The Danger! (Composition theory)

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  07 July 2012
The Danger! (Composition theory)

This is a topic, which is not explained well anywhere I could find, though its concrete cases are explained in many books thoroughly. Once you understand the basic concept, your composition understanding should greatly improve.

We perceive everything, or almost everything regarding compositional principles based on how dangerous it is to us.
The center of the image is our "safe zone", as it's related to our center of vision - it's in the control. But once we move the object to the sides - we need more tension to see it, and therefore the danger appears! It wants to bite us, or, it's more likely to do so, when it's out from our safe vision zone. It moves to our peripheral vision zone.
That's right: the frame refers to our eyes field of view.
If the object is above us, it may fall on us or attack, therefore everything which goes up from the center line, adds visual tension, and therefore danger. It's not literally dangerous, but we feel tension. Sometimes, and even often, we want to add it. And we must know! How to add or reduce it.
If something is below the center of the image, it's not dangeous, and even calming. It's also relative to the horizon line.

Think about the concept of danger and how it affects the viewer. It goes about everything: do we want to increase or decrease the danger(visual tension)?

Let's look at several other examples:

Yes, horizontals are more calm, diagonals are more dangerous. But it stems from our knowledge of nature -diagonal may fall, vertical less likely and horizontal is the less dangerous of all.

The higher the horizon line - the more the earth on us. The less, the more the sky, less danger.

One and many: we perceive few as not dangerous, but many as one. So, if you have any kind of repetition, it increases the danger (the visual tension).

The point.

I explained the dynamics of size and frame borders, now let's discuss why points form lines.
The whole point of this article is to teach you asking questions why, rather than learning rules you don't know the principle of working.
Points are our visual interests, and our mind creates trajectories of walking from one point to another. That's why 3 points create a triangle. Other point combinations create corresponding figures.

The line
Lines are movements of our eye, and also the trajectories. Is something moves slowly and steadily, it's not as dangerous as if it moves in let's say zig-zags. So, think about it. Horizontals and verticals are quite safe, arcs are quite safe too and create a pleasant natural feeling (in naturs the most of things are curved. We love nature). The same goes with movements trajectories.

Clusters, patterns
Clusters and patterns are lots of points or lines, or even figures. They are definitely more tensed than simple shapes, as our vision needs to make efforts to distinguish what's there, and it may be a trap or camouflage, as we know from nature.
More organized are calmer, more chaotic are more dangerous.


Rhythm is visual language is a repetition. Our mind tries to organize and if it sees the repetition, it simplifies the process, and feels a certain pleasure from it. It can predict.

Same with forms - round forms are not dangerous, rectangular are more or less stable, and with pointy angles create a certain feeling of tension - we don't want to get prickled!

Any kind of contrast attracts our attention, as non-uniform "anything" is more dangerous usually. We perceive by contrast only. The movement is one of them. This is our tool of defense. The whole grass is green, but there's something on it. We immediately recognize it.
It may be tonal or color contrast or any kind of.

Now it's important realizing, there's no good or bad in composition, but rather what you want to accomplish. Do you want to heighten the feeling of tension or visual interest or decrease it? Definitely something of less danger attracts less of our attention, and also keeps it less on it That's all about it.

There are many aspects of composition, but this one should be understood thoroughly.

The rest is more complicated, you may not read it further.

The effect(let's say the diagonal)
- how it affects us (creating the feeling of tension and falling)
- why (it affects us that way) (we learnt from life diagonals mostly are not stable and fall)

I encourage each time you learn anew thing in composition is to study it this way. How it affects us, and why.

Why we may prefer more complex forms to simple ones? As they give s more to study. Simple - fast. Though, children may prefer it.
Why we prefer overlapping forms to tangent ones? As it's easier for us to determine spacial relationships.
Why we may like putting the corners out of interest by reducing the contrast? because it's our peripherlal vision. We don't see that well with it, ad like when we see mainly in our focus of interest.

Our mind likes organization, because it's more predictable for it, but not too much, so it won't be boring.
Therefore different armatures exist, which are lines and forms, which organize other elements together to be more plausible for the mind.

Why then just a wall line may be perceived dangerous, tough it's an inner corner of the room? because our eyes perceive it first as an inverted cube, and only later we get it's inverted actually. We first perceive lines, at least in pictures.

