Advanced Composition – Part II

Article and Photography by Ron Bigelow


Color is perhaps one of the most obvious elements of composition. Everyone knows that intense colors make people take notice of your images. Ever wonder why there are so many sunset and flower shots? Color is the reason. Show your latest sunset shot to Aunt Edna and she immediately gasps at your dramatic colors and tells you what an incredible photographer you are. You have discovered the first function of color: color grabs the attention of the viewer. Perhaps, because this function of color is so palpable, many photographers miss the more sophisticated, and in some cases far more powerful function of color: color sets the mood of an image. Since, color is such an important compositional ingredient, the experienced photographer will want to use color to its fullest extend -- incorporating both functions of color into her images.

Color -- Grabbing the Attention

Figure 1: Color (Grabbing Attention)

Utilizing color to grab attention is often rather straight forward. Generally, what is required is a saturated or intense color. This type of color tends to grab the viewer's attention and focus it on the area of color. Furthermore, the color tends to keep the viewer's attention for an extended period of time. When the viewer's eyes do wander, the color tends to bring the attention back. Figure 1 demonstrates the use of color in this way. This image has an almost IN-YOUR-FACE application of color. A quick analysis shows that there are only two elements in this image: the orange sunset and the rock/bird outline. These two elements work together to combine the vibrant sky with a starkness of detail that create the photo's impact.

Figure 2: Color (Grabbing Attention)

Figure 2 shows a more sophisticated application of color to grab the viewer's attention. The impact of this photo depends almost entirely on color. In this case, a mix of colors quickly draws the attention. While the colors are different for each tree, all of the colors work together in a harmonious manner. In addition, the light colors tend to make the foreground trees stand out from the dark green forest pines in the background. The light dusting of snow adds a final touch of contrast to complete the image. Had this image been shot in the spring or summer, when all of the trees would have shared a similar green color, there would have been little to draw the eye.

Color -- Setting the Mood

Setting the mood through the use of color tends to be a more subtle application of color than when it is used to grab the attention as just covered above. However, that does not mean that it is any less powerful. Sometimes, the use of color to set the mood is very direct and noticeable. Have you ever seen an advertisement for some vacation resort? The ad will often show a couple on a deserted beach as the sun goes down. The beach is bathed in a warm, romantic light. The use of that warm light is a deliberate attempt to set the mood of the scene and to influence you into visiting the resort. Had the ad shown the couple standing on the beach in the harsh glare of the sun at noon, the ad would not have been very effective in setting the mood and eliciting the desired response. In other cases, the use of color to set the mood can be subliminal (subconscious). The viewer may not even be aware of the color or its impact on his reaction to the image. While the use of color in this way is very subtle, it is all the more powerful for it. The photographer has the ability to affect the viewer's reaction to an image without the viewer even being aware of why he is responding to an image in a certain way.

Different colors elicit different moods. Since there are a huge number of colors, it is not possible to cover all of the colors and their impacts on viewers' moods in an article such as this one. Instead, a few colors will be reviewed in an effort to convey some idea of how colors affect viewers' feelings.

While this article evaluates color in fairly analytical terms, to become truly accomplished with the use of color, the photographer needs to develop an intuitive feeling for colors and their impacts both in the field and when editing images.

Before we begin reviewing the images in this section, I need throw in a caveat. The use of color in some of the images in this "setting the mood" section is subtle. In some cases, the use of color is in the form of tints rather than bold color. This creates a problem: Not all computer monitors display color accurately. What color you see will largely be dependent on your monitor. At home, I use a relatively new, fairly high quality, color calibrated monitor. Furthermore, my monitor has a black, non-reflective shield around it to prevent ambient, room light from hitting the screen and affecting my ability to accurately judge color. As a result, for my system, what I see is what I get. The images that I see on my monitor are pretty close to what I get if I print my images. In other words, I am seeing reasonably accurate color. If your monitor is older, lower quality, or not color calibrated, you may not be seeing accurate color. In the case of bold use of color, this is not as big of a problem. The color may be a bit off, but you will probably still get the idea conveyed by the image. However, in the case of the subtler use of color, particularly when color tints are used to affect mood, this may be a major issue. You may not be able to detect the delicate tints correctly. Thus, their impact may not be able to be communicated through your monitor. Therefore, there is a risk that the images you see on your screen may not appear as they do to me and that you may not see what is described in the paragraphs.

