It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what makes an image grab your attention—and not let go. There are many factors that come together to create a photo that pops off the screen (or wall, or page), and having a dynamic composition is one of the most important. This article is not a checklist of ingredients every photo must have, just some suggestions to get you started.
The most obvious way to create a dynamic composition might be to create a sense of motion. Perhaps something in the image is actually moving—a ball in mid-air, a child running. However, you can create a sense of motion even if everything in the image is perfectly still.
Think about the leading lines that guide your eyes around an image. Do they hold your gaze—and do they keep your eyes moving? Are they too predictable? Balance and stability are important, but too much can begin to feel uninteresting. In general, diagonals feel more dynamic than straight vertical and horizontal lines. If you’re feeling bold, you might even try tilting the horizon, which destabilizes the frame and creates the feeling that the camera itself is in motion.
In this photograph, the milk carton is perfectly still, but strong diagonals and a tilted frame creates the sense that the milk is about to fall.
Consider adding depth to your image to draw the viewer in. One way is to use framing techniques. Invite the viewer into your image and add dimension by layering elements.
Speaking of framing, the frame (the edges or boundaries) of the photograph plays an important role in its composition. Consider the following:
Finally, having contrast in your photograph is perhaps the most important part of a dynamic composition. Contrast is what makes elements stand out from each other and “pop.” There are many ways you can create contrast, including:
Most importantly, experiment! Adding life and drama to your photographs is about pushing boundaries. Rules exist for a reason, but breaking them often leads to exciting rewards. If you’re feeling daunted, loosen up by shooting blindly, without worrying about composition at all, and then going back through your images and seeing what jumps out at you—and identifying the reasons why. Many of my best photographs have been accidents. In fact, the photograph above was more successful than the ones I staged carefully that day. I was lucky enough to get a shot with dramatic diagonals leading into the picture, with strong shadows, bold highlights, contrasting textures, and a sliver of someone’s arm for added mystery and motion. With practice, you can get a sense of what makes an image pop!
About the Author: Angelina Lin received her formal photography training at Williams College, an alma mater that recently awarded her a $25,000 grant for her photography career. Her training focused on black and white film photography (35 mm and large format), digital photography, and the human image. She is currently working for Aperture Foundation, one of the foremost publishers of photography, where she recently contributed to the selection of this year's Portfolio Prize winner.