Objects may "squeeze" others, and we can put them in the center of interest by doing so. The same goes for radial compositions - they capture or aim to attack the object, therefore we feel more interest to them (as it might attack us too).

Foreground, middleground and background create more visual tension, as we need to track them all at different distances, rather than at one. More danger therefore.

Generally, depth is more dangerous and more tension than no depth. Aerial, textural and other kinds of perspectives increase the sense of danger.

Visual affinity is calming. No contrast, no need to worry, no enemy.

Why we perceive any kind of visual line between objects as an obstacle? Well, because our mind distinguishes it's just a line, but our "first" visual mind doesn't. It may separate characters, creating tension. Is it dangerous? No, but it's an obstacle for their movement, and therefore some tension for us, if we want to break through it.

Black big masses are definitely dangerous, as we don't expect anything good from darkness, which hides enemies.

There may be drawn lines and lines of movement, crossing it. Our mind will create diagonals or crosses, which create tension. Why? because it's a clash, a conflict. We don't like conflicts, we like when lines go parallel - predictable and safe.

More space infront of objects or characters: the reason for this is we leave more space for us. If we want to talk with a person, we would prefer seeing her the way we could fit infront. The same if we make a picture with a bench: we leave some space for us to travel to it and sit.
A bit more complex to explain why we would prefer more space from the side of sunshine, but it may be because we prefer to be in the sunshine rather than in shadow? Not sure.

Frames within frames: it may be we like those, because they create a room for us to hide. It's safer seeing something from a window rather than standing in the field.

The balance: we might feel the balance if objects are evenly dangerous, but one because it's closer to peripheral vision (the border of the frame), and the other because it's bigger.

Eye lines are also dangerous, and we need to track where the person looks. It creates a strong line. We know it may be danger where the person looks. We can interpret the eye-lines as straight lines of movement.

Last edited by mister3d : 07 July 2012 at 11:18 PM.
  07 July 2012
Cool work mister3d! Nice to see you sharing your thoughts while exploring the rules of composition, their sense and nonsense. Especially cool to bring basic feelings like fear into such considerations.

Nonetheless, i'm not sure about the clearness of the approach – the horse might be saddled the wrong way round to be able to go on in a well-structured way.

Concerning composition we are talking about four different things, which have a hierarchy:

• SUBJECT – can be anything, having certain
• ATTRIBUTES – like position, strength, etc., causing
• ASSOCIATIONS – created by primary and secondary amplifiers (hereditary and semiskilled instincts {the latter might differ by culture}), resulting finally in conscious output, called

Starting now with one feeling as headline, and trying to specify the compositional possibilities to achive it, is rather difficult. Better IMO to start right on top of the hierarchy and to explore all possible points, seeing then what strong and complex factors associations mostly are in composition, outweighing many times the rules of order and structure. An example:

Above we have a point (note: not a mathematical point, which would be invisible, more a little round spot). It's a darker point than the BG, therefore associated with dirt.

While a bright 'point' is associated with a hole – nothing "dangerous" yet, except of disturbing the calm of a plane surface. Special is the small size: the black 'point' is associated with a small insect or just a flea- or flyspeck, while the white 'point' has no negative connotation.

Now the black 'point' in a white field. The position inside conveys rigidity, an artificial rigidity because of being fully centered, so it won't be associated either with dirt nor with an insect because of obviously of human origin. BUT: It's still disturbing the calm of the plane surface AND it's fully in focus. When the subconscious mind is recognising a possibly life-threatening problem, then it's centering it for the conscious mind, forcing it to fully focus on the problem. So the centered point can be interpreted as high danger, instead of just seeing the peaceful rigidity.

The black point somewhere in the field, rather out of focus. Its position might be inattractive, but it doesn't convey danger at all.

The inversed situation conveys totally different feels. The centered white point will be associated here with the end of the darkness, the way out of the dark space. Here again: the subconscious mind is centering the solution, that's why a centered white spot will be associated with the end of a tunnel. A major difference to the example with the white ground is the negative state here, promising something positive, while the inversed example shows a positive state with a danger coming up.

Here a more peaceful arrangement, associated probably with a moon.

and this one with a firefly or a treasure (welcome the hunting instinct).

