Using Curves in your Photographic Composition

By Geoff Harris

Composition: Curves, arches and lead-in lines.

There's no right or wrong way to compose a photo. However, there's just something inherently pleasing when curves are included in an image. When you look at a photograph your eye naturally wanders around it. Curves are a good way of deliberately guiding the eye through the shot to a specific area. We just can't help following curves this way, they're just too pleasing not to do it.

The river Coquet flowing through the Coquet near Wedder leap, shot from Barrow Law in the Northumberland National Park, England. OS REF: NT 868113, Composition, lead-in, lead in, lines, landscape, photography, landscape photography,

There are actually two sets of curves in this shot, the river and the road. However, because the river is brighter it's the more noticeable and therefore stronger visually.

Curves can physically exist and be tangible in an image or they can be implied. Examples of curves that are tangible include pathways, railway lines even the edge of the sea as it washes up on a beach. Tangible curves don't even need to be complete. If the middle of a curve is missing the brain automatically fills in the gap, joining the detached ends.

The gateway to Milecastle 37 on Hadrian's Wall covered in snow, Northumberland National Park, England, Composition, lead-in, lead in, lines, landscape, photography, landscape photography,

We mentally complete curves in images even when large portions are missing.

Curves come in different shapes but the two to remember and use are the C and S curves. Rather logically the shape of the curve matches the shape of the letter it's named after. The C curve is a relatively simple shape, the S curve more sinuous and complex. S curves take longer to follow so are more likely to engage the viewer of an image than a C curve. An S curve's meandering quality is also slightly more hypnotic and restful than the simple C curve.

The market square of Djemaa El Fna at night, Marrakech, Morocco, Composition, lead-in, lead in, lines, landscape, photography, landscape photography,

Viewpoint is important to the strength of the curve of the image. In this shot the curve from the bottom left up wouldn't have been as pronounced if I'd been lower down.

When a curve meets itself coming the other way the result is a circle. Perfect circles are rare in nature, though they are often used in architecture. Circles are useful as a way of framing a subject but their closed nature makes them difficult to use as a way of guiding a wandering eye through a picture.

When using curves in a composition you need to think about how the curve flows through the picture space. A curve running diagonally will appear to have more visual energy than one running horizontally. A curve running diagonally across a vertical image will also have more visual energy than one running diagonally across a horizontal image (this is due to the fact that the angle will be steeper in the vertical image than in the horizontal one).

The bridges of Newcastle upon Tyne and Gateshead lit on winter's evening, Tyne and Wear, England, Composition, lead-in, lead in, lines, landscape, photography, landscape photography,

Reflections of curves are a good way to create circular patterns in a photo.

Because curves are such a powerful way to guide the eye you'll need to think about what happens when the eye reaches the end of the curve. One way to deal with this is to place your subject at the end of the curve so that the eye has a natural destination (rather like putting a full stop at the end of a sentence). What you don't want to do is place your subject some distance away from the curve. This is because the eye will then have to leave the curve to look elsewhere for the subject (if at all, the subject may go unnoticed or seem a relatively unimportant part of the composition).

lenschoice, Composition, lead-in, lead in, lines, landscape, photography, landscape photography,

The lens you choose will determine the shape of curves in an image. The use of telephoto for this shot has produced a compressed, flatter curve.

However, the curve doesn't necessarily need to lead to a specific subject. A curved path leading the eye through a landscape has an emotional resonance of its own that doesn't need resolving by leading to anything in particular. We just enjoy the journey, and, if we're in a wistful mood, imagine wandering down the path ourselves.

Your weekend assignment this week is to look for curves and include them in a composition. Remember to think about where the curve will lead the eye and what if anything should be at the end of it.

If you would like to learn more about composition why not consider taking sue Bishops' 4 week online photography course Fine Art Landscape Photography

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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