and decreasing apparent size of the arches give a sense of depth.

Contrast this with a shot from almost the same position, using an EF14mm 2.8L II lens on the same camera.

What's behind the bridge now becomes more important. The lack of verticals also creates a more dynamic feel. The bridge now goes somewhere rather than just being a barrier set across the valley.

Two 'portrait' oriented shots differ in similar ways, but this time the height of the arches is emphasised more strongly in relation to the length of the bridge.

Using a lens like the 14mm (below) can cross the line from 'dynamic tension' to 'about to fall down'.

I took several shots from slightly different positions, before deciding what worked best. One thing I like about digital photography is that I can experiment a bit more and leave some compositional choices until later. As a professional photographer, I like to think I get it right first time quite often, but I won't fool myself that it's -every- time.

Alternative views

Two different views with the verticals corrected.

Notice how not 'closing' the arch changes the feel from the somewhat more satisfying (IMHO) second version?

The little bit of background visible in the first shot is also just too small.

In the examples above, I've not cropped the images at all.

For my prints, I'll often crop the image a bit, just to include/exclude/emphasise different aspects.

Some other examples

I've included a few more pictures as examples - particularly trees.

Apart from framing the view of the river, this leaning tree suggests that the environment beside the river (the Colorado) is not quite so stable as it looks.

Colorado River

Now, some trees standing on their own in the melting spring snow - they are isolated, but the mix of slightly off-vertical trees makes this a less static scene.

Spring melt

An aspen tree stands on its own.

Its clear verticals add to a sense of isolation from the other trees.

Waiting for Spring

Some types of aspen trees have very pronounced eye patterns on their trunks.

Aspen Eye

The (deliberately) out of focus trees in the background stand with the one photographed. The static feel of this enhances the feeling of being quietly watched.

For buildings, we generally know what should be vertical.

I've got some pictures of this tower block in Wolverhampton with fully corrected verticals that would not look out of place in architects drawings, however this is the image that a client particularly liked.

Carillion tower

Slightly tilted verticals just make buildings look as if they are leaning.

Strongly converging verticals like this give an energy and dynamism that reflects on the business - or so I was told by someone in marketing...

Personally I'd have liked the flag to move, but sometimes you don't get to wait on a job...


Hopefully, some of the pictures here have given you an idea or two.

Photographic composition is a rather imprecise subject to write about in articles.

It's difficult to come up with examples that emphasise specific points, but I'll see if I can expand these articles over time to cover different areas.

Questions? - feel free to comment or email Keith here at Northlight.

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