One could go on with more points and other attributes, like colours, blur, etc., followed by other subjects like straight lines, curves, outlines, etc.

Meant more as additional inspiration on this rainy Sunday. And thanks for the interesting post!
Keep it up, A.!
  07 July 2012
Originally Posted by zokana: • SUBJECT – can be anything, having certain
• ATTRIBUTES – like position, strength, etc., causing
• ASSOCIATIONS – created by primary and secondary amplifiers (hereditary and semiskilled instincts {the latter might differ by culture}), resulting finally in conscious output, called

Starting now with one feeling as headline, and trying to specify the compositional possibilities to achive it, is rather difficult. Better IMO to start right on top of the hierarchy and to explore all possible points, seeing then what strong and complex factors associations mostly are in composition, outweighing many times the rules of order and structure. An example:

Thank you for taking your time!
The subject (all in my understanding) is how we interpret the object. As composition becomes more complex, it starts being affected by many things, and definitely, when I'm talking about visual tension or fear(I used fear as a more simple term for those getting in touch with composition).
I don't think it actually works like this. Let's take into account how our brain was developed, and that our vision serves us important source of imformation. If we see something moving, we first identify how fast it's moving and whether it approaches us, and then what it is and its qualities. So first things we distinguish are movement or absence of it. This has to do with animals hunting us.
Definitely a point may result in different associations, and therefore the output. Compositional theory worldessly agrees that we have some common traits in our perception. And that's where the problem I think you outlined - we might perceive it differently. You see the moon, someone sees something different, until we know what it is for sure.
So, we might distinguish between abstract or vague forms and concrete. Now let's agree there are things, which we perceive more or less equally - prickly is not as pleasant as furry for example.
You say feelings go last and associations go first. I think it depends. Association is something we identify it with to make our line of action, and feeling is something which forces us to act. But might be association subconscious? Because I think most of the time it is. The vast majority of our feelings lies in deep part of our brain, which is hereditary as you said. And, there are things which are vague, as they don't create immediate clear outlook at the situation. For example cultural differences in perceiving some colors. I therefore didn't touch tose elusive subjects, as they are open for debates, and took the most obvious ones (as it seems to me).
Therefore, the majority of things goes directly into feelings, and some - into conscious associations for later sorting out.
When you say that we first must sort out our associations you create impossible task, as for abstract mathematical figures we use in basic compositonal theory might be indefinite number of associatons. Certainly, a trained (or biased?) mind in composition tries to look behind those basic associations with the moon or insect, and explore feeling it creates - tension, affinity ect. That's also open for debate - is it we feel this way because we learned it affects us this way or is it truly so? I think it should have been explored in Bauhaus, and they came to certain conclusions.

So, we have concious and subconcious. Subconcious is more powerful and tested by time. Concious is more delicate and the subject to change (not set in stone, something new). It all results in feelings. Definitely, a point will affect us differently if it's a bullet, a nice-looking girl or an ice-cream. It's what we call visual weight and something which creates this indefinite play of pictures. If we would operate with dots, it would be simpler and not as interesting.
Associations is a stage which happens, but its span is different based if it's concious or subconcious. Subconcious span is very fast that mostly we don't notice. And concious may be very long and deliberate.

" So the centered point can be interpreted as high danger, instead of just seeing the peaceful rigidity." - interesting. It surely would depend on the subject in this case. Therefore you perceive something in the center of more visual tension than on the sides or in the upper side? Mostly books agree the center to be pretty static and less tense than the sides, especially in the explanation ob balance. So if we talk about visual tension, for me personally something in the center is far more relaxing than on the sides or the upper part. Maybe we could agree it has a more static, but not more relaxed feeling? Not sure. But it definitely has more of stability in the hierarchy of symmetry.
Definitely your associations come from lighting, which is quite correct I think, we perceive with lighting mainly. But, those may vary on a person. There is a line when sokmething becomes very subjective, and until which we have something inc ommon with our perception.
We have rains here too.
  09 September 2012
Is there a book on composition that you would recommend ?
  09 September 2012
Originally Posted by Menderis: Is there a book on composition that you would recommend ?

Michael Freeman "The photographer's eye".
  09 September 2012
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