Composing with Curves - Digital Photography School
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Composing with Curves

Do you want to make your images more dynamic and aesthetically pleasing? Try looking for curves when you are photographing!

Once you start looking for them, you will find them everywhere.

Curves make an image easy to look at by leading the viewer’s eye through the frame. It is almost as if the photographer takes the viewer by the hand, draws them into the landscape, and points the way. The viewer’s eyes are compelled to follow the line.

Curves are graceful, rhythmic, dynamic and add energy to an image. They can separate or connect elements or simply offer a balance.

Look for C Curves

C curves, or semi-circles, are probably the easiest curves to find since almost any curve qualifies. It can be anything from the gentle curve of a seashore, lakeshore, a rounded rock, or grasses blowing in the wind.

While visiting a plantation I was immediately drawn to these live oak trees with branches that curve over the entire lawn forming a canopy overhead.

Boone Hall Planation in Charleston, South Carolina by Anne McKinnell

Boone Hall Planation in Charleston, South Carolina

Arches

Arches are another form of curve. They can be found naturally in rock formations if you’re in the right part of the world, or you can find them commonly in architecture. I like to make images with multiple arches if possible and take advantage of repeating curves.

Archway in Balboa Park, San Diego, California by Anne McKinnell

Archway in Balboa Park, San Diego, California

S Curves

S curves can have a mesmerizing effect on the viewer as their eyes sweep back and forth through the frame. They also create a sense of depth as the eye moves from foreground to background.

S curves can be found in the natural flow of a river, a winding road, or a pathway.

Colorado River, Arizona by Anne McKinnell

Colorado River, Arizona

Circles

Circles can be found in nature from ripples in a pond or puddles of water, or in many man-made objects.

Often in architecture you can find compositions that combine multiple curves as well as some lines that add depth and variety to the image.

Legislature Rotunda, Victoria, British Columbia by Anne McKinnell

Rotunda in the Legislature, Victoria, British Columbia

Implied Curves

Perhaps the most effective use of curves are the images that are much more subtle that the examples shown above: implied curves.

They are created when objects in the frame imply the shape. Rather than the shape jumping out at you in the bend of river, the photographer has to put a little more work into composing an image to make the elements in the scene form a shape, or by recognizing and taking advantage of a shape when it happens.

I was ready to make this image at Mono Lake, California, from a lower perspective when I realized that if I stood up and made it at eye level, the tufa formations would form an S shape.

Mono Lake, California by Anne McKinnellMono Lake, California by Anne McKinnell

At Custer State Park, South Dakota, I was following a herd of bison when this mother looked back toward her calf and I saw the S shape right away.

Bison mother and calf by Anne McKinnellBison mother and calf by Anne McKinnell

Tips:

  • Remember you are guiding the viewer’s eye so choose carefully where you want the the eye to enter the frame and where it should go from there.
  • Other compositional “rules” can also be applied. For example, you can have a symmetrical composition or follow the rule of thirds as well as having a curve shape in the frame for an effective and dynamic image.
  • Make sure the image is well balanced with your curve not too close to the edges of the frame.

Give yourself a challenge and go on a photo shoot with the goal of finding curves and use them to add interest and beauty to your compositions.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category.

Anne McKinnell is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems. You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.

Some older comments

  • den-s

    June 28, 2013 05:34 am

    Nice article! I like the implied curve example. Even though I look for the soft curves in nature for my images, I've not drawn out an "s" in my head. perhaps I've missed that shot I was certain was there but couldn't find........

    http://www.den-s-photography.com/Nature/Random-Shots/7214544_w8jgHj#!i=470929605&k=W8hgtTH&lb=1&s=A

  • Deborah

    June 3, 2013 02:42 am

    Funny! My first thought was the 'Curves' tool in Photoshop! This is great advice. . .We need to stay mindful while we're composing. I think the right curve can clarify a complicated picture - acts as a bridge.

  • Jeffrey

    May 19, 2013 03:41 pm

    Anne,
    Very nice article!
    I was just reading about another person doing the same sort of thing you are doing. Her name is Alison Turner,
    have you ever run into her?
    It takes a big risk leaving everything to do what you love, I admire both of you!

  • Steve

    May 18, 2013 11:42 pm

    Why do my links never work...

  • Steve

    May 18, 2013 11:40 pm

    Does this count?

  • ArturoMM

    May 18, 2013 01:51 am

    @evan r

    I saw your photo which is ondoubtedly a good one.

    If you appreciate some feedback:
    I would like it more if the water looked more natural, I mean less shutter speed.
    Also on my computer monitor your photo looks a little dark.

  • Rahela

    May 17, 2013 04:32 pm

    Great article!

    It made me realize that my 'favourite' shapes are usually diagonal. I should work more to notice curves and lines in objects around me.

    Here are a couple of obvious (banal) choices from me:
    http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-image-rose-image16323621

    And here I quite liked how the arch is repetitive in the arches above the windows in the tower:
    http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photos-religious-architecture-details-image12585353

    I will look harder for different curves.

  • marius2die4

    May 17, 2013 04:26 pm

    Yes, curves are great mostly in landscape and arhitectural photography!
    One of my pics:
    http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-Ys6VifHkQ-c/TkpHn1Odg7I/AAAAAAAAATI/-u35Hrm4SV0/s1600/89.jpg

  • Simon

    May 17, 2013 10:55 am

    Great ideas everyone. Thank you!

  • ScottC

    May 17, 2013 09:54 am

    Very well illustrated!

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5866535116/

  • Brian Fuller

    May 17, 2013 07:00 am

    Great article. I look for curves all the time.

    Flickr:
    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • Janet

    May 17, 2013 04:09 am

    Where you see curves, I see triangles! Back in the days before digital photography, it took 66 rolls across Alaska before I realized that I could find triangles in many of my best pictures. And the more triangles, the more interesting the shot. Be it a curve or a triangle, guiding the eye in a linear fashion increases the perception of depth. And this is even more enhanced if you can get, e.g. a road, to run diagonally from the bottom corner -- the eye imagines the parts of the road not captured by the shot. DK why, but it also seems to helps to create balance throughout the composition. Well, that's my two cents! Thanks to DPS for all of the great tips and info.

  • Chuck Loesner

    May 17, 2013 02:23 am

    Sorry, not saying the article is obvious, meant to attach this: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chuckloes/8588355585/in/photostream

  • Chuck Loesner

    May 17, 2013 02:21 am

    Too obvious?

  • Nimir Thakkar

    May 16, 2013 09:57 pm

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/nimir_nisha/8744384866/in/photostream

  • Guigphotography

    May 16, 2013 06:22 pm

    Great article Anne. I found curves such as the bison example hard to see when I first started trying this for a college course, but practise pays off. These flamingoes are one of my favourite results:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/69604456@N07/8662766655/in/photostream

  • Steve

    May 16, 2013 05:01 pm

    A lead in with a curve

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/The-Bush/G0000CQyhUeThWdo/I0000pgSITNQSVWI/C0000D2MMb2JEuew

  • Ahmed Zoha

    May 16, 2013 09:58 am

    Melbourne Train Station, A circular Architecture

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ahmedzoha/8660928037/in/photostream

  • Evan R

    May 16, 2013 08:59 am

    Please take a look!

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/eruderman14/8691014064/in/photostream

  • WillyC

    May 16, 2013 07:52 am

    Great tips! Now I need to go in search of the curve!

    I found this in a native Hawaiian Forest Preserve on Hawaii. This was the remains of a long-dead fern. The curves tell it all!

    http://flic.kr/p/e981Hp

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