Published Jun 1. 2006


Composition is the act of building the picture and placing its elements. Classical composition consists of considering the division of the image into parts, creating depth and perspective and utilizing subject shapes and lines.

Anglers in two floors - The bridge divides the image in three parts - the two lower hang together. People occupy both floors on the image and makes the presence of the bridge much more interesting.
Symmetry and not - The horizon is in the dead middle, but Henning is in the top left third and very off center
This is not a bridge - This is not a picture of the bridge, but of the three anglers behind it. the eye is naturally lead under the bridge and on to the persons.
Cut in half - A classical compositional trick is a water surface that (almost) perfectly reflects what's above the horizon
Composing images

Composition is the act of building the picture and placing its elements deliberately and with care. Classical composition consists of considering the division of the image into parts, creating depth and perspective and using subject shapes and lines to create a compelling image.
Composing fishing pictures is of course essentially the same as composing any other type of photograph, but there might be a few tips that can help enhance the sense of fishing and convey the information that interests anglers.

Art and craft

Composition is part craft and part art.
The craft part is something you can learn. There are certain rules you can use, and when applying those to your pictures, you can get good overall results and pictures, which attract the viewer's attention and guides their eyes to the place in the picture where you want it.
But the art of composing a really good picture is something different. Some photographers have a very keen eye for composition, while others just don't see things the creative or different way that they can be seen. If your brain and eyes are not keyed in on composition, learn the rules below, and you will still be able to get decent composition.

I usually consider three important factors in the craft part of composition:

Alder fly III -
Alder fly I -
Alder fly II -
Alder fly IV -
Alder fly V -
Different views of an alder fly

- the camera position and angle
- the focal length
- the position of key elements in the frame

By positioning yourself the right place in relation to your subject, you can control foreground and background, control what becomes part of the picture and what doesn't and not least control how things are placed in relation to each other.
Even the slightest move can be important. If you shift the camera a bit up, down or sideways you are often able to add or remove elements in the foreground of a picture, and foreground elements are very important in creating perspective. You can also line up elements or remove them from a common line or just rearrange things in relation to each other.

You can separate elements. Think of lamps growing out of people's heads in Uncle Harry pictures, which can be likened to trees growing out of angler's heads or rods crossing important details such as faces or fish. A slight move might fix that. You can also hide things or melt them together. My favorite example is hiding or showing other anglers. If you have two or three anglers fishing in a row, you can choose to hide them behind the fisherman in focus and in this way depict him in solitude, but you can also decide to reveal them, and make it obvious to the viewer that the angler was not alone on the water.
This is all very easy and is probably one of the single most important things you can learn as a composition craft: move! Get different views and different angles. Look in your viewfinder and see what happens when you move your body or sometimes even just your head.

Lens choice

By changing the focal length of the lens (zooming or changing the lens) you can isolate or integrate elements in the picture. Zooming out and using a wide angle will let you get more of the surroundings into the image and allow you to go closer without loosing the whole subject, while using a telephoto lens or zooming in will let you isolate elements from the background and of course get details from further distances.
In fishing the water can make do as foreground. Bring the camera down or tilt it to get the surface of the water into the picture when you have the option. As mentioned several times this will show viewers important information about the water: current, clarity, bottom conditions and much more.
Varying the focal length creates different moods. Going close and using a wide angle will give the viewer a sense of being there while using a telephoto lens from a distance will give the viewer the observer's role - even though the subject might be the exact same size in the final picture.

One other significant change that happens when you change focal length is the way lines behave in your image. Wideangle lenses often lead to converging lines because of the change in perspective while a telephoto lens will bring more parallel lines. The parallel lines are often less disturbing and less leading to the eye, while the extreme wideangle can radically affect the way the viewer's eyes move in the picture.

Fin and sun - Almost abstract but still quite obvious - fin in one side, sun in the other, light in the top, dark in the bottom
In the zone - Here the fly occupies its own space bounded by the horizon and the rod
Between zones - This fly is cut by the horizon and has too little space above to isolate it and too much distracting rod and reel below
Two zones - The fish in the foreground and Nils in the background create two distinct action filled zones in this image
All roads lead to Rome - And all lines lead to the small bottle of white ink - rods, arms, even the lines of sight. The lamp above is disturbing and could be retouched away
Interplay - The four people in the image interplay, but still occupy each their part of the image tied together by their common act (eating) and the visual contact between them
Two anglers - Again an illustration of the fact that there's more than one angler, but thanks to the out of focus area behind Nils, the second angler doesn't disturb, but just creates ambiance
Placing elements

Placing elements

Placing the key elements is the most difficult of the craft part of the composition rules. I usually stick to one very firm rule: never place a central element in the center of the picture! This is a rule, which I break myself every time I go shooting, but if you constantly keep it in the back of your head, you can count on getting some decent compositions and some images, which will appear much more exciting than the average point-and-shoot image.

Images where the central element is not in the geometric center are generally much more interesting than images with the important part of the subject in the dead center. If you look a little ahead, you can also make the life of a layouter easier, because space is always welcome as a place to put text or simply to create balance or direction in a page.

Be it a fly reel, a fish's eye, an anglers head, hands, a coastal point, a lighthouse or whatever is central as a subject that draws attention in your picture, simply keep it away from the middle part of the frame, and your image is almost certainly going to become more exiting than if you put it smack dab in the middle.