Let's start with the color blue. Blue tends to bring forth feelings of calm or cold depending on how the color is used. This is a reflection of how we perceive the color in nature: Deep calm lakes are blue, peaceful cloudless skies are blue, and large amounts of ice have a blue tint. Figures 3 and 4 illustrate the use of blue in a meadow scene. Both of these images are of the exact same scene (a meadow flooded by snow pack melt). The camera was on a tripod and was not moved in any way while these images were taken. During this day, the sky had a heavy layer of clouds that rapidly changed over the course of the two hours that images were taken. As the light changed, the colors reflected in the meadow changed. This change in color is very discernable and had a dramatic impact on the mood of the meadow. Figure 3 shows the meadow during a break in the clouds that exposed the deep blue sky. This blue was reflected in the lake. The mountains in the distance were being hit by a diffuse light that caused the mountains to light up with a soft, natural colored light. The feeling communicated by this image is one of peace, beauty, and calmness. One might be tempted to set up a lawn chair and enjoy the beauty while the children play at the edge of the meadow. Figure 4 communicates an entirely different mood. The blue reflections in the water have been replaced by an ominous gray. The gray in these cloud reflections foretell the presence of a menacing storm front. The once bright mountains have now fallen under a bluish shadow. This blue tint yields a feeling of cold -- perhaps, it will be snowing soon. The mood quickly changes to, "Quick, Honey, grab the kids. We need to get back to the car before the weather gets any worse". These two scenes are essentially the same: mountains, trees, and flooded meadow. Yet, the moods conveyed by the images are entirely different. This mood change is due entirely to the changing light that communicated its mood through the changing colors in the image.

Figure 3: Mood (Calmness)
Figure 4: Mood (Storm)
An even more delicate use of color is demonstrated in Figures 5 and 6. This image was first shown in Part I of this article. It is again shown in Figure 5. This image gives a feeling of a cold fall morning with the frost ringing the leaf and clinging to the rough ridges of the old, worn boards. At the time you first saw this image in Part I, you may have had that feeling of chill in the air that I experienced when I took the photo. However, you may not have been aware that much of that feeling of chill was created by a slight bluish tint to the frost on the boards. To demonstrate this point, the image has been duplicated in Figure 6. Figure 6 is the same image except that the bluish tint of the frost on the boards has been artificially removed. The frost is still there, but somehow, it just doesn't give that same feel of chill as communicated in Figure 5. One might get the impression from Figure 6 that it is a little later in the morning and that the temperature has been warming up a bit.
Figure 5: Mood (Blue Cast)
Figure 6: Mood (No Blue Cast)

The next color to be evaluated is green. Green often communicates a feeling of lushness and freshness. Again, our feelings about this color are tied up with how we frequently experience that color in nature. We tend to associate green with spring and new growth.

Figures 7 and 8 demonstrate the impact of green on an image. Again, both images are of the same scene. In image 7, the scene is shown as it looked when it was shot. This image communicates a beautiful, lush, spring landscape. The viewer can easily pick up the sense of spring and the fresh feel of the landscape. Figure 8 shows the same scene except that the color of the vegetation has been artificially altered. Here the green has been reduced and a magenta tint added. The entire feel of the image has been dramatically changed. This image has lost its fresh feel. In fact, one probably gets the feeling that the vegetation has seen better days. One might suspect that this image was taken in late summer or early fall and that the grass is starting to die out in preparation for winter.

Figure 7: Mood (Green Tint)
Figure 8: Mood (Magenta Tint)
The last colors to be evaluated are the warm tones: yellow, orange, and red. These colors are associated with feelings of warmth and comfort (again the colors are tied to how we experience them in nature). This is demonstrated in Figure 9 and 10. Both of these images are of the same scene. In Figure 9, the image is shown as it looked at the time it was shot. The warm colors of the rock and vegetation, and the tones that they impart to the swimming hole, give a warm comfortable feel to the image. In Figure 10, the colors have been artificially altered to reduce the warm tones and to add a slight blue tint to the scene. Consequently, the feel of the image has been changed. The warm feel of the image has been decidedly reduced. In its place, the blue tint has created a bit of a cold feel to the image. One might suspect that Figure 10 was shot on a winter day (it was actually shot late in the afternoon on a beautiful, spring day). Once again, color has altered the mood of the image.
Figure 9: Mood (Warm Tone)
Figure 10: Mood (Cool tone)


Patterns abound in both nature and man-made environments. The repetitive nature of patterns tends to draw the eye into the picture. Often, the viewer will concentrate carefully on the image in order to more closely examine the details in the pattern. In some cases, patterns can be used as the background for the center of interest in an image. At other times, the pattern may actually form the center of interest. Properly applied, patterns can be used to add impact to a picture.

Figure 11: Patterns

Figure 11 is an example where the center of interest, butterflies, actually forms the pattern. The image starts off with an advantage: a subject that naturally attracts people's interest (butterflies). Ever see the look on a young child's face when she sees a group of butterflies? What does the child want to do? Touch or chase the butterflies, of course. That is because people, young and old, love to watch butterflies. Starting off with an object that is an attention getter makes it easier to create a strong image. To strengthen the image further, the butterflies' wings form an interlocking pattern. The pattern is strengthened by the beautiful colors of the butterfly wings. Additionally, there is actually a double set of patterns in this image. The first pattern is formed by the interlocking butterfly wings. The second pattern set is formed by the pattern on each individual butterfly wing. This pattern is repeated many times over the image. This second pattern is enhanced by the contrast of the light color of the majority of each wing with the black lines that run throughout each wing. Some other contrast is added by the fact that a few of the butterflies have their wings open, exposing a saturated orange color. These butterflies are superimposed on top of the many butterflies that have closed wings with a much lighter color.

Figure 12: Patterns
Figure 12 shows an image formed by the close up of a dandelion like plant in the Arizona desert. This shows how simple a pattern image can be. Basically, in this image, the pattern is the entire image. There is nothing else that demands the viewer's attention. In fact, had anything else been in the image, it would most likely have been distracting.


One of the most powerful ways to create an image that commands the viewer's attention is through the use of contrast. The eye is naturally drawn to contrast. As a viewer's eyes roam around an image, they will repeatedly be pulled back to the areas of contrast.

When people think of contrast in regards to photographic images, they generally think in terms of large tonal differences in the image. This is certainly one of the common uses of contrast; however, it is only one of the ways to create contrast in an image. In my photography, I tend to break the concept of contrast into four categories:

By keeping an eye out for contrast in the surrounding environment and carefully planning the composition of images to take advantage of contrasts, photographers can create memorable images that rise above the ordinary.

Contrast Tonal

The most straight forward and common use of contrast is with regard to tone (the distribution of light to dark within an image). This may be because it is, perhaps, the easiest type of contrast to understand. It may also be the easiest of the contrast types to apply. Consequently, tonal contrast may be a good place for novice photographers to start.

Figure 13: Tonal Contrast

Figure 13 demonstrates the concept of tonal contrast. The primary draw of this image is the sky. There is an interesting rock shape in the foreground as well as the surrounding ocean. However, these are pretty much in silhouette and serve mostly to add some reference detail which can be used to drawn a more complete concept of the sky -- this is not just a dramatic sky; it is a dramatic sky over the ocean near a shoreline. The sky is interesting predominantly because of the high contrast formed when the early evening light interplays with the uneven cloud distribution. The resulting arrangement of light and dark is what defines the image. It is true that the warm rich color cast upon the clouds by the soon to be departed sun plays a role in the image. However, this color functions mostly to enhance the already dramatic sky.

Figure 14: Tonal Contrast

Figure 14 displays another use of tonal contrast. The relatively dark rock of this image intermingles with the snow of a late spring storm. The contrast of the virtually pure white snow with the rock sets the mood of the image and is probably the first thing viewers of this image will notice. This tonal contrast is one of the most important factors in defining this image. Had the image been shot on a summer day with the rock sitting in the brown dirt of the hill on which it resides, the image would have been of brown rock on brown dirt and would have had no impact what so ever. However, the tonal contrast is only the beginning. This image is actually an image of contrasts. In addition to the tonal contrast, there is the color contrast of the white snow against the warm, rich, earthy tones of the rock. There is the texture contrast of the almost featureless snow with the rich texture of the rock. Finally, there is the line contrast of the lines within the rock: vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines all interacting within the rock formation.

While both Figure 13 and Figure 14 have color, it is the tonal contrast that defines the image. The color further supports or enhances this contrast.

Contrast: Color

Color contrast is a big favorite of mine. Possibly it is because, when one finds scenes of significant color contrast, it is often so easy to create good images. However, just because an image has different colors does not mean that the image has color contrast. This can be seen in Figure 2, which was discussed earlier. Here, the pastel colors of this fall/winter picture compliment each other creating a rather comfortable blending of colors to produce the image. In the case of color contrast, the colors do not blend so easily. This does not mean that the colors necessarily clash (producing an uneasy feeling in the viewer). They simply do not blend in such an easy manner as in Figure 2. I am sure that someone can produce a color wheel and explain which colors are complementary and which colors contrast. However, in the field, I deal with color contrast from an intuitive level. Some colors in scenes just feel like they compliment each other and some feel like they create color contrast. While the color wheels might help a novice, sooner or later the photographer will need to develop an intuitive feel for color in order to take his photography to the next level.

Figure 15: Color Contrast

Figure 15 is one of my favorites. This shot was taken in a remote field of wildflowers during a spring rain. The saturated, lavender color of the newborn petals swiftly catches the eye. Yet, it is the contrast of those lavender petals with the rich green background that truly delineates this image. As an aside, the colors in this photo were considerably enhanced by the very soft light produced by the storm clouds. Storm days may ruin some of your other photography, but it will greatly enhance your flower close-ups.

Figure 16: Color Contrast
Figure 16 is another example of the use of color contrast. The saturated green background makes the intensely red leaf stand out and separate itself from the background. Additionally, the complete lack of any detail in the image, except for that in the leaf, forces the viewer to focus on the leaf. This effect is enhanced by the very limited depth of field that was used. This image is an example of the less-is-better approach to photography.

Contrast: Lines, Curves, and Shapes

Figure 17: Contrasting Lines

The use of contrasting lines, curves, and shapes often produce a subtler contrast that that of tone and color. That is a good thing. It gives the photographer another tool to create different impacts.

Figure 17 shows the use of contrasting lines in the case of an ancient Indian ruin. The cliff, of which the majority of the image is comprised, is characterized by numerous, fairly parallel, horizontal lines. On the other hand, the ruins are characterized by vertical lines. This contrast of lines makes the ruins stand out from the rest of the cliff. The vertical lines of the ruins give a feeling of strength that make the ruins dominate the image. A frame of bushes and tree branches further isolates and emphasizes the ruins.

Figure 18: Contrasting Lines
Figure 18 shows, perhaps, an even more delicate use of contrasting lines. The lower part of the image has red rock with horizontal lines running the length of the rock. Out of this rock rise rock mounds. These mounds have vertical lines running the entire height of the mounds. This sets the mounds apart from the lower rock. While this may seem a minor difference, its effect is significant. Some of the mounds are of the same color as the lower rock. Without the difference in lines, there would be little to differential these mounds from the surrounding rock. Since these mounds are the center of interest in the image, the disparity in lines is crucial. To increase the impact of the lines, the image was taken just before sunset. This created a low angle of light that emphasized the shadows. In addition, the late afternoon light had a warm color that accentuated the red color of the rock.

Contrast: Patterns

Figure 19: Contrasting Patterns

Another interesting way to introduce contrast into an image is through the use of patterns. More exactly, it is through the break in the pattern that the contrast is created. The eye is naturally drawn to areas were the pattern is broken. This can be used to the photographers advantage.

Figure 19 shows a section of clover. An image of just clover alone would have not been very interesting. However, the introduction of the rock into the scene breaks the pattern and adds an element of interest that the clover alone could not generate. The eye is quickly drawn to the large rock. Even if the eye moves from the rock to examine the clover, it tends to be drawn back to the rock before very long.

Figure 20: Contrasting Patterns
Figure 20 is a bottle house built many decades ago in the desert. The bottle pattern is interesting, but the bottles alone would not be likely to sustain a viewer's interest. The window provides the break in the pattern that is needed to create some contrast and create a center of interest that holds the viewer's attention.

Selective Focus

Selective focus is a great tool that the photographer can use to direct the viewer's attention to a single point in the image. By using selective focus, the photographer forces the rest of the image to diminish in importance and the center of interest to dominate the image and the viewer's attention.

While this tool can be used in any kind of situation, it is probably most frequently used with close ups.

Figure 21: Selective Focus

Figure 21 provides an example of selective focus applied to an image of a rose. First, all distracting detail was removed by moving very close to the rose (this image was shot with a macro lens). Second, a very narrow depth of field was utilized in order to further focus the attention on the peak of the bud. As the eye moves away from that focus point, the image becomes less sharp. By using this approach two things occur: The viewer's attention is forced to converge on the focus point and, the lack of distracting detail forces the viewer to become aware of the graceful curves and shapes which really give rise to the beauty of this flower.

Figure 22: Selective Focus
Figure 22 shows selective focus used with a very small desert plant. The front pod assumes a position of first importance among the pods displayed. The other detail fades in importance as the sharpness of the images quickly falls off when the eye travels from the first pod. The background has been reduced to no importance since it exists only in shadow. The viewer's eye loses interest in the areas of little or no detail and travels back to the first pod that forms the center of interest.

Part II Summary

Color, patterns, contrast, and selective focus are powerful compositional tools that the photographer can selectively use to affect the mood that an image conveys to the viewer.


Advanced Composition -- Part I     Advanced Composition -- Part III