Perfect your compositions using the principles of art and design

Following my article on the seven elements of art and how they can perfect your photography, I thought I would share a summary of the principles of the art. Knowing how they work can make all the difference to how well your compositions work.

The seven elements I wrote about were line, shape, shape, space, color, value, and saturation.

Although well established, I asked if point should also be included in this list, since it is the dimensional reduction of a line, as a line is of a shape. One of our readers then made a clever comment, wondering why one aspect of the composition, symmetry, was missing. The answer to this is that composition falls under the principles of art and design. These are criteria that explain how these elements are best arranged in an image. For photographers, the principles are to refine compositions, usually in such a way as to create attractive photographs.


Symmetry is a way of giving balance to the image, and balance – the first principle – is important in photography. It seems like a simple concept, but there’s a lot more to it than one might think at first glance. Achieving balance for many will indeed be a matter of symmetry, which is soothing to the human eye. However, it can be a bit more than that too.

Subjects of equal weight viewed from either side of a midline need not be symmetrical. Much like the scales we used in elementary school lessons, a large object closer to the fulcrum on the left can be balanced by several smaller objects on the right, or by a single smaller object placed on the other side. Empty space can also have weight. A single object on the left of a photo can be balanced out by the rest of the frame filled with sea or sky.

Just as mirror symmetry can work, radial and rotational symmetry can also work.

Balance also works when the image reflects the world as we see it. For example, we expect the sky to be brighter than the ground, and therefore images that are brighter at the bottom appear unbalanced because they are top-heavy.

Not all images need balance. Imbalance and asymmetry can be used deliberately, adding tension and disharmony to an image.

Harmony and Unity

Although similar concepts, there is a subtle difference between harmony and unity. An image that includes contiguous colors or identical subjects has harmony. Smooth images are visually satisfying.

Unity is similar to harmony. It is used when there is a relationship between the distinct elements of the image, but they are not necessarily identical. Yet life pictures or digital scrapbook layouts will usually have a unity, a common theme that makes the elements fit together.


The opposite of unity is, of course, contrast. I have already written about contrasts of different types. It’s not just about lighting contrast, but contrasts created by opposing properties, e.g. big/small, big/short, fast/slow, solid/liquid, transparent/opaque, a lot/little, etc.

Complementary colors are a type of contrast and, of course, the difference between light and dark is the type of contrast we usually think of in photography.


The next important principle of design is that of pattern. This may be obvious, as in the following image of lobster traps. The pattern of the pots and the nets that compose them create rhythm.

However, the patterns can be more subtle. In the following image, the cloud banks and their reflections in the sea form an irregular pattern, but a pattern nonetheless.

Having a broken pattern can add an interesting dimension to a photograph, turning the mundane into something worth considering.

Although it has become a cliché, selective coloring, where a black and white image is interrupted by a single colored subject, works because the color interrupts the image’s dominant motif, which is desaturation.


Opposite to unity, variety refers to the differing qualities of the elements in the photograph. In many cases, too much variety can be confusing and overwhelming. However, it can also be used to break up repetitive areas of an image. An image can have variety and, at the same time, show unity. For example, an image of a flock of birds of different species can show both unity (the birds) and variety (each species), such as the seabirds in the following image.

Emphasis, dominance and hierarchy

Variety can be used to emphasize an element in the frame. Yet we also emphasize the subjects in other ways. Typically, we use selective focus to create separation from the background. We can also use tonal contrast, especially when we exaggerate this in high and low images or when creating a monochrome photo. The other physical contrast mentioned earlier can also be used in the same way. In photography, the accented element is usually the main subject, but it doesn’t have to be.

Dominance is slightly different. An element with greater dominance is noticed first. In other words, a more dominant element carries more visual weight than the other elements it overshadows. This dominance can also prevent the eye from noticing other elements of the image, adding surprise or completing the story being told.

Take the above image as an example. It has the old couple slowly dancing in the foreground. They are the dominant subject. Then a longer study reveals the young woman and the girl dancing with more energy in the background, this contrast tells the story of the difference between age and youth.

The image also demonstrates a further visual hierarchy. The older couple are the dominant subject, the younger couple are subdominant, and the others just visible in the background that add context to the image are subordinate.

Proportion and Scale

Proportion in photography is generally about emphasizing the importance of a subject by its size in relation to the rest of the image. Although the obvious approach is to have the main subject larger in the frame than the other elements, that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be the biggest thing in the image.

Making the main subject relatively large or small can show scale, as well as reveal the distance between elements. The main subject of the next image is the distant island with the sunrise starting to shine behind it, but its distance makes it look small in the frame.


Finally, we come to movement. Unless we shoot a video, what we produce is static. However, one can give the impression of movement within an image. In the following photograph, movement is shown through the use of a long exposure.

Finally, most images contain one or more of these principles. This is a useful exercise for going through your photo catalog and determining which principles apply to different images.

As with the artistic elements I discussed earlier, I touched on each of these topics only lightly; there is much more to each and these will be covered in more depth in future articles. But I hope you have found food for thought. I look forward to hearing your comments and seeing your images in the comments that illustrate these principles.

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