Foreground angler - The angler poking into the foreground tells us in no uncertain terms that the angler in the center isn't alone, but without taking any attention away from the main subject
Open space - Large uniform surfaces can make an excellent contrast to your subject
Framing - The rod and reel creates a frame around the flies
Lower third - An example of moving the central subject - the flies - away from the center
Looking into the picture - A classic way of creating balance in a composition it to have people "look into" the picture.
Lines - Lines almost always offer some compositional options. Here I also have framed the poles a little low and to the left to create some "imbalance" in the image
To the left - By putting Paul in the left side of the image, I have allowed more of the scene - the beach, water and sky - to help tell a story about what he is doing

Rule of thirds, golden section

There's a couple of classic compositional rules that you will hear mentioned many times, when people are talking images and that's the rule of thirds and the golden section or golden ratio. Although related and to some extent very similar, they are still based on two different geometrical principles.
The rule of thirds simply prescribe you to divide the image into nine equal parts by drawing or imagining four lines on it. Two vertical and two horizontal, equally spaced in both directions. You then compose your image in such a way that important vertical or horizontal lines follow one of these lines, or you place important objects in one of the four intersections between these lines. That will create a "balanced imbalance" in your images, which will contain more tension and dynamics than images with symmetrical compositions, but at the same time be generally more pleasing to the eye.

The obvious example is a landscape or a picture with a water surface, where the horizon or the horizontal surface is placed on one of the horizontal lines in the picture. It will easily make most land and seascapes more interesting, and if in doubt, always tip your camera to create a bit of asymmetry. But on the other hand there can be a fascinating effect in the completely symmetrical image where there's a distinct separation into two equal parts made by a line dead through the center.
The golden section is a bit more complex and built on more intricate mathematical principles. Superficially it looks as if the points of interest are in the same place as the intersections mentioned above, but if you look closer, there's a subtle - but according to some - important difference.

The golden section or the golden ratio is in essence mathematics. It's a formula describing the relation between length and width of a rectangle, but also a formula that can be applied on a description of the division of a picture into sections.

The Italian mathematician Fibonacci found a series of numbers back in the 12th century. When these numbers are plotted as a curve, you get something which almost fits a golden section.
I will not explain the mathematics in detail, but just show you how it can be used to find the "hot spots" and "hot lines" in a picture frame and how you can create good composition by using such a division into sections.
The catch is that the golden section is a harmonic section and a ratio between width and height, which is pleasing to the eye and in balance without being symmetric. Don't ask me why this is so. I can just see that it's true. Pictures, which fit into a golden section grid are generally nice to look at.

Rod and fly - asymmetrical -
Rod and fly - symmetrical -
Side and center
Symmetry - Symmetry and straight lines are simple compositional tools
Two circles - A reel on a car roof, reflection creating a second circle
Lines and circles - Not a fish, but shot on a fishing trip, this image uses lines and the circle to create a lot of geometry
Simple composition - A line through the image, created by the rod. The fly is still the main subject, slightly off center
Vanishing point with no lines - You can have images with a vanishing point even though no lines lead straight to any point in the image
Symmetry and vanishing lines - A wide angle on my chest created this very symmetrical vista where the eye is literally led towards the central spot on the horizon
Rows of shirts - The rows of shirts lead the eye to Henning and at the same time gives an impression of the large selection
Vanishing point - A classic vanishing point composition. Even the lines in the clouds point towards the point as all other lines

Diagonal lines and vanishing point

Another way of composing is to use diagonal lines - either visible or suggested.
Straight elements in the image, a road, rods, a bridge or other elements create lines in the image. These can transect the image completely or they can go partly through the image. They can also come together in what is known as a vanishing point, most obvious if you imagine an image of a road disappearing in the horizon.
You can use lines to frame elements in various ways or to create direction in the image, leading the viewer's eye towards a certain point.

You can also use lines to create structure, like riffles on a sandy bottom, trees on a bank or similar naturally occurring elements that can be incorporated into the image. If you angle your camera carefully you can get such lines to create beautiful structure in your images.
In general parallel lines will become less parallel and more skewed the wider your focal length is.

Parts of an image

Another compositional tool is to have several sections in the image, where each part plays its role. These sections can be separated by space, focus, distance or elements that cut in between them. Parts can be active or passive, meaning that they can be elements that play an active role in the image, showing people, interesting objects or some kind of action, or they can be surfaces or uniform, repetitive objects that fill the image, but doesn't attract attention.

Breaking rules

Of course these rules are all made for breaking, and some of the best images ever shot don't follow them at all. So don't be afraid to go against the grain and do something different.
But if you're in doubt, a simple set of rules can help you create more interesting photos.

A fly - Plain, straight on, not art but certainly showing the fly
Two flies - The same fly, here in two copies, laid up on a cigar box where all lines cut - the flies, the writing and the grain - creating an interesting but still not disturbing pattern
Plain, not plain
Rod and fly III -
Rod and fly I -
Rod and fly II -
Rod and fly IV -
Rods, flies - lines, points
Something different - Here's the same fish and the rod in a totally different perspective
Freshly caught - We see tonnes of this type of pictures and they are nice. Fish, gear, surroundings.
Rearranged - By moving the fish and the rod and going in close, I have framed the fish in a very much more exiting way.
A fish, a reel, a rod - three